Songbird Housing Checklist

Introduction

There are two common scenarios for housing the songbird patient. Adult companion birds may be hospitalized during critically illness. Wild songbirds of all ages—but particularly juvenile birds—may also be maintained in the veterinary hospital when injured or orphaned.

When hospitalizing any wildlife patient, the goal should always be to transfer the animal to an experienced, licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible (Fig 1). In the meantime, it is imperative that the passerine bird be housed appropriately to promote recovery and prevent injury.

Injured songbird

Figure 1. Transfer injured wild birds to a licensed rehabilitator as soon as possible. Image by greencolander. Click image to enlarge

General principles

Maintain the cage in a low traffic area away from cats and dogs.
House wild birds away from pet birds.
Provide natural light cycles.
Use towels or newspaper to cover the cage to minimize disturbances and patient stress.

Baby bird housing

Instruct good Samaritans to place healthy birds back in the nest whenever possible.

Discard the natural nest as it may contain parasites and is difficult to keep clean in a rehabilitation situation (Fig 2).

Baby birds in nest

Figure 2. Natural nests are often ridden with parasites and should be discarded. Image by AnnCam. Click image to enlarge

Create a makeshift nest from a small, appropriately-sized container.

Line a small box or berry basket with several layers of string and loop-free cloth (i.e. flannel) or soft, textured paper towels, napkