Every backyard birder has seen the "starving baby" act by fledgling birds, when they flutter their wings and call piteously for attention from seemingly hard-hearted, indifferent parents. The desire to feed and nurture those fluffy balls of feathers can be strong, but it is important to understand the special needs of a baby bird's diet and know what to feed a baby bird for the best nutrition.
Do I Need to Feed This Baby Bird?
Baby birds have very demanding dietary needs, and depending on their age and species, baby birds may eat every 10-20 minutes for 12-14 hours per day, consuming a diet rich in insects for sufficient protein to ensure healthy growth. No human other than a licensed bird rehabber has the proper equipment, food supplements or endurance to keep up that frantic feeding schedule, and if you find a baby bird that appears to need feeding, the very best thing to do is not to feed them, but to get them to an appropriate bird rescue organization. In many cases, the begging birds are not, in fact, abandoned, and the parent birds are nearby and tending to their babies as needed.
If you find a baby bird that seems to be unfed, watch the bird closely for 1-2 hours to see if the parents return to feed it. Bear in mind that it may take just seconds for a parent bird to deliver a bite to their chick, and inattentive observers may miss several feeding cycles. As the chicks grow, feeding may also be less frequent, and one parent bird may be tending to several offspring in different locations, so feeding may be uneven. If the baby is being fed, rest assured that the parent bird is well able to keep up with its demands, and no intervention is necessary if the baby does not appear injured or ill in any other way.
If the baby bird is not being fed, however, and if it appears to be growing weaker and more lethargic, the first step should be to find a licensed rehabber to provide it proper care. When contacting the rehabber, ask for their evaluation of the bird in question before attempting any emergency feeding. If they recommend feeding the baby bird, they may have specific suggestions in mind as an emergency measure, and those suggestions should be meticulously followed.
If Feeding Is Necessary
If you find a baby bird that needs to be fed but are unable to contact a bird or wildlife rehabilitator, it is important to know what to feed a baby bird that will provide similar nutrition to its natural diet. While every wild bird has a different diet, several types of food can serve as emergency rations when necessary. At the same time, it is critical to understand that baby birds have very different nutritional needs than adult birds, and the foods you would normally feed to your backyard birds are not appropriate for young fledglings.
Acceptable foods for baby birds:
- Moist dog food
- Raw liver
- Hard boiled eggs
- Dog biscuits
- Dog or cat kibble
What NOT to feed baby birds:
- Whole birdseed
- Pet bird food
The more mature a baby bird is, the more "adult" food it can consume without harm, and the longer it can go between feedings.
Tips for Feeding Baby Wild Birds
If it is necessary for you to feed a baby bird, remember…
- Offer food that is spongy in texture, not dripping with water that could cause choking or drowning. All dry food should be softened before being offered to a baby bird.
- Food should be offered at room temperature only.
- Keep bits of food small and in proportion to the bird's size; very small birds need very tiny bites.
- While feeding the bird, handle it as little as possible to minimize the risk of additional stress or injury.
Above all, remember that feeding a baby bird should be an emergency measure only. If a baby bird is abandoned and needs care, it should be taken to a bird rescue organization or experienced rehabber as soon as possible so they can not only feed it an appropriate diet for its species, but can help it learn how to find its own food, evade predators and learn other skills necessary for a successful life in the wild.
Photo – Baby Northern Mockingbird © AnnCam