|A fledgling mockingbird receives treatment after being caught by a cat. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
Timers ring at regular intervals throughout the day at the Songbird Care and Education Center in Fountain Valley, signaling that it’s time for one or more birds to be fed. And lately, those timers have been ringing frequently.
It’s baby bird season, the busiest time of year for licensed rehabilitator Vicki Andersen. Her home-based avian rescue center takes in native Orange County songbirds that are sick, injured or abandoned. And birds that are mistakenly orphaned make up a large number of her charges this time of year.
“People assume a bird on the ground needs rescuing and 75 percent of the time, they don’t,” Andersen said.
Baby birds often fledge from the nest before they are strong enough to fly, she said. Mockingbirds in particular tend to hop from the nest seemingly early. Fledglings are young birds with feathers and short tails. They can perch, hop or walk, but they are still learning to fly, a process that can take up to two weeks. At this stage they are vulnerable to attack by cats and other predators. But they do not need human intervention unless they are injured, icy cold, naked, or abandoned.
Most often if a young bird is grounded in a high traffic area, the bird can be moved into the nearest bush and the parents will continue to feed it.
“Birds have a better chance if they’re raised by the parents,” she said.
Raising an orphaned bird in the rehab center takes four to eight weeks of intensive care and feeding. The rehabilitator’s day begins at 6 a.m. when she checks on the birds then prepares for feeding and administering medications. Naked and pin-feathered nestlings have to be fed every 20 to 30 minutes throughout the day. Feeding becomes less frequent as the birds become older.
Andersen, along with a handful of trained volunteers, hand-feeds the babies from dawn until past dusk, just as the bird parents would have done. Hand-feeding continues for four to six weeks, or until the birds can eat without assistance. When the babies are able to feed on their own, they are given a natural diet for their specific species, which includes grains for seed eaters and mealworms, fruit and berries for the insect and fruit eaters.
The cages are moved outside for natural sunshine during the day. The birds are brought back inside and covered at dusk. When the birds are ready, Andersen places them in an outdoor aviary where they can fly and mingle with other birds until they are strong enough for release back into the wild.
The most common songbirds treated at the center are house finches and Northern mockingbirds, though more than 50 different species have been brought in for care. Occasionally an unusual bird comes in that has wandered out of its usually territory. Such vagrants have included an ovenbird and a yellow-billed cuckoo.
It takes more than a good heart to rehabilitate wildlife. Andersen received extensive training by attending workshops and working as a volunteer at the Wetlands and Wildlife Center in Huntington Beach before going through the lengthy process of obtaining permits from California Department of Fish & Wildlife and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is illegal to care for or keep a native wild bird without a permit, even if you plan to release it.
“The worst thing people can do is keep a bird and then feed it incorrectly,” she said. “Baby birds need to be fed the right diet to obtain an optimal size. When they’re not, the birds often turn out to be non-releasable.”
To determine if a bird needs to be rescued or for instructions on transporting a bird for care, go to songbirdcareandeducation.org or call 714-964-0666.