Watching one bird at a time


“Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest” by Julie Zickefoose, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Published May 29, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following individual birds brings new insights.”


By Barb Gorges

            There’s more to birdwatching than counting birds or adding species to your life list. The best part of birdwatching is watching individual birds, observing what they are doing.

            Thank goodness it isn’t rude to stare at them.

            While some species may skulk in the undergrowth, most of our local birds are easily seen, even from our windows.

            Every morning I check the view out the bathroom window and often there’s a Eurasian collared-dove sitting in the tall, solitary tree two yards down. By March I was seeing collared-dove acrobatics. The males, like this one, like to lift off from their high perches and soar in a downward spiral. I’m not sure what that proves to the females, but one of them has taken up with him.

            I saw them getting chummy one day, standing together on the near neighbor’s chimney cover. I can imagine their cooing reverberates into the house below. Then they kept taking turns disappearing into the upright junipers where last year they, or another pair, had a nest.

            But one day I caught sight of a calico cat climbing the juniper. The branches are just thick enough that I couldn’t see if the cat found eggs. Eventually she jumped out onto the neighbor’s roof and sauntered across to an easier route down to ground level.

            More than a month later, I have not seen the calico here again, but have seen a collared-dove disappearing into the juniper once more. I’ll have to watch for more activity.

            If I were authors Bernd Heinrich or Julie Zickefoose, I would be making notes, complete with date, time and sketches. I would be able to go back and check my notes from last year and see if the birds are on schedule. I might climb up and look for a nest. And I might do a thorough survey of the academic literature to find out if anyone has studied the effects of loose cats on collared-dove populations.

            However, most of us have other obligations keeping us from indulging in intense bird study and we don’t sketch very well either.

            But Heinrich and Zickefoose do. Heinrich is liable to climb a tree (and he’s no spring chicken) or follow a flock of chickadees through the forest near his cabin in Maine. Zickefoose, who has a license to rehab birds at her Ohio home, can legally hold a bluebird in her hand.

            Both have new books out this spring which allow us to look over their shoulders as they explore their own backyards.


“One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives” by Bernd Heinrich, c. 2016, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heinrich is known for his books exploring many aspects of natural history (my most recent review was of “Life Everlasting”). His new one, “One Wild Bird at a Time: Portraits of Individual Lives,” has 17 birds, one chapter at a time, in a loose seasonal arrangement. He has also portrayed each species in watercolor, directly from sketches he’s made in the field. This is sometimes as close as his own bedroom where he was able to rig a blind when flickers drilled through his cabin siding and nested between the outer and inner walls.


            Though Heinrich is professor emeritus, his writing style is pure, readable storytelling.

            Zickefoose’s goal in her new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” is also somewhat encyclopedic. From the woodland surrounding her home, she was able to document nestling development for 17 species. Finding a songbird nest, she would remove a nestling every day to quickly sketch it in watercolors, feed it and return it. Her drawings are like full scale time-lapse photography. Don’t try this at home unless you are a licensed bird rehabber.

            Although she has handled lots of birds in the course of her work, following individual nestlings gave Zickefoose an insight into how those of different species grow at different rates—ground nesters are the fastest.

            Either of these books can serve as inspiration for becoming a more observant birdwatcher, but they are also great storytelling, with the benefit that the stories are true and full of intriguing new information.

            If you find a nest this spring, consider documenting it for science. See The site’s information includes lots of related information, including plans for building nest boxes.   

Late grebes and loons take risk

Common Loon

The Common Loon can barely walk on land and if forced, will try to scoot along on its belly. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Dec. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Risking nice Wyoming weather, grebes, loons get caught.”

By Barb Gorges

You probably recognize that sinking feeling I had the morning of Nov. 10 when we cleared Denver traffic and a solid wall of cloud was suddenly visible 50-60 miles away, between us and home.

The rain, predicted for afternoon, started around 9 a.m. at Fort Collins, Colorado. In a few miles it turned to flakes. The road surface quickly iced as we climbed in elevation.

