Help! I found an orphan crow and I don't know what to do!
(A FAQ)

I'm hardly an expert on raising a baby bird of any sort, but I seem to have done it successfully, and in the process I searched through all sorts of material to find the answers to my questions. Since then, I've been an occasional resource for people who have no clue what to do when a bird ends up on their doorstep. I hope that if you're one of those people, this will answer a few of your questions.

Please realize that these are just guidelines - things I've read and advice others have given me. They aren't scientifically researched, nor are they necessarily based in fact. If someone gives you conflicting advice, they're as likely to be right as I am (or more likely, if they're with an animal shelter, or have a degree in veterinary medicine). If you know of any errors in this document, or if you have further suggestions or advice, feel free to email me.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

First things first

Q: Help! I found an orphan crow/raven/magpie... What do I do?
A: Well, that depends on where you found it, what condition it's in, and how old it is. The best thing for a wild animal is to grow up in the wild - so if there's a chance that the bird can make do without your help, or with minimal human assistance, that's probably the best course of action.
If the bird is in its natural environment, unhurt, and old enough to move around on its own (even if it can't quite fly yet) its probably best to leave it alone. Chances are that its parents are nearby, or that it is just learning to make it on its own. You don't want to interfere.
If the bird is still very young (if it hasn't opened its eyes, or if its feathers haven't grown in yet), try to find the nest it came from.

Q: Isn't it true that once you've touched it, you can't put it back in the nest? Its mother will smell human scent on it, and refuse to accept it.
A: Wrong. Unlike some animals, birds don't have a very good sense of smell. They identify their young by sound and sight. Putting a baby bird back in its nest (or even the nest of another bird of the same species) is the best thing for it.
However, if the bird is hurt, or too young to fend for itself, or if you can't find its nest, it might need help.

Q: How do I know if it's hurt?
A: If it is bleeding, or has a broken leg or wing, its probably hurt badly enough to need help. If it's just wandering around confused, it might be only stunned from having flown into a window, or after a near-collision with a car. Remove it from any harm (cars, dogs, cats, young kids, etc.) and give it time to see if it will recover on its own.

Q: What do I do if it's hurt?
A: Carefully move it to a safe place. Please bring it to a veterinarian or animal shelter where it can be properly taken care of, and released back into the wild. These people have the training to care for injured birds, and you'll be doing the bird more of a favor by letting qualified people take care of it than if you try to raise it yourself.

Q: Can I keep it?
A: You shouldn't keep a wild animal. Not only is it unfair to the animal, but it is against the law in many countries. There are a few valid reasons for keeping an animal (such as birds who have had their wings clipped, or can't fly due to other reasons, and can't live a normal life outdoors) but your goal should be to release the bird into its natural environment once it has recovered enough to manage on its own.

Shelter

Q: Where should I keep it?
A: In a warm, quiet place, away from possible danger (cats, cars, kids, etc.)
A cardboard box lined with some old towels or T-shirts works well. You can drape a towel or sheet over the top of the box to keep the light out and let the bird rest. If it's cold out, or there are predators roaming, it's best to keep the box inside, but if it's nice out and relatively safe the bird can stay outdoors, too. A bird indoors will smell up the house after a while..

Q: What if I don't have old T-shirts or towels? Can I make it a nest out of twigs?
A: While birds are expert nest builders, humans are not. Bird nests are constructed twig by twig and lined with soft mosses and feathers, creating a cozy place for a little bird to stay. A man-made nest is unlikely to keep the little bird warm properly. I've heard of people making nests out of wood shavings and/or dryer lint, though, and they tell me it has worked out all right.

Q: Can I keep it in a cage?
A: The metal bars of a cage can seriously damage a bird's feathers as it grows older, and needs to stretch out its wings. If the wingfeathers keep breaking off against the bars, the bird may not learn to fly properly, or not have the plumage to fly effectively. Besides, wild birds don't belong behind bars.
If you have to have a cage, make it a large one - several feet wide and more than 3 feet tall, so the bird has room to move and exercise as it grows.

Food & Feeding

Q: How do I feed it?
A: That depends on how old the bird is, and what condition it's in. Young birds are used to being fed by their mother (who places food right into their beaks, from her own beak). You can approximate this by feeding it with tweezers or with your fingers (just place some food on the tip of your finger and put your finger in its mouth). Older birds might be able to eat and drink on their own. Try placing a dish of seed or raw hamburger near them, and see if they peck at it. Give them a dish of water, and see if they drink. If not, you probably have to resort to hand feeding.

