Help an Injured or Orphaned Bird
I found an injured, sick or orphaned raptor—what should I do?
If you live in the Sevier/Knox County (TN) and surrounding areas and have found a small to medium sized raptor, please read this article and then call the UT Veterinary Clinic at 865-974-8387 to schedule a drop-off. The AEF is not a 24 hour facility and cannot provide critical medical care to injured raptors. Raptors who are eligible for rehabilitation and orphans who are eligible for release at adult size will be transferred to the AEF for care after being assessed by the hospital.
If you live in the Sevier/Knox County (TN) and surrounding areas and have found an injured or orphaned BALD EAGLE. Please text AEF Emergency personnel for the quickest reply. We will assist in the transport of the Eagle to medical care at UT. Send brief text message describing the emergency to (865)809-2385, (865)809-3282, (865)805-1802, and (386)290-7742 and (865)654-4223. Someone will call you back immediately—call us if you don’t receive a response within 5 minutes.
If you live anywhere else, read this article and click here to access quick links contact information for your nearest raptor center, animal hospital, licensed rehabber or state wildlife agency.
What Should I Do?
Discovering an injured, sick, or orphaned raptor can be quite alarming to an unprepared and untrained individual. Whether the injured or orphaned bird is spotted while hiking through a park or alongside a road while driving, this section provides a basic step-by-step guide to assessing and addressing the situation.
- This section only explains what to do within the first 24 hours of finding an injured, sick or baby raptor in order to transport it to a licensed and permitted rehabber, animal hospital or raptor/wildlife center. It does not explain how to care for, rehabilitate or raise an injured, sick or baby raptor. In the United States, it is illegal to keep or treat any injured raptor for an extended amount of time (above and beyond the reasonable amount of time that it takes to transport the bird to a licensed/permitted rehabber/hospital/center; typically less than 24 hours) without state and federal permits to do so. It is also illegal to intentionally raise a baby raptor, even with the intent of releasing back into the wild, without state and federal permits, as this poses significant risks of human-socializing the raptor.
- The American Eagle Foundation takes no responsibility nor accepts any liability for injuries sustained by attempting to rescue injured, sick or baby raptors.
- If you are uncomfortable or unwilling to attempt to help and transport the raptor in question, or if the raptor is too large to retrieve without experienced raptor handling skills (such as a Bald or Golden Eagle) we encourage you to locate and contact your nearest raptor center, animal hospital, licensed rehabber, state wildlife agency or wildlife center and let them know the exact location of the bird, explain the situation and perhaps even wait until an available individual arrives at the scene.
Helping an injured or sick raptor
- Make sure that the raptor is indeed injured or sick. The simplest way to decide whether the raptor is actually in need of assistance it to walk towards it. Raptors typically will not stick around if approached by a human. Thus, if the bird is healthy, it will most likely fly away without hesitation. If the bird does not fly away, ensure that it isn’t simply hovering over and protecting any food that it may have just hunted or foraged. This behavior is called ‘mantling.’ It is characterized by the hunching of shoulders and the spreading wings over a recent kill to conceal it from other birds and predators who would be potential thieves.
- If the raptor does not fly away and is not mantling its food, check for obvious injuries. If you have approached the raptor in full view and have ensured that it isn’t trying to protect its food but it still does not fly away, the bird is most likely injured, sick, or shocked/stunned. Look for blood or unusual protrusions or disfigurement on the bird’s body and any objects in the surrounding environment that may have caused the injury. If there are no apparent injuries, note the location of the bird and note any environmental factors (man-made or natural) that may be responsible for the birds current condition. For example, if it is near a road, the bird may have been struck by a vehicle and may have a concussion or may be in shock. Your observations and conjectures may or may not be accurate, but they are important details that the receiving rehabber/hospital/center may find helpful in the treatment of the bird.
- Once you have assessed the situation and have decided that the bird needs human assistance, collect the items that you will need in order to retrieve the bird. Raptors have very sharp beaks and very powerful talons. For better protection, you will want to acquire a pair of thick gardening or utility gloves and a towel. As a general rule, the bigger the bird, the more damage they can do to your hands, arms, and face, especially if the bird is awake and aware. You may not need anything more than a spare t-shirt to retrieve a shocked Screech Owl or a small unconscious raptor, but you would be much better off using gloves and a towel for a large hawk who still might be feisty despite its injury. You will also need a cardboard box or container slightly wider and taller than the size of the bird. Make sure the box or container has plenty of ventilation, but will result in darkness when lidded. If you are in a location where you do not have reasonable access to these items, use your discretion as to how to proceed. You may want to acquire these objects by having someone bring them to you or by going to get them and then returning to the scene. Or, based on your confidence level, you may simply decide to retrieve the bird without gloves and perhaps use your jacket in lieu of towel or sheet and then carry the bird to a place where you can find a box or container.