Northbound traffic slowed to a crawl, but only because there was a traffic jam of emergency vehicles gathered near the Colorado-Wyoming state line, where vehicles slid off the interstate earlier. One was lying on its roof.

No matter how slowly, we were happy to still be creeping toward home.

Some birds, however, were not as lucky with the weather.

One would think that migratory birds would be tuned into changes, but even they can be caught unawares.

If you remember that week, along with the snow, the temperatures dropped into negative numbers at night. My husband was contemplating an early start to the ice fishing season.

On Nov. 14, I had a bird call–people wondering how to help a Western grebe found at the plant west of town. They took it to the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which is licensed to handle wild birds.

The bird had to be euthanized because a wing joint was broken and couldn’t be repaired. Veterinarian Christopher Church said two other grebes were rescued and brought in that week and staff were able to release them at the Wyoming Hereford Ranch. Later that day, a Wyobirds report came in about a loon stuck in a small bit of open water, unable to take off. Someone in the Riverton area reported eared grebes, I think it was, also getting stuck.

Grebes and loons have bodies evolved for swimming underwater, not walking. Their legs are at the back of their bodies, like an outboard motor, and not under their center of gravity, like a normal bird.

Because their feet do all the work when underwater, their wings are small. And their bones are not light and hollow like a songbird’s, but dense, making it easier to dive. Flying is difficult for them.

Ornithologist Joel Carl Welty calculated a loon’s wing-load, square centimeters of wing area to bird weight in grams, as 0.6. On the other hand, a black-capped chickadee is 6.1–comparatively buoyant. A Leach’s petrel, an ocean-going bird, finds flying extremely easy at 9.5.

So, these heavy loons and grebes, hardly ever trying to move around on land, can only take to the air by flapping while pattering their feet against the water surface, Loons need as much as 650 feet for takeoff , according to Arthur Cleveland Bent, another ornithologist.

You can see where this is going. The grebe tucks its head under its wing one night and the next morning looks around at new ice hemming it in. “Oh crud.”

The loon in the Wyobirds report kept busy diving for fish, and even tried walking a bit on the ice, but the next day, when the little bit of open water had frozen over, and the same observer went back, she saw no trace of the loon—not a feather or drop of blood, despite the bald eagles hanging around. It’s quite unlikely that it flew. Perhaps the ice was finally thick enough for someone to walk out and rescue it, or for a predator to carry it off.

Ducks, which are better-balanced, need little space to take off, but have managed to become trapped in ice also.

What happened to the grebe with the broken wing? Grebe species migrate at night. Apparently, they can get disoriented in snowstorms or fog or get confused by the sight of a wet parking lot shining in reflected lights, and hit it hard, thinking it’s water.

The common loon migrates through Wyoming, as do three species of grebes we see most often: pied-billed, eared and Western. Doug Faulkner, in “Birds of Wyoming,” describes their fall migration patterns, always mentioning that a few individual birds don’t leave until the reservoirs freeze up.

For these risk takers, the later they stay, the fewer birds they have to share the food source with. Some years, the bet pays off and they are better fed when they arrive on the wintering grounds, reaping the benefits, such as better reproduction. But then again, maybe they don’t make it.

After surviving this latest, unexpectedly dicey road trip, our weather forecasting being not much better than the lingerers’, I’m wondering if we should have taken a lesson from all the smart loons and grebes that headed out by October for their ice-free wintering grounds.

Close encounters of the bird kind


In late summer the male American Goldfinch begins to lose some of his bright breeding plumage. A juvenile begs to be fed. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Nov. 29, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Close encounters of the bird kind.”

2014 Update: See my other columns on bird safety about how to keep birds from hitting windows.

By Barb Gorges

It was cold enough to freeze water in the birds’ water dish (my friend Marta recommends I get one of those heated dog water dishes), but not so cold a morning I thought I needed shoes just to grab the dish to bring it in when I let the dog out.

However, Lincoln made a beeline for a spot on the patio and I forgot all about the water dish.

