I found a baby crow that must have fallen from the nest/been abandoned/is injured!

The following information pertains specifically to baby crows, but much of it also applies to other baby songbirds as well.

What should I do with it?

How can you tell the difference between a fledgling and a nestling?

But, if I don't pick it up my cat/dog will kill it.

Why do birds come out of the nest so early if they can't fly for another week?

I'm sure it's injured, and therefore must need my help. What do I do now?

Well, what's the harm in raising a baby bird?

Well, anyway, I've got this bird that I can't return to its parents. Or, I'm a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and how can I do the best for the crows in my care?

What is an adequate diet for a nestling/fledgling crow?

Someone gave me this healthy fledgling crow, but I don't know where it came from, so I can't return it to its family. Should I try to get the local crows to adopt it or should I just raise it myself?


What should I do with it?

If in doubt, LEAVE IT ALONE.

Although I fully understand and sympathize with the desire to rescue baby wildlife, it probably is wisest to leave all wild animals alone. I am completely convinced that more young birds are unnecessarily ripped away from their parents and tortured/killed by well meaning people than are ever rescued. I believe that more young animals would survive if people would just leave them alone.

Ask yourself the following questions:

Why do you think it has fallen from the nest? Do you see a damaged nest? Birds almost never fall from their nests unless the structure has been damaged.

Is this a nestling or a fledgling? Do you know the difference? If not, read on and try to figure it out. A nestling could use the help; a fledgling needs to be left alone.

Why do you think it is abandoned? Do you see a dead parent nearby? Most animal parents leave their young for long periods of time while they forage for food. Unless you know for a fact that the parents are dead, assume they are nearby watching worriedly.

Why do you think it is injured? Do you see blood or other signs of trauma? Not being able to fly or being uncoordinated is often misleading. (See below for more information.)


If an animal is in immediate harm's way, it should be moved into a safer area. By this I mean a bird in the middle of the street, or on the ground in the middle of a yard with a cat in it, or something similar. A bird on the ground can be put up in a bush or low tree that would keep it out of the reach of dogs or children. Ideally the cover location would have dense foliage that would conceal the bird and would be connected to more shrubs and trees that the bird could climb to.

One of the most frequent problems with "rescuing" wildlife is that the youngsters are doing fine and do not need help. Instead of being orphaned, they are being watched attentively by concerned parents, who often are making quite a ruckus while their babies are kidnapped.

Many people seem to expect birds to be able to fly on their own when they leave the nest. Most cannot, but rather leave the nest a week to 10 days before they can fly. People who see them assume that they have fallen from their nest. Here is the reality: birds just don't fall from their nests! The parents usually build nice sturdy nests. Only incredibly infrequently will the nest be disturbed enough that a nestling will fall out. In some species, however, and crows are one of these species, nestling birds may be THROWN out of the nest. That is, it is in the best interests of the parent birds to get rid of some of their own offspring, and they accomplish this by tossing a couple of kids. (Life is not pretty!) But, such things happen only relatively infrequently! (In these cases putting the young back in the nest will probably result in them getting tossed again. Either that, or that one will drag the rest of the nest into starvation with it.)

How can you tell the difference between a fledgling and a nestling?

For most songbirds, there is a good rule of thumb: the rule of the thumb! By that I mean, can the bird sit up on your thumb (or finger) on its own? If it can, then it is a FLEDGLING and should be left alone! Nestling songbirds cannot balance on their own or grip a perch until right at fledging. If the bird can balance ok, then it is SUPPOSED to be out of the nest. It may not look like it, but it is. It will have some feathers over much (but not all) of its body, and the wing and sometimes the head feathers will be sticking out of little tubes (the feather sheathes). It might still have tufts of down on its head or on other parts of the body.

So, if it seems ok, not injured, just unable to fly, and it can perch on its own, you should PUT IT BACK WHERE YOU FOUND IT. Even if the parents weren't right there yelling at you, chances are that they know where the baby was and were doing all they could to take care of it. Don't worry about them abandoning it because you touched it; birds don't do that. (They might, however, abandon nests if you get too close, especially if they have eggs and not nestlings.) Just get it back to where they can find it and where it will be safe. Don't put it in an enclosed area that the parents will be afraid to go into. Get it somewhere it can eventually move off on its own.


But, if I don't pick it up my cat/dog will kill it.