- Retrieve the bird. Put your gloves on and then place the towel over the bird from behind, completely covering the body and draping a portion of the towel completely over the front of the head. Please use extreme caution when trying to retrieve and secure the raptor. Gently but firmly place both of your hands on either side of the bird’s body, securing and placing the wings in their natural closed position—this may be difficult if the bird has a broken wing, so do your best. Slowly slide your hands,if a large bird, or outer fingers, if a small bird, downwards—while still using your wrists/thumbs/arms to gently yet firmly secure the wings onto the sides of the body—to the point where you can feel the tops of the legs. Avoid the feet and talons, but use your fingers to gently but firmly hold the legs. At this point, you should be able to pick the bird up and rest its back against your chest or midsection if you need to . As long as the sheet or towel is completely draped over the bird’s head, it shouldn’t be able to bite you, as it shouldn’t be able to see you. You also want to avoid letting the bird pierce or scratch its own face or eyes with its own talons, so ensuring that the towel/sheet is covering the entire face helps with this.
- Secure the bird in the box or container. With a single towel at the bottom of the box or container for cushioning, lower the bird into the box with the first towel still covering it. Gently but swiftly remove the first towel from the bird’s body by uncovering the head last. Close the box or place the lid on the container. Once again, make sure that there is sufficient ventilation. Keep the box in a quiet, warm (not hot and not cold) place away from children and pets. It’s extremely important to keep the bird’s stress level down to increase its chances of survival. Do not feed or water the bird as feeding it the wrong thing in the wrong amount is more likely to worsen than help the bird’s condition.
- Find a rehabber/raptor center/animal hospital/zoo that will intake the raptor. Use the internet to research a licensed rehabber, raptor/wildlife center, zoo or animal hospital in your area that has the resources and ability to take the bird in. View State-by-State Raptor Centers and Licensed Rehabilitators by clicking here. Note: if the bird has very serious physical injuries and bleeding, it is advisable to simply drive it to the nearest animal or veterinary hospital in your area as immediate medical care will increase its chances of survival—call to let them know you are coming and to make sure that they are open. If you think that the injury or current predicament could be worsened by your trying to retrieve and transport it—for example, if it is tangled in a barbed wire fence and you fear that you could cause further damage by trying to untangle it, please contact your nearest raptor center or rehabilitator and explain the seriousness of the situation and the need for experienced handling. Most will not hesitate to jump in a vehicle and head to the scene.
- Transport. Once you have communicated with and decided where to take the bird, take it at your earliest convenience. They will most likely ask you to fill out an intake form with details pertaining to the place and time the raptor was found and any other details that may help in the treatment of the raptor. Note: if there is any indication that the raptor was intentionally harmed by a human, such as a gunshot, you may be able to help with any further legal action in investigating and prosecuting the offender, as it is illegal to intentionally shoot or harm birds of prey under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Helping a baby raptor that is seemingly orphaned
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Just because you have found a young or baby raptor on the ground doesn’t mean it’s orphaned. Many young birds leave the nest a little early and use this time to learn how to fly, all while the parents are nearby watching. If the bird is fully feathered, awkward yet mobile, and hopping/fluttering around, this is very likely the case. If the young bird is in danger, near a road or in the open view of predators, you may be able to move it to a safer place such as a bush or further from the road. If you have the time and inclination, keep your eye on the bird for a bit. Look for mom and dad nearby. Observe and don’t jump to conclusions too fast. This is an important step in learning to fly and become an adult!
- Check for Injury. Many baby birds leave the nest intentionally while other leave accidentally: they fall out of the nest. Falling from a nest doesn’t always result in injury, but it most certainly can. Even if the fall doesn’t cause the bird to sustain injury, predators such as dogs and cats can cause injury. Since baby birds aren’t fully flighted, injuries can become infected and infested by maggots. If you think the bird is injured, and you can confirm that it is injured, you will want to follow the guidelines outlined in the previous section.
- Return it to the nest, move it to a safer place or just leave it alone. It is a common myth that parent birds will abandon their young if they ‘smell’ like humans. This might be a valid argument—if birds could smell. Most raptors —aside from scavengers like vultures—have a very poor sense of smell. If the bird is still obviously young with lots of fluff and feather tubes, closed eyes, and underdeveloped wings, it is probably a nestling and it shouldn’t be out of its nest yet. It is in danger by being exposed to predators. If you can reach the nest, return it. If you can see that the nest is destroyed or unsafe or you simply can’t reach the nest, create a nest. You can do this out of a container short and wide container or basket and natural nesting materials such as grass and small sticks. Wire/nail it to a tree or post close to the original nest or the area in which you found it. Mom and dad are most likely nearby and will hear its chirping and take care of it from the new nest. Again, if the bird is a fledgling—fully feathered and awkwardly learning to fly—and it is in a dangerous area, move it to a safer place. Otherwise, leave it alone. If you are able and willing, return to the area frequently to check on it.
- When in doubt—call! It never hurts to call a local rehabilitator or raptor center to verify the right plan of action.