Huddled on the concrete was a stunned American goldfinch, a male in winter plumage, just the lightest wash of yellow on his feathers.

Birds thumping into our kitchen window rarely happens anymore.

Between the pair of feline faces nearly always present in the window when the birds are active, and the dust on the glass, few birds think our window reflects a continuation of our backyard.

My first impulse was to rescue the goldfinch from the onslaught of the breath of a 100-pound dog, so I scooped him up and cupped him in my hands, leaving his face free.

His toes were just a tickle on my skin, his black eye, alert and unblinking.

“Oh, I am so sorry about the window,” I thought. The bird was so light it was as if I held my imagination.

But my bare feet were standing on cold reality.

Bird feet are engineered differently. A goldfinch weighing less than half an ounce feels less cold. First, bird feet are mostly bone, sinew and scale, with few nerves.

Also, as Bill Thompson, author of “Bird Watching for Dummies” explains it, the arteries carrying warm blood from the heart to the toes are interwoven in the legs and feet with the veins, so the arteries warm the cold, returning blood. And because bird feet don’t have sweat glands, they don’t stick to metal perches when it’s cold.

After a few minutes, even after moving to the doormat, I realized it might take longer for the bird to recover than to frostbite my feet.

By this time, the rising sun was eye level, and shining on the bird feeder.

Our sunflower seed tube feeder has a saucer attached to the bottom and a wire cage around it that keeps squirrels out and lets small birds in. So I carefully placed the goldfinch on the feeder, safe from cats, close to food, facing the sun.

Twenty or thirty minutes later he was gone, though he may have been back later as one of the flock emptying the thistle feeder.

Of the disciplines available to me in the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point where I was getting my degree 25 years ago, studying wildlife was far more popular than measuring trees, digging soil pits or analyzing water samples.

It seems to me most people have an urge to touch an animal (especially furry ones) or interact with it. For some people pets or livestock are good enough. For others, only wild animals will do.

For some of us, observation is fine, but there are always crazy tourists trying to pet the buffalo.

Some of the legitimate ways to handle live wildlife are catch and release fishing, helping band birds, getting certified for rehabilitation work or becoming a wildlife field biologist.

But sometimes wildlife comes to you. I heard of two incidences this fall where birds chose to interact with people.

The beginning of October I got a call from a friend who’d been sitting on her deck with out-of-town visitors when a blue jay convinced them to feed it by hand.

A few weeks later another friend told me about having a blue jay light on her shoulder as she was carrying seed out to fill the feeder.

Our consensus was that these must have been young birds who didn’t know better than to trust humans, but being from a relatively smart species, they’d learned it was possible to manipulate food sources.

I once read how to train chickadees to eat from your hand. It involves sitting as still as a bird feeder until they get used to you.

But I don’t get chickadees in my yard very often, and I don’t think the most prevalent birds, house finches, are as smart.

We have some sort of relationship anyway. They know when the backdoor opens, they don’t need to fly very far. Within a few minutes the disturbance is over, more seed’s been spread and it’s time to get back to eating.

What more trust could a birdwatcher ask for?

Hootie, the red-breasted nuthatch, comes home

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Rescued Red-breasted Nuthatch contemplates freedom. It is illegal to harbor wildlife without a permit or oversight by someone with a permit.

Published Oct. 12, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Rescued bird finds his way home.”

2014 Update: My eBird records for my Cheyenne backyard show observations of Red-breasted Nuthatches, including heard only records, occur year round. Apparently, not every individual goes to the mountains for the summer. But it is not known whether the nuthatches in the city in summer are breeding.

By Barb Gorges

Hootie’s mother once told him she met his father at a backyard feeder in Cheyenne early last spring. She said as soon as the weather warmed they went up to the forest to look for a building site, eventually settling on a ponderosa pine with a broken top and a rotten spot.

Hootie’s mother did most of the tree excavation and stuffed the new home place with shredded bark, grass, feathers and fur. It became a cozy fit as the six red-breasted nuthatch youngsters grew larger.