Well then, keep your pet inside until the bird is gone. This helpless stage is temporary, and the bird will be gone in a couple of days. Is it too much to ask to keep your pets under control that long?


Why do birds come out of the nest so early if they can't fly for another week?

They come out for a good reason, namely that the nest is a very dangerous place to be. People tend to think of birds' nests as little homes that they return to each night, where it is cozy and warm. In fact for most birds, nests are a tragedy waiting to happen, and they leave them absolutely as quickly as possible. Think about it this way. Imagine that you are a small bird. You have lots of enemies that would like to eat you and your offspring (and eggs). What is your best course of action, go back to the same spot every night, or sleep hidden in different spots every night? What about your babies? Do you keep them together in one spot, or do you spread them out and move them around as soon as you can? Imagine that you have a nest hidden in a bush, and there is a raccoon that is looking for it. If that raccoon checks one bush every day, soon or later he is going to find your nest. Therefore, the sooner you can get those kids out of there, the better. Then you can spread them out and move them around to a different spot every night. Think about all those eggs and that one basket. It makes even more sense for birds to avoid that situation than people.

This is not just an abstract idea, either. During my dissertation work I studied the behavior of fledgling Florida Scrub-Jays, and I noticed that the first ten days out of the nest (they fledge on average at 18 days old) were by far the most dangerous. It seemed to me that the survival of the young might increase if they stayed in the nest until they could fly (at day 28). But, when I calculated the numbers, I found out differently. For reasons stated above in the raccoon example, a nest has a decreasing chance of survival as the nestling period progresses. I took the data on that risk for scrub-jay nests, and then compared it with data on fledgling survival. What I found was that if the jays stayed in their nests for another ten days they would actually gain ZERO advantage over coming out at the normal time. And after that time being outside the nest is significantly safer than staying in it. Yes, there are cats, raccoons, and hawks out there that would love to snatch up a nearly helpless baby bird, but if those baby birds can move around they will have a better chance than if they sit still.


Well, I'm sure it's injured, and therefore must need my help. What do I do now?

What makes you think it is injured? Is it bloody? Or is it just that it cannot fly? It is difficult to realize that baby crows are in fact babies. When a young crow leaves the nest it will be somewhere around 80 to 100% adult body weight, have legs that will never grow any further, and wings that are nearly full size. This is a large bird, to be sure, up to 300 to 450 g in weight. But they still cannot fly! I have had a number of fledgling crows picked up off the ground because the people thought they were injured. When I found them perfectly healthy and told the people that they couldn't fly because they were still just babies, the inevitable response was "But it's so BIG."

If it really is injured, if one wing looks substantially droopier than the other, if it has blood on its body, or it cannot grip with one foot, then find professional assistance. Do not try to fix it on your own. Call a veterinarian in your area, or get the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Caring for wild animals is difficult, and requires specialized knowledge. If you do not know of a wildlife rehab person in your area, try looking for one at http://wildliferehab.virtualave.net. Call the closest person and see if they will take your bird, or knows someone who will.

Be aware that IT IS ILLEGAL TO POSSESS WILD ANIMALS, and that there are very good reasons for these laws. The main reason is to ensure that both the animal and the people remain safe.


Well, what's the harm in raising a baby bird? It will just go off and live its life and I'll have had the enjoyment of being close to a wild animal.

First of all, remember that IT IS ILLEGAL TO POSSESS WILD ANIMALS.

Close contact with wild animals can be a changing point in someone's life, making a nature lover out of an indifferent cynic. Unfortunately, it can change the animal's life too, and usually not for the better. In the case of crows several factors are involved. The biggest danger to a baby crow is ignorance on the part of the caregiver. Do you know how to care for a baby bird? How have you learned this information? It is NOT all common sense. If you think it is, you will probably either kill or torture the babies in your care without knowing it.

First of all, raising a baby bird is a LOT OF WORK! Baby birds need to be fed every 10-20 minutes or so, every day for their entire period of dependence. (Crows are dependent for about 2.5 months.) That's dawn to dusk, every day. You can't just leave them home with food in the cage until you get home from work. They can't feed themselves, but must have it pushed down their throats. At least twice an hour, every daylight hour, for several weeks. This is a big commitment! That is one of the reasons that rehabilitators hate to see healthy fledglings come in the door.


