If you’ve been looking up at the tops of the trees or watching neighbourhood feeders, you’ve noticed the flitting of birds newly arriving on their spring migration. If you’ve been walking around with open ears, you’ve heard the sweet musical call of the robins and almost-raucous regular trill of the red-winged blackbirds. Spring has arrived and it’s in full swing. And so we must hone our attention on our surroundings (not a hard task!)—while for some us, work begins.

The expansion of urban habitat and housing and mirrored buildings means only one thing to birds: imminent danger. There are three things we all need to take responsibility to do for birds (and this message is so old now that NOT doing something about it is delinquent).

The Top Three things to do are

  1. Put decals, tape, strings, or another form of “frit” on your windows (and those god-awful “birds aren’t real” glass balcony barriers!) so that birds can see them and avoid crashing. All windows reflecting trees, regardless of building type, from three to as high as 5 storeys up! Quick tips for right now: make a grid of scotch tape dots, chalk marker streaks, or bar-of-soap streaks across the offending window — even lipstick dots or post-it notes put into a 2″ spaced grid will help! Whatever won’t melt off in the rain, that you can remove or scrub off in June when migration’s over (more permanent plans are here).
  2. Turn off building lights at night, and
  3. SPEAK UP about this to everyone who will listen, but building managers and city councils, especially!

I’ve written about bird crashes and the resources to prevent them before, and it’s also happened to me: this story has a good ending, and it’s instructive on what to do if you have a little window-crasher.

Basically, if you find a bird that’s been injured by a window (or a passing vehicle), it’s stunned, and it needs your protection. And you’re a very frightening predator from its perspective, so you have to be careful to not get in its face while helping it!

  1. Gently pick it up, such as by wrapping your hand around it from the top, with your palm against its back and its head peeking out between your index and middle finger. This can help immobilize its wings—struggle could hurt it further.
  2. If you have to carry it any distance, ask a nearby store for a paper bag to put it in. Fold the top down and carry it as gently as if it contained an egg!
  3. At your destination, fashion a donut (a twisted ring) out of bathroom paper towels, put the ring in a box, put the bird in the ring, and after assessing its state of alertness, close the box to give it some rest.
  4. Call a bird or wildlife rehabber and inform them of the situation. They will advise you further. You may have to deliver the bird to them.

Read on for what to do about baby birds!

The topic of bird crashes is depressing enough that I’m saving its necessary continuation further on down this blog post.

But as some birds are already nesting, I thought it would be happier and still as useful to change the topic to…

How to not be a bird napper!

AKA, mistakenly kidnapping baby birds from their parents.

Many birds end up in wildlife rehabilitation centres like Le Nichoir because of people’s assumptions – thank Google if you’re reading this now because of it! – that a nest on the ground or a baby bird alone is in trouble.

It isn’t always the case! And if you take it, you’ll be hurting it rather than helping it. Wildlife rehabbers do their best, but on limited volunteer hours and financial resources that should go to birds who are truly in need. Mama and Papa Bird are the best caregivers of baby birds, and we only want to help those who are without any mama and papa — or if they’ve been injured and need medical help.

If you just check the bird’s vital signs, put it in a safe place, and stay to observe it for a while, you can keep the babies with the parents and let them live normal birdy lives!

Also, don’t worry about touching the baby bird and the nest if you need to. Birds don’t have a good sense of smell, and they will not notice or reject their baby because you’ve handled it. It’s best that you put the baby and its nest into the safest – best-supported, concealed, and usually highest – spot available.

Here’s your cheatsheet:

There are TWO TYPES of baby birds: altricial, and precocial.

Altricial birds are helpless at time of hatching – they are naked, and need constant parental care. They cannot stand on their feet, they need to be in a nest. Their feathers come in as they grow.

Precocial birds are born with strong legs and covered in fluffy down, like chicks, ducks, and geese. They can feed themselves with supervision from mom and dad. They need their parents around to keep them safe, warm, and to learn how to be birds. These birds can more readily imprint on humans to their detriment, though. If you find them and keep them around, you can ruin them for living in the wild. For their own safety, it’s also illegal to domesticate a wild animal in Quebec and many other jurisdictions.