“Stay away from the doorway!” was his parents’ constant refrain as they darted in with different kinds of beetles, spiders and caterpillars up to 18 times an hour. “The squirrels will get you if you don’t watch out!” they said as they left with another fecal sack as smelly as any diaper.

One of the furry monsters climbed within a few feet of the nest entrance but was met by Hootie’s mother. Perching above, her wings outstretched, she swayed slowly from side to side, mesmerizing the would-be baby eater until it woke with a start and fled.

Keeping Stellar’s jays away was more difficult. Hootie’s parents spread pine pitch around the edges of the entrance. None of the vain big birds would risk dirtying its feathers by poking its head in. The pitch kept out pesky ants too.

Finally, in late July, three weeks after hatching, the big day arrived. The children were dressed in garb nearly identical to their parents’. Each had a blue-gray jacket, pale red vest and flat black hat. Their white faces were marked with a black stripe through the eye.

Hootie’s parents laid down squirrel fur across the sticky doorsill and began encouraging their children with a new song, “Come on out, the weather’s fine. Flying is a wonderful thing. You’ll love it. And walking up and down tree trunks is a hoot.”

As Hootie tottered at the threshold of the bright new world, the rush of air triggered his genetic reminder to flap. He clumsily made it to the neighboring tree. Soon all his siblings were enjoying flying and finding insect treats hiding in tree bark, though their parents planned to feed them for two more weeks.

Two bicyclists were also enjoying the sunny day, following a narrow trail through the forest. But they didn’t look like any of the dangers Hootie’s mother had described. He never even saw what he hit.

On the ground stunned, he thought maybe there was something about using wings his parents had forgotten to mention. But he could still flap them. It was his leg that wouldn’t hold up. “Mommy!” he cried. “Daddy!” And then he was scooped up and put in a small dark place, just like his old nest.

Six weeks of recovery in a bird cage was like returning to the nest. Someone brought him turkey scratch and then mealworms every day and someone cleaned up after him. But there was also sunlight from the nearby window, a seed cup to sleep in, a water cup to bathe in and seeds to pull from a stick and hide.

Only there was no one to answer his “yank-yank” call except well-meaning people.

One day, near the end of his hospitalization, though he still had a limp, the bird cage was taken outside. The gust of air and the loud rustling noises alarmed him, but then he recognized the wind and aspen leaves.

Just as he settled down, real terror visited. A soft but wicked voice said, “What’s a tasty morsel like you doing out here all alone?” The blue jay stuck his long bill into the cage.

“You’ll never get me!” taunted Hootie from the far side, fluffed to his full four and a half inch height. “You’re too fat to fit between the bars!”

One evening three days later his foster parents returned him to the wider world, bringing him to a grove of big cottonwoods and elms—kinds of trees Hootie had never seen before but had heard his parents describe.

“Cheyenne, I must be in Cheyenne!” he thought. Then he heard “yank yank,” the call of another red-breasted nuthatch.

“It’s party time pardner!” it said. It was true. In the fall no one argued over mates or nesting territories.

“We’re hanging with some Wilson’s warblers just in from Canada. They’ll only be here for a day or two before heading for Mexico. Aren’t you glad we don’t have to migrate that far? We can just stay and catch bugs sleeping in tree bark and fill in our empty spots with seed.

“My folks want to stay in the mountains this winter. They think the pine and spruce cone crop will be good. Me, I prefer the easy life. Ah, so many seeds, so little time. You hardly have to hit the same feeder twice in one winter!”

And so, dear reader, should you notice a red-breasted nuthatch at your birdfeeder this winter that favors one leg, give him greetings from all his friends: the bicyclists, the vet, the bird rehabilitator, his foster parents and me.

Author’s note: This story is based on an actual rescue this summer and information from Birds of North America Online,

Juveniles destroy swallow nests

Cliff Swallows

Cliff Swallows make their nests near water, by collecting daubs of mud in their beaks. The undersides of bridges are popular locations for nest building. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Published Aug. 9, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Donations sought for injured birds. Juveniles destroyed a dozen cliff swallow nests before throwing 50 hatchlings into Dry Creek.”