Diet and Nutrition. One of the most common problems is ignorance of proper diets. You are undoubtedly aware that not all birds eat the same things. Some, like cardinals eat primarily seeds, while others like warblers eat almost exclusively insects. So too are nestling diets somewhat specialized. Most baby songbirds are fed mostly insects and other animal foods, along with some plant foods. Some species, such as herons and seabirds have very specialized diets. Just as man cannot live by bread alone, so too do young birds have problems with simplified or inadequate diets. No bird can live on a diet of bread and milk! (Never feed dairy products to birds. Birds are all lactose intolerant (can't digest milk sugar), and if fed too much they will get diarrhea.) Nor, can they live on hamburger alone. If inadequate diets are given baby birds they may die, or grow up with health problems.

Stress (read "torture"). Do you know what the mental state of that animal is? Do you know when it is scared? Are you comforting it or stressing it? (Hint: no wild animal wants to be petted). This is one of the biggest arguments for why it is legal to shoot crows but illegal to keep them as pets. It is legal to give them a quick and clean death, but illegal to torture them to death.

Is that bird begging or yelling at you? Crows younger than 26 days old will beg at anything that moves. If you pick up a youngster before that age it will imprint on you and beg incessantly. Crows older than this age become wary and only beg at those things recognized as "parents." If you get a fledgling, it will gape at you and vocalize, but it is not hungry (necessarily), and it is not happy to see you. It actually it is frightened and is yelling at you to keep away. The good part of this is that you can still stuff food down its throat. The bad part is, of course, that you are stressing the bird. How do you tell the difference? Begging crows will try to get closer. They will stand up and stretch their necks toward you. Scared crows will lean away and might huddle against the wall of their box or cage. If a crow in a box has its head tucked between its wings or has its feet closest to you, it is scared. If it wants you to feed it, the face will be closest.


Future Survival. One common problem with hand raised crows is that if they are taken early enough they easily become imprinted on humans. This might seem like a good thing while you are raising it, but it is definitely a BAD thing. Crow babies make wonderful pets and are very appealing. Being very social they want to interact with you constantly (like a puppy, way more than a kitten). They are very curious and get into lots of funny situations. They are very personable, have very distinct personalities, and might even learn to say a few words (often only to one specific person). The downside of this behavior is that it makes them unafraid of people and very vulnerable in the wild. Over the course of my studies on crows I have spoken to a large number of people who have raised them as pets. All speak lovingly of the experience, but consistently, the stories end in one of two ways: 1) The crows start leaving for a day or so at a time (usually in the fall), and then are never seen again, or 2) some neighbor or someone nearby kills them when they are too friendly/aggressive. Usually this involves the crow trying to land on the head of an unsuspecting person or their children, which results in the crow being hit and killed with a stick or broom. I was astounded at the number of people whose stories ended this way. What I have almost never heard is the one I would expect the most, knowing normal crow behavior: that the crows left and kept coming back intermittently for a year or two. My wife had pet raccoons that did that, and I had a friend who raised a bobcat that did that, but I have spoken to only one or two people who have ever had a hand raised crow do that. I suspect that they don't get the chance because they got killed soon after they went out on their own.

I have marked only six crows that were raised by humans. One was killed by an owl (apparently as soon as it was released), a second was hit on the road and killed shortly after its release, a third was shot in the winter by a hunter in Pennsylvania (about 70 miles south of its release point), a fourth hung around its caretaker's for quite a while until it was presumed taken by a Cooper's Hawk, and the last two were never seen again after leaving their caretakers in the fall. No angry human kills yet, but one came very close; it would have been killed if it had not been transported away to another site.

The sample size is small, but contrast the survival (or lack thereof) of these birds with that of my marked birds that were allowed to stay with their families. Of about 750 crows that I have marked late in the nestling stage over 10 years, over 50% of them were still alive the following spring. Of course the actual survival rate could be higher, as some of the ones I have not seen subsequently could have gone off somewhere else to live, or have eluded me in my follow-up searches (unfortunately, all too possible). Still, this is a remarkably high survival rate for passerine birds. Young crows still seem to get a lot of survival skills and knowledge from their parents and older brothers and sisters long after they are feeding themselves. I can't help but think that having an older family member around saying "Watch out for that!" or "Don't go down to that roadkill yet!" could have an important impact on a young crow's survival.

