Although injured birds may not have enough energy to put up a fight, you should be prepared in case they find hidden energy (Fig 1)!
- Patient Stress: In the best of captive situations, wild birds are still subject to significant stress. This is particularly true during phases of rehabilitation that require frequent capture and treatment. Experience with individual patients will dictate your approach to capture and restraint, but be aware that a slow, careful approach to capture followed by restriction of vision during restraint will generally yield best results.
- Beak: Believe it or not, a raven’s beak has enough striking force to punch a hole in your skull! Raptor beaks, of course, are well adapted for tearing flesh and can inflict severe wounds. Heron beaks have been known to pierce eyeballs like plucking fish from the water.
- Talons: All raptors have large, sharp talons and very strong feet. Two or three people may be required to open the toes of a strong eagle (unless one person has the strength to counteract 2000 pounds per square inch of pressure!). Keeping feet under control is the best prevention to mishap.
- Wings: Some birds, such as swans and geese, use their wings as weapons and can inflict boxer-like blows to your face and body. Always use a blanket or sheet with such birds and keep their wings restrained at all times while holding them.
Use a towel to capture most small birds. Nets can damage feathers and bare hands may compound injuries in a quick, delicate bird. Try to guide the bird into a corner or against a wall before bringing the towel down over its head and body. Keep the head covered as the sight and sound of people is very stressful to wild creatures. One great way to bundle a bird is by folding its wings and rolling its body within the towel with its head an inch or so inside the end of the roll. The beak should have access to fresh air. This may need to be loosened up if the bird becomes hyperthermic.
Use heavy gloves and a heavy jacket for birds of prey and other birds of raven size or larger. Leather works best since there are no woven spaces for talons to poke through, however, even a pair of garden or work gloves and a heavy jacket will provide some protection. Wearing eye protection is recommended, particularly while restraining birds with long necks or sharp beaks.
Tactics can be important for capture of free-living wild birds. For most birds, you will want to attempt to drive them downwind, uphill, or away from water. Careful discussion and planning with your partner can be essential to successful capture. Attempt to position yourselves between the bird and it’s preferred escape route (which is generally downhill, towards open water or open air, and upwind). Use cover (such as rocks, trees, or buildings) and ambient distractions (crashing surf, gusts of wind, passing activity) to disguise your approach. Once in position, your capture must be swift, smooth, and committed.
To capture a large raptor, use a large towel or a blanket, coat, tarp, or similar sheet (Fig 2). Outdoors or in a large enclosure, work with a partner to gently corral the bird into a corner. Once you have the bird cornered, bring the blanket swiftly and smoothly over its entire head and body. In a treatment cage or airline kennel, capture should be performed more slowly and gently. First, the towel is draped over the opening while the door is removed. Loosening the front and removing the door on an airline kennel greatly facilitates extraction of the patient. The towel is then moved slowly towards the back of the kennel while held against the ceiling. Upon reaching the back of the kennel, the towel is brought down completely over and around the bird. Having an extra roll in the top of the towel can facilitate this phase, particularly with large birds such as eagles. The bird is bundled in the towel with head covered and then extracted. Once outside the cage, the bird can be sorted out, adjusted, and the feet secured with the help of a partner.
For capture of seabirds and waterfowl, pole nets generally work well, particularly when catching birds from a boat. In boats, the captor can stay low in the bow with the net extended forward and low. Once upon the bird, the net is either brought up from underwater (diving birds) or brought down in front of and above the bird (non-diving species).
Once captured, cover the bird completely and bundle it up tightly. If you can reposition the bird safely, hug it across its chest, the bird’s back to your front. Make sure the head stays covered. Carefully feel through the blanket until you have a leg in each hand. A companion wearing gloves can then help sort the legs out and hand them to you but they must exercise extreme caution.
Whenever the feet or whole body is transferred from one person to another, there must be communication. Say: “I’m handing you the left foot” and wait until the receiver says “I’ve got the foot” before proceeding. This minimizes the risk of misunderstanding and injury.
Always keep the head completely covered as this will calm the bird. A bird of prey that may have been struggling and screaming will dramatically become quiet and droop its head as if it were falling asleep when a falconry hood is placed (Fig 3 ). A blanket over the head has a similar effect.
Always handle the bird in a slow, quiet manner. Minimize loud, sharp noises. Keep the head covered and hold both feet securely. Figure 4 shows how to hold a large bird upright in your arms. Smaller birds can be cradled. If you must uncover the head of a large bird to inspect its face or perform treatments, maintain a firm hold of the head at all times. Figure 5 shows how to hold the head when it is uncovered. Clamping pressure to the beak will prevent biting and provides good support for moving the head. It is very important to have your thumb on at least one edge of the lower mandible to aid in control. If you must stretch out the wings, grasp a bony portion, preferably along the humerus as fractures can occur in some species when they flap a wing that is held only by its extremity.
Figure 6 demonstrates how a large bird can safely be restrained on a table. During horizontal restraint, the handler holds both legs firmly in one hand, drapes the other arm across the neck, and cups the far wing with their forearm. The bird’s left wing is drawn up against the restrainer’s chest. In this position, if the bird struggles, the restrainer’s right upper arm will keep the bird’s shoulders on the table, the right forearm will keep the wings from spreading, and the legs will be kept from flailing. For particularly fractious birds, you may carefully wrap the feet with tape or self-adherent dressing to keep the bird from impaling its own feet
Ford S. Handbook for Wildbird Rescue. Sitka, Alaska: The Alaska Raptor Center; 2003.
Ford S. Restraint of wild birds. July 8, 2007. LafeberVet Web site. Available at https://lafeber.com/vet/restraint-of-wild-birds/