2014 Update: I haven’t heard of any more incidents like this. At many of Cheyenne’s busy street intersections, swallows swoop about, apparently preying on insects collected by cars.

By Barb Gorges

Donations of food and nesting materials or cash are being requested by Cheyenne bird rehabilitator Karin Skinner.

Last week, three juveniles destroyed about a dozen cliff swallow nests and threw the approximately 50 newly hatched young into Dry Creek where it crosses the Greenway at College Drive.

Thirty of the surviving young were brought to Skinner, an experienced bird rehabilitator who has state and federal permits to care for wild birds.

Fifteen swallows pulled through and are presently being cared for by volunteers at WildKind, a branch of the Humane Society in Fort Collins, Colo., because Skinner could not handle the every half hour feeding schedule and still care for her other bird patients.

Donations of nesting materials, such as a heating pad, toilet tissue and paper towels, and food, such as meal worms, wax worms, berries and vegetables, are needed to replenish Skinner’s stores depleted by the swallows, and to prepare for their return in a week or so, when their feeding schedule slows.

Skinner expects the swallows will be released towards the end of the month.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is considering how best to handle the case against the perpetrators of this wildlife crime.

Procrastinate for the sake of the birds

American Robin family

American Robin nestlings hatch naked and blind. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published June 14, 2001, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Putting off yard work helps wildlife. It’s best to delay some chores until young birds have time to hatch and leave the nest as fledglings.”

2014 Update: My robin saga continues in the column published June 28, 2001, in the post following this one.

By Barb Gorges

Procrastination can be a good thing. Spring snowstorms will melt off the driveway by midday if I don’t shovel, and fancy computers eventually are available at garage sales.

On the north side of my house is a deep, dark and quiet forest.

Sheltered by the next-door neighbor’s house, when the wind gets there it drops in speed – and drops litter.

The junipers probably were cute little shrubs when they were planted along the foundation 40 years ago. Today they are leviathans, reaching over my head, 8 to 10 feet high and as wide and deep.

I keep thinking I should cut a few branches at Christmas – especially ones shading the window by my computer. The evergreen smell would be nice. But then I forget, and it’s May or June before I dig out the pruning saw.

Why do I procrastinate gardening and yard work, which I enjoy?

Perhaps because my other obligations are less forgiving of missed deadlines. Other than the lawn, of which the boys have charge, things grow slowly enough around here there’s never a pruning crisis – especially since I cultivate the natural look.

Well, the stars finally lined up right last week, and I found the pruning saw and headed for the woods, intent on bagging a few branches.

Actually, the hunting euphemism doesn’t translate here. We don’t bag branches. We keep them for yard projects and firewood.

I sawed around the computer window and moved to the next window, but as I grabbed a branch, it squawked.

Mama Robin flew up out of her nest and chastised me from the edge of the neighbor’s roof as I hurriedly backed away.

Deep, dark woods may be the epitome of safe bird habitat, but this is the first time the robins have chosen it over the trees out front. In fact, the nest is not deep in the juniper branches, but sort of on top.

By pressing my forehead to the window from inside the house before Mama Robin settled back in, I could see at least three eggs. When she’s on the nest, she sits as stoically as an avian Buddha.

A few days later, I had a call from someone concerned because her family cat had slightly mauled a baby bird that fell out of its nest. What should she do?

Here are some suggestions in order of preference.

First, try putting the nestling back in the nest. Some young, however, will just fling themselves out of the nest again, or the nest may be too high for you to reach safely.

Or, if the baby is fairly well feathered and close to being able to fly, let the parents take care of it on the ground. Keep pets and children away.

Once, I tried making a nest out of a bucket, placing it where the parents would visit and feed the baby, but it evidently wasn’t cat-proof.

The next option is to buy worms where fish bait is sold and start feeding the baby yourself.

Kelly, who works at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic, said baby birds only need to be fed once a day.