Q: Can I use an eyedropper to give it water?
A: No - you shouldn't. The water can go down the baby bird's trachea and get into its lungs. You can actually drown a bird like this. Instead, dip a small (clean) paintbrush in water, and place the bristles in the bird's beak. Let the bird take what it can handle, and swallow on its own.

Q: WHAT do I feed it?
A: I recently received a great set of feeding recipes from Diana, which she says she uses for crows, ravens, magpies, starlings, grackles, and jays. (She adds that it is a complete diet and includes all of the vitamins they need):

Infancy
1/4 cup of cooked oatmeal
one hard boiled egg (use just the yolk)
1 teaspoon of evaporated milk
1 tablespoon of applesauce
blend it all together until about the same consistency as the applesauce

alternate
1 teaspoon Kay-T infant formula
1 teaspoon of baby beef
add water till applesauce consistency
note: a lot of rehabbers that I have talked with don't agree with the Kay-T for "meat eaters" (my nickname for them) but they seem to do well with it and the Kay-T has all the vitamins they need in it. Also note: this diet is more expensive. A growing crow can just about eat a can of Kay-T a week and it is about 6 dollars a can and then a jar of baby beef a day adds up to about 12 dollars a week. I guess if you are doing only one bird that it would be okay.

Weaning
1 cup of uncooked oatmeal
1/4 cup of wheat germ
1 sm. box of raisins
1 bag of myna bird food
1/2 cup of monkey chow (or you can give them about 25 to 50 meal worms a day... they prefer the latter)
1/2 cup of chopped nuts
Mix it all together and it should last about two to three weeks.
(Instead of the nuts I like to add a small jar of crunchy peanut butter that I melt in the microwave and then pour over it. I have never seen a bird that didn't like peanut butter and although the oil isn't great for us, it is for them.)

Alternate
1 pound of hamburger meat (cooked and not drained, ground up)
or
2 cups of ground cat food (uncooked of course :-)
4 potatoes cubed with skins on and boiled then mashed
1/2 can of any type of green vegetable (I also add a 1/2 a can of corn)
1/2 can of fruit any type mixed in a food processor (I usually stay with the applesauce about 1/2 a cup)
Mix them all together refrigerate and then when you need it microwave just to take the chill off.
This is enough to feed them for one week.

Q: Can I feed it milk?
A: No. Birds don't drink milk in the wild, and can't digest it like mammals can.

Q: How much should I feed it? How often?
A: Again, I'll provide Diana's response to that question. She puts it better than I ever could...

ALL WILDBIRDS should be feed once an hour, the smaller ones about every half hour. That is how often their parents feed them in the wild and if we take on the responsibility to raise them, we should continue with as much love as their parents give them.
Feeding a wildbird, especially a young one every two to three hours is cruel. Their metabolism isn't like ours. Making them wait every two to three hours is like telling someone, that they can only eat every two days. They will survive eating like that, but it isn't right to do them that way. The only time a mother or father bird, even a pigeon goes every two to three hours between feeding is when she is getting ready to wean her babies, and they have started eating some things on their own.
They also feed their babies from sun up till sundown. Even if my birds are sleeping I feed them till 10 and then I get up at 6 and start again. Never make them go more than eight hours at night for food, their parents don't and neither should you.
The care of an orphaned wildbird is a huge responsibility and I think it is wonderful that so many people want to do it. But too many times people want to take care of a bird and not feed it the proper diet so they either a)kill it or b) cut the bird's life expectancy in half (by not getting the proper diet it needs as an infant the bird can not fight off common diseases later in life.) Please stress to everyone that birds need a proper diet especially during the early times of their life.

Q: Does it need to drink?
A: I think young birds take in enough moisture from their food that they don't need to drink, per se. If you're worried that your bird is dehydrated, try feeding it bread moistened with water. Dropping water straight down their throats seems to offend them, and may well go down the wrong tube.

Q: How much do they Poop?
A: A lot! The little ones I've seen or heard of have done nothing but eat, poop, and sleep for the first few weeks. Get used to changing that nest towel regularly.

