How to Care for Wild Cardinal Baby Birds

cardinal image by Lyle Doberstein from Fotolia.com

Items you will need

  • Margarine tub or basket

  • Box

  • Heat lamp or pad

  • Shredded newspaper

  • Rolled up cloth

  • Baby bird mash

  • Eyedropper / Tweezers

  • Large outdoor enclosure

Every year, wildlife rehabilitation facilities are presented with hundreds of baby cardinals. Some are accidentally "birdnapped" by people who assume a baby bird on the ground needs their help. Others are mishandled by well-meaning people who have no idea how to properly care for a baby cardinal. If you find a baby bird, be certain it needs your help before interfering. Then, find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you are a vet or rehabilitator, or there are none in your area and you must care for the bird yourself, be prepared for the hard work ahead of you.

Determine if the Baby Cardinal Needs Help

Observe whether the bird is fuzzy or feathered. If the bird is feathered, it is a fledgling and is on the ground learning to fly. The parents are still caring for it. Leave it alone, or if it is in a place where humans, dogs or cats pose a threat, move it to a low tree branch nearby.

If the bird is fuzzy, but the parents are around, try to return the baby to its nest or construct a new nest out of a margarine tub (with holes for drainage) or a basket and some grass. Hang the new nest in a shady spot in a tree near the old nest and observe.

Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area if the parents are dead, missing or have rejected the baby. Until you can get the bird to the rehabilitator, keep it in a quiet, warm place. Do not try to feed the bird.

If You Must Raise a Baby Cardinal

Place the baby cardinal in a box filled with shredded newspaper and/or rolled up cloth to simulate a nest. Keeping the baby on a flat surface may cause a muscular deformity called "splay legs." Change the bedding daily.

Keep the baby warm. Provide a heat lamp several feet away from the baby's box, or a heating pad set on low underneath the baby's box.

Make a mash of three-quarters dry dog or cat food soaked in water overnight in the refrigerator. The other fourth of the mash should be made up of soft fruits (berries and seedless grapes) and a grain mixture for baby birds such as Kaytee Exact Hand-Feeding Formula for Baby Parrots. Add a vitamin such as Vionate. For very small babies, food should be prepared in a blender as a warm puree and fed from an eye dropper. Larger nestlings or fledglings need solid food that is crumbled or cut to size, fed with tweezers

Feed the mash to the bird at room temperature. Feed the baby bird every 15 minutes to 30 minutes from morning to night, or as often as it gapes (opens its mouth for food).

Move the bird to a larger cage or enclosure when it is feathered, but still indoors and in a warm area.

Place solid foods and tree branches in the bird's enclosure for the bird to investigate. Offer foods that are as close as possible to what the bird will find to eat in your area. Adult cardinals feed on seeds, grains, berries and insects. When the bird begins to eat on its own, cut down on hand feeding.

Move the bird to an outdoor enclosure once it is self-feeding. At this point, the bird should be eating a diet as close as possible to what it will find to eat in the wild. The cardinal needs to get used to the sights and sounds of the outdoors.

Perform a soft release when the bird is self-feeding and no longer begging for food. This means that you should open the cage door so the bird can leave when it is ready, but will still have the ability to return to its cage for food and water. Once you have not seen the bird for a few days, assume it has successfully made the transition to the wild.

Tips

  • It is not true that a mother bird will not accept a baby once a human touches it. Birds have a very poor sense of smell.

Warnings

  • Never feed a baby bird milk of any kind or bread.

    Avoid contact with the bird beyond what it necessary to feed and clean its enclosure. An imprinted bird will not survive in the wild.

    It is illegal to attempt to keep a wild cardinal as a pet.

References (2)

  • "The Complete Care of Orphaned or Abandoned Baby Animals; C.E. and Jackie Spaulding; 1980
  • "Principles of Wildlife Rehabilitation; NWRA; 2008

Photo Credits