If you are squeamish about worms, try foods from this list she recommends: brown rice (cooked), frozen corn, cooked pinto beans, crushed dog kibble, soaked millet, lean meat, white cheese, fruit (especially oranges), green vegetables, carrots or squash. For treats, try dabs of yogurt, cottage cheese or dried fruit like raisins—but no nuts.

Kelly also said technicians at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, located at the clinic, are happy to feed baby birds for you to get them ready for release.

Let me get on my soapbox here for two ideas.

First, nature doesn’t expect every seed to lead to a flower or every bird egg to lead to flight. Some progeny have to become food for others, whether it’s baby worms feeding robins or baby robins feeding hawks.

But on the other hand, bird blood on your cat’s paws is not part of the natural balance because domestic cats are not native to our area.

Letting your cat play with baby birds, besides doing damage to the individual birds and bird species in general, does nothing for the cat that you and a catnip mouse couldn’t do better indoors. And it’s safer for your cat, which won’t be exposed to bird-borne diseases and other outdoor hazards.

You could build a screened porch-type kennel like a friend of mine has for her cats. They still get to go outside, but everyone is safe. This is a great time of year to procrastinate over the right things.

Put off mowing the prairie, where killdeer and meadowlarks nest on the ground. Save the tree pruning and ditch clearing until the young have cleared their nests by June or July. Let the wild tangle at the back provide escape from predators.

According to Kenn Kaufman’s write-up on robins in “Lives of North American Birds,” I may have to wait 12 to 14 days for Mama Robin’s eggs to hatch and another 14-16 days for the young to fledge.

While I practice procrastinating pruning, if I open the window and let strains of Mozart float down to Mama Robin’s nest while the chicks are still in the shell, will they grow up smarter and survive better than other robins? Or will they emerge from the nest chirping the “Piano Sonata in B flat Major”?

When not to rescue wildlife


Fawns are left on their own while their mothers feed nearby. Rarely have they been abandoned. Unless you can verify the mother is not coming back, there is no need to rescue fawns. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 30, 2010, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “When not to rescue wildlife. The scenario: You’re hiking in the woods and discover a fawn lying under a shrub, no mother in sight. Does it need your help?”

2014 Update: The Nestling Nursemaid program continues this season.

By Barb Gorges

It happened to our family once. We’d walked off the trail to admire wildflowers and practically tripped over a deer fawn lying partially obscured under a shrub, no mother in sight.

The fawn’s instinct was to sit tight. Ours was to beat a hasty retreat, but apparently not all people have the same reaction.

Every spring deer and antelope fawns are needlessly “rescued” by well-meaning people who want the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to take care of them. They don’t realize the young are normally, and often, left alone while the mother is feeding out of sight.

“They may seem abandoned but chances are that handling will cause them to be abandoned,” or human scent will attract predators said Reg Rothwell of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Biological Services Division. “Game and Fish has no facilities to care for abandoned wildlife.”

Rothwell said that the WGFD once again has an employee designated to answer questions brought about by the seasonal increase in interactions between people and wildlife.

Is a nest of rabbits or birds abandoned?

It takes hours of patient, non-disruptive observation to determine if parents are not returning.

What about the nest that blew out of the tree? Put the remains and young in a container back in the tree and the adults will be happy to continue caring for the nestlings. If you need additional nesting materials, use shredded newspaper or paper towel, not green plant material.

What about young birds on the ground, completely feathered but unable to fly? Put them up on a branch and keep them safe from dogs and cats. It will only take a couple more days for them to learn to fly, said Rothwell. If you have mallards nesting on your lawn, be patient. They’ll leave when the eggs hatch.

If there are no trees around, chances are you’ve discovered a grassland bird from a ground nest. Your only option is to put your dog on a leash and leave the bird to the care of its parents, members of a species that has been distracting would-be native predators for eons by faking a broken wing.

Even if a wild baby actually needs rescuing, you cannot legally take it home and take care of it yourself unless you are working directly under a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

What about injured wildlife? If it is a natural injury, caused by the natural environment or other wildlife, keep in mind that the misfortune of one animal is fortune, or dinner, for another and you needn’t do anything that changes the natural order.