Social skills. Young crows may stay with their parents for a year or more, sometimes many years. While at home they forage together and stay near each other. Young crows learn a lot more than just what to eat and how to catch it. They also learn what is dangerous and what is not, and perhaps a number of skills that will allow them to prosper in crow society later on. In addition, they form family bonds that can last years and can influence the strategies that crows can use to find a breeding opportunity. (For example, a male crow might join a brother to help him raise young for a few years until another breeding spot becomes available.) Crows raised by people will have none of these advantages or opportunities for learning. It is possible that hand raised crows can join up with the large aggregations in the fall and learn how to be crows at that time. And then again, they might not. No studies have been published about the survival of captive raised crows, but it seems to me unlikely that they will be nearly as high as the high values I find for my wild crows. And because none of the hand raised marked crows I have followed have survived the first winter, I do not know if they would have had social problems too.


Well, I've got this bird that I can't return to its parents. Or, I'm a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and how can I do the best for the crows in my care?

What is an adequate diet for a nestling/fledgling crow?

Crows are omnivores, and as such are somewhat easier to raise than some other species. The main thing is, growing youngsters need HIGH PROTEIN diets. Somewhere around 25 - 50% protein. Turkey starter is a good beginning to the diet. High protein dog food or puppy chow is also good and usually easier to obtain. (Both should be supplemented, though.) Look at the bags and get something as high protein as possible. Even then, it's only going to be around 27% protein. (Compare this amount with canned cat or dog food, and you'll see why they are not recommended.) You can supplement the protein content by adding protein powders or unflavored gelatin powder. Also as a part of the basic diet, add boiled eggs (especially important is the yolk) and include the shells (mashed up). Crows need a lot of calcium, so you might want to supplement with some other calcium source too. To 2 parts of the dog food you can add one part of cooked high protein baby cereal, then add one egg per every 2 cups of the formula. This is the basic mixture, and you can supplement it with things like mealworms or crickets, and raw beef kidney. As the birds get older and can feed themselves, offer them peanuts (unsalted), corn, sunflower seeds, fresh fruit, and mealworms or crickets. Do not feed too many mealworms! Mealworms are high in chitin, and can cause blockage problems if fed in too high frequency. (Mealworms alone are not an adequate diet for an insectivorous bird.) Once the crows are old enough to work food on their own (not until late summer or fall, probably), mice and day old chicks are favorite foods, if you can get them.

Someone gave me this healthy fledgling crow, but I don't know where it came from, so I can't return it to its family. Should I try to get the local crows to adopt it or should I just raise it myself?

Should you try to "give" this youngster to the local family? Maybe. We still have much to learn about individual recognition in animals. Although I am convinced that crows can recognize other individual crows, even if they have not seen them for months or years, I have no clue when or how they learn these skills. I have successfully reintroduced a kidnapped fledgling to its family after a two week absence. The family still had other dependent fledglings, and that probably was important. The initial meeting of the crows was a little rocky, with the youngster begging and being submissive while the attending adult investigated and then pecked the chick. After that, however, it was taken back in and fed again. This last year I also had a tagged young crow switch families. Two nests in adjoining territories were placed quite close together, and when the young of the two families fledged they apparently got even closer. One of the youngsters somehow went with the wrong family and was raised by it all summer. So, adoptions can happen.

Some female crows in my study have joined families that were not their own and did not have a breeding vacancy. They seemed to accomplish this feat by sheer persistence. They followed the family wherever it went, keeping a polite, but short distance. They were often chased by the family, but they persisted. After months of this persistence I saw no more aggression. Two crows eventually took over the breeding position when the breeding female died, and the other found a vacancy nearby the adopted family. It is possible that a young crow introduced into another family's territory could join that family through a similar pattern of persistence.

I encourage you to keep human contact with your young crow as limited as possible and to maximize its exposure to the local crows. The more it thinks it is a crow the better. If the family got to know this youngster from daily visits, once it was free-flying they might accept it. I would watch for the opportunity to get them together.

In any case, crows need other crows. If possible, keep several or all the crows you have together. Young crows should be released in groups if possible. Any captive wild crow will be unhappy if it is alone. I had a caged non-releasable adult female crow for a while, and all she did was pace back and forth and destroy the cocoa fiber mat in her cage. The moment I put in a second non-releasable crow (fortunately a male), she calmed down and showed no more neurotic behavior.


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Last updated 06-Apr-05