Q: My bird raises its bottom before it poops. Is that normal?
A: Yes. Apparently when a young bird raises its bottom, the mother bird understands that it needs to poop, and can remove the offending matter from the nest. Since you probably don't have all day to watch & wait for these occurrences, get used to watching for it when you can... and if you act fast enough, you might save yourself a few soilings.

Q: The bird poop looks weird. What is it supposed to look like?
A: Birds don't get rid of waste material the same way we do. Their liquid and solid wastes come out together. Bird droppings are usually very watery with a solid center. They are usually white, pale yellow, and brown, but the actual color will vary depending on what they've been eating.

Q: How often should I clean its cage?
A: As often as you can. Not only will it keep the smell down, but a clean nest is less likely to harbour bacteria or bugs which could harm the bird.

Growth & Development

Q: How can you tell if a bird is male or female?
A: There's no practical way. Not unless you can do some bloodwork, or observe the bird during mating season.

Q: How fast do they grow up?
A: It depends on the species of bird, but they do grow quite fast.
The first month is spent almost entirely dependent on adults, but after that the little bird will begin to do more and more on its own. They open their eyes, hop around the nest, explore a little (usually looking for mom or dad to bring more food!) and begin to stretch their wings. They also spend a lot of time growing feathers.

Q: His feathers are covered in dandruff. Is that normal?
A: Yes. When the feathers poke through the surface of the skin, they are covered in a waxy white coating. This flakes off to reveal the feather underneath. It's normal, and it's a protective coating on the growing feathers, so don't try to scratch it off.

Q: He seems to like being handled... but how do you pet a bird?
A: I've had a few people give suggestions on this, and the consensus seems to be that you stroke between the feathers. Get your fingers down beside and between the feathers, and then gently stroke the skin. Don't be too rough, though, because the skin is quite delicate.

Q: He seems to get messier every day, covered in white flakes, bits of food, and droppings. Should I give him a bath?
A: You don't wash a bird like you wash a pet dog or cat. If he really needs washing, put a shallow bowl of water in front of him, and see if he'll give himself a bird bath (but prepare to get wet!). Young birds don't seem to like the water much, but as they get older, they love it.

Q: Is there anything I can do to help her exercise or learn to fly?
A: Make sure there's plenty of room to perch, explore, and flap wings. As she gets older, she'll need to practice grasping things, and perching on branches (or dowels, or ladder rungs, or chair backs). She'll also start stretching out her wings, and frequently unbalance herself, so make sure its not a long drop to the floor, at first.
Once she learns how to use her wings, make sure she has lots of room to practice - keep her outdoors as much as possible (even if this means risking the occasional run-in with neighborhood cats. They've got to learn sometime, after all).

Q: The other birds come and talk to him while he's outside. This is a good thing, right?
A: Birds are social creatures, and need eachother's company. If you raise a bird by hand, however, it may not socialize well with its own kind. Every bit of exposure to natural wild members of its own species (or even other species) is a good thing.

Q: Can I teach it to speak?
A: Corvids are especially adept at identifying and mimicking sounds in their environment. Yes, they can learn to copy human speech - but keep in mind, it is a wild bird, not your pet parrot!

Q: My friend says cutting its tongue in half will let be able to learn to speak. Is this true?
A: I have no idea where this story came from, but I think its cruel, demeaning, and absolutely unnecessary! A crow can copy human speech, cat meowls, dogs' barking, alarm clocks, and all sorts of other noises without having its tongue split. Just because someone was foolish and cruel enough to cut a crow once and discover afterwards that it learned to speak does not mean that the split tongue was what allowed it to learn speech.
Anyone who would do such a thing should be reported to the SPCA.

Medical stuff

Q: He has bugs! What do I do?
A: Tiny little feather mites love to live on all that waxy dandruff that growing birds produce. This is a common occurrence, and not an immediate threat (to the best of my knowledge). I've been told, however, that any of the following may help:

Q: He has ticks! What can I do?
A: Ticks are small creatures that burrow their heads under an animal's skin and drink its blood. If you try to pick them off, a tick's head may break off under the skin and cause an infection. It's better (or so I'm told) if you let the ticks fall off naturally, and then destroy them.
Or, call a vet for professional help.