But often the injury is human caused. While prevention is best (cats indoors, decals on windows, careful driving, little ramps out of window wells and stock tanks), we would not be human if we didn’t want to help.

The first rule is protect yourself during the rescue. Rothwell said rescuers are always at risk of being bitten or contracting diseases. Western grebes, he said, go for your eyes with their sharp beaks. Even the smallest songbird will nip or could carry interesting parasites.

For large birds and mammals it is best to call the experts for help. They will know the best way to safely transport the animal and where to take it.

For more advice on if or how to rescue wildlife:

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic has recruited 15 volunteer “Nestling Nursemaids” so far this season. Veterinarian Dr. Robert Farr is licensed to rehabilitate wildlife and his staff is very knowledgeable. Call them at 635-4121.

For various wildlife dilemmas, including nuisance wildlife, call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 777-4600, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. For after-hours emergencies, city police, the sheriffs’ department and the Wyoming Highway Patrol can reach WGFD officials. In the Cheyenne area, WGFD Warden Mark Nelson can also take calls at 638-8354.

For more preventive advice, look online at WGFD’s Website,, and click on Wildlife. Under the heading Habitat Home Page, click on Extension Bulletins.

For more about when to rescue wildlife, an excellent tutorial is available from the Champaign (Ill.) County Humane Society. Go to Click on Resources, then CCHS Library, and then choose Wildlife.

When birds look like they need help


A baby bird is hand-fed at the Allen Centre. Because this bird has feathers, it has graduated from nestling to fledgling and probably fell or jumped out of its nest. Parents usually feed fledglings wherever they are.

Published May 9, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “They look helpless but they probably don’t need rescuing. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero, but is that tiny bird on the ground in dire straits?”

2014 Update: The Cheyenne Pet Clinic, which has a federal license to treat wild birds, has developed a program informally known as “Nestling Nursemaids.” People are trained to care for nestlings in their home, receiving a food mix designed for them, then care for them until they can be released.

By Barb Gorges

Nothing is as appealing as rescuing a helpless baby bird fluttering on the ground. Everyone wants to be a springtime hero. Becoming one appears to be as easy as scooping up the tiny bird, but is that the right thing to do?

Laura Conn, veterinary technician, knows first hand how many times a year nestlings are rescued because they all seem to end up at the Cheyenne Pet Clinic where she works.

“People find them on the ground or don’t see Mom for awhile, or they want to remove a nest from the threat of outdoor cats,” Conn said.

Last year it was 39 common grackles, a dozen robins and well over 50 house sparrows besides an assortment of other bird species.

“It can be a couple nests a day. Sometimes because of construction, workers will bring them in,” said Conn.

The clinic’s standard advice is that unless birds are in immediate danger, it is safer to return them to the nest. “But everyone wants to bring them in,” said Conn.

One myth is that a baby bird alone on the ground has been abandoned. However, if it has feathers already, it may have been pushed out of the nest by its parents who are probably nearby, keeping an eye on the youngster as it makes the transition to independence.

This would be especially true of birds that hatch precocial young, the young of meadowlarks, killdeer and other ground nesting birds. The chicks hatch with feathers and can practically run as soon as they depart the shell.

Altricial young are those helpless, naked nestlings like robins and sparrows that need a few weeks for feathers to grow in.

If the nestling is found completely or semi-featherless, the best thing to do is put it back in the nest. If the nest has been destroyed, fashion one from a basket or bucket.

The second myth is that once a human has touched a baby bird, the parents will abandon it. Not true, said Conn.

As for marauding cats, Conn said young birds probably have a better chance of surviving under the protection of an angry parent bird than if they are brought into the clinic.

The rate of survival of young birds transferred to the clinic is one in three.

At the clinic the bird is assessed for damages. Falling may produce injuries making the bird impossible to rehabilitate. Injuries from cats are seldom seen since there’s usually nothing left of the baby bird after a feline encounter, Conn explained.