An interesting video on the different growth strategies of baby birds

If you find an altricial baby bird, naked or not fully feathered, look for the nest. If they are cold, warm the nestling with your body heat, while you look for the nest. If you cannot find the nest on the ground, in a bush, or in a tree, or if you cannot warm the baby up, call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice and arrange for intake.

If the altricial bird is a fledgling – that is, it has feathers and a short tail, and can stand on its feet – first check that it’s not in the middle of a danger zone (street, parking lot, children’s playground). Then make sure there are no cats or dogs or other predators around (including unaware human beings, for example, or crows, unless it’s a baby crow). If the baby looks perky, that is, it isn’t injured, it’s just not able to fly yet. Stand back and observe. The parents should still be looking after it, and they will do so for several weeks. If two hours pass with no interaction from its parents, call a wildlife rehabilitator and make a plan.

If it’s a precocial bird, check that it’s perky-looking. Just like with an altricial nestling or fledgling, if it’s not perky or looks injured, call the wildlife rehab — but otherwise, make it’s in a safe place, without predators around, and start observing. The baby will probably be frantically peeping for its mom! So the issue is where are its parents? If you have a colleague or family member with you, one of you should go on a neighbourhood hunt for the rest of the family – babies can be waylaid during neighbourhood marches. If you cannot find the parents anywhere, call a wildlife rehabilitator and make a plan.

Further research on bird fatalities

Portraits of Flight Gone Wrong (2015)

This Website Collects Obituaries for Birds—Here’s Why You Should Use It (2016)

Audubon released an article that gives you an idea of the scope of danger birds face in their migrations south and back north again. Back in 2008, it was estimated that 250,000 birds die by colliding with man-made structures in New York City each year. “We have very little idea of what the actual number is,” said Darren Klem, a program and advocacy manager at New York City Audubon. Because reports are so scattered, a more precise estimate is difficult to pin down, but because of crowdsourced data on eBird and bird crash websites, it gets better every year. For instance in 2019, we have a much better idea – it’s a lot closer to 1 billion than 300 million!

Another good trick to prevent crashes: bring your feeders much closer to the house (especially if you still fill them once spring’s arrived), such as within 1 to 1-½ meters from a window. The proximity ensures that the bird’s travel is braking or isn’t yet accelerated, and so if they do careen into a window, it’ll be an oopsie instead of a deadly.

Chatty birds put friends at risk in colliding with buildings – the context being, many birds call to each other while migrating. One that flies into danger will not be making a danger call until it’s too late!

If you find a bird, dead or alive, with a band on its leg:

This notice presumes the bird is dead, but if you’ve found (or in fall, if someone hunted) a bird with a band on its leg, call 1-800-327-BAND or report it to www.reportband.gov. This bird has been banded within the scope of a research program*, and its data is needed for population censuses of birds. If the bird is alive and injured, call it in as well, but leave the band alone, obvs.

If you've found or hunted a bird with a band on its leg, call 1-800-327-BAND or report it to www.reportband.gov
Call the US Geological Survey (they’re the ones in charge of the program) 1-800-327-BAND or report it to www.reportband.gov.

* There are other kinds of bands that owners of racing fowl, for instance, use to identify their own birds. If you have one of these rare items, please do your utmost to look for their owner, and good luck!

Why I keep on harping on about it (and offer to help you, if you’re local to me):

If people would stop and think for a moment: if birds were people, we are callously, almost mockingly, allowing a genocide. “Stupid birds.” “Birds aren’t real.” (That was a good joke, though.) But birds are people to each other – they’re social, and not stupid – and by protecting birds, we protect habitat for so many other species of plants and animals as well.

So yes, we do need to all take 45 minutes out of our weekend schedule for the easy job of (permanently, or semi-permanently) marking our windows, or using Acopian Bird Saver strings on the outside window frames. At our workplaces, we need to shut off sky-lighting and office building lights at night. We just need to stop ignorantly killing birds. And stop cats from killing birds. But cats are another story, for another day.

(If anyone needs help or resources in bird proofing their home, contact me.)