Q: Oh no! Now he has diarrhea! What do I do?
A: Are you sure it is actually diarrhea? Remember that birds have a different method of waste disposal than humans, and their poop is supposed to include a watery component. However, if ALL they are passing is water, the bird is running the risk of dehydrating. In that case, try substituting all liquid in the bird's diet with something like Marvel-Aid for 24 hours (it can be found by the bird food in most pet stores)

Q: Her feathers are getting dull. Is there a reason for this?
A: Birds need time in the sunlight in order to help them metabolize vitamins and keep their feathery coats in top shape. Sunlight through a window won't do, since the glass filters out much of the light. You can do some good with a full-spectrum light, but the best thing is to give her lots of time outdoors.

Q: The bird's legs look broken. What do I do?
A: The bird's legs (and the rest of their bones) may be deformed due to a calcium deficiency. If the bones don't actually look as if they've been snapped, just bent, try this: Slowly extend the leg. If the bird is able to pull it back again chances are it is not broken but in need of calcium.
Get a powdered vitamin from your vet for birds or from a pet store (you can even use the powdered vitamins for dogs and cats or humans) and mix it into their daily food.

Q: What do I do if the bird has a broken wing?
A: Again, I'd highly recommend taking the bird to a vet or another professional. However, if you don't have that option, here's some more advice from Diana:

For broken wings take a piece of thin cardboard (I like to use poster board) and cut out a heart with 1/2 of the heart being the same size of the wing then cut a straight line along the bottom of the heart so it looks like a heart broke in half but width wise not length wise. Fold it in half take a thin layer of cotton and place it both under the wing and on top of the wing and hold it in place with the cardboard, then take a thin piece of medical tape (I prefer scotch tape wrapped around the wing twice - I feel it does no damage to the feathers. Others say you must use medical tape.) Don't wrap it too tightly. After you have the cardboard taped to the wing, hold the wing against the body and wrap another piece of tape starting from the back under the good wing and around the body over the bad wing to hold it into place then fasten at the back. Leave it in place for about 10 to 21 days - it usually takes the full 21 days. (For wrapping around the body you must use medical tape or the crow or raven really any of them will just take the scotch tape right off, they are just too smart for their own britches sometimes.)

Q: What's a blood feather, and what do I do if I find one?
A: When feathers are growing, they get their nutrients from blood vessels running up and down the feather shaft. Once fully grown, it 'dies' and the blood vessels shrivel up. However, if the feather is damaged or broken in half before it's fully grown, the vessels will continue to ooze blood, and the bird can actually bleed to death this way.
If you find a feather shaft which is oozing blood, you have to pull the feather out. Then the blood can form a clot, and the bird can begin healing. To pull out the blood feather, carefully take grab it by the base (right next to the bird's skin - if you can't get a good grip with your fingers, use tweezers) and gently pull it in the direction it is growing. Try to do it briskly, since it's about as pleasant for the bird as having a Band-Aid pulled off hairy skin.

Q: What do I do if the bird is breathing funny and leaning to one side?
A: The bird may have a crop injury, or a punctured air sac. Feel around along the crop, checking for an air bubble. If you find one, the bird will need medical attention.
I highly suggest that if this is the case, you bring the bird to a vet or bird rehabilitator for professional help. However, if you don't have the option, here's something else you can try:
Sterilize a needle and gently puncture the bubble. Push out any air in it. Wait about 20 minutes to be sure all the air is out. After 20 minutes if you feel the area and it is still flat put some neosporin on it. If it is filled again repeat the process.
(Thanks to Diana for that advice).

Legalities

Q: Is it legal to keep a pet crow/raven/magpie/jay?
A: Not in most places.
Wild animals are meant to be out in the wild. While you can apply for special permits to care for some animals which just can't be rehabilitated, you shouldn't consider the bird "yours" just because you think it would be neat.

Q: Where can I find out more about the laws which affect me?
A: Call your local Fish & Wildlife office, Park ranger, or Wildlife Preserve. Or, check out The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory. They have a lot of information on rehabilitating & releasing wild animals, including the legalities, and some information on obtaining permits.

Helpful Resources

Q: Where can I go for more information?
A: I'd suggest any of the following:

Or, email a bird rehabilitator like Diana, who has worked with many varieties of birds (not just corvidae or songbirds) and who offered to help answer any questions she can.

 

If you have any more questions, or want to contribute some of your own answers to this list, please don't hesitate to email me.

 


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Last modified April 24, 1999