If the nestling is in good shape, it is popped into the incubator. Then it’s time to mix up special mash, either meant for young poultry or special mixes for wild birds.

A rescued baby bird needs feeding every two hours, at least until 10 p.m., when the last clinic employee goes home. All the employees pitch in at the height of nestling season, even the front desk, said Conn.

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic is the only local facility with the necessary federal permit for handling wild birds. It is not legal to tend wild birds without a permit.

Robert Farr, the clinic’s founding veterinarian, said he would be interested in hearing from anyone with previous experience who would like to help by taking orphans home. Volunteers can work under the clinic’s permit and the clinic will provide the food.

Conn has been caring for baby birds since she started at the clinic as a volunteer 19 years ago. While injured large wild birds also come in, such as the great horned owl which was recently recovering from tangling with a barbed wire fence, most are sent on to the veterinary hospital in Fort Collins. But small birds are cared for until their release.

Ducklings are also brought in occasionally, but said Conn, “We try to find someone to take them quick—they don’t do well here.”

Some birds that come in are very prone to stress and succumb quickly while others seem hardier, said Conn.

Some summers, it seems like all the young survive and other summers they don’t. The older the nestling is, the better its chances of surviving. Some birds just seem to be tougher, like robins.

Depending on how old the bird was when it came in, it can take two or three weeks before it is ready for release.

First, it has to be able to eat on its own. “It’s hard to train them to eat,” said Conn. “We can’t do it as well as their mothers. And they have to be able to fly well on their own, too.”

Typically, the birds are taken to the park where there are plenty of trees, since most of the rescued young are tree-nesting species. Sometimes employees will release the birds in their own backyards where they can leave food out, but the young birds don’t stay around long.

Rescuing a helpless young bird is a noble act, but knowing when a bird needs rescuing is even nobler.

How to help wild birds:

Dazed adult bird on ground

Most likely it has run into a window. Carefully set it on a branch where a cat can’t reach it while it recovers. If birds often hit your window, consider applying a shiny decal to the outside of the glass, or hang netting or something shiny in front of it during the spring and early summer.

Injured adult or young bird

The Cheyenne Pet Clinic routinely provides assessment and first aid. Call 635-4121. For hawks and owls and other large species, please consult the staff on how best to transport the bird to avoid further injury to it or injury to you.

Feathered young bird on ground

Most often, the parent birds are waiting for you to go away so they can feed their almost independent youngster. So, go away! However, if the neighbor’s cat is crouched nearby, see if you can get the youngster to perch on a tree branch.

Featherless young bird on ground

Try to return it to its nest. Retired wildlife biologist Art Anderson said that if the young are about the same age or size, any nest will do.

Damaged nest

If the nest has broken or can’t be set back up, make one from a basket or bucket filled with dry leaves and grass. Attach it to the original location, if it is safe, or nearby. Place the remains of the old nest and the young birds in it and the parent birds will find them.

Ground nesting birds

During prime nesting season, May through mid-July, refrain from mowing the prairie or allowing dogs and cats off leash. Planting trees also adversely affects the survival of ground nesting birds such as killdeer and meadowlarks. Predators—hawks and eagles—will use the trees for perches while they scan for prey.

Habitat improvements

Tree-nesting birds benefit from the planting of more shrubs and trees for food and cover. Cover is the vegetation into which they can disappear to avoid predators or bad weather. Think about adding a water source too. And eliminate pesticides. Check the National Audubon Society’s “Audubon at Home” Web site at

Keep cats indoors

Cats don’t need to be allowed to run free, killing small birds and animals, in order to have a full and happy life. Just ask any contented kitty lying on a cushy pillow in a sunny window. Plus, indoor cats have longer and healthier lives. For help in turning your mini-tiger into a real house cat, visit the American Bird Conservancy site at or get information from the Cheyenne Pet Clinic.

Wild bird rehabilitator permit

The first requirement is 100 hours of experience. Check other qualifications at Look under Permits, then Applications, then “MBTA,” short for Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Or call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Permit Office, 303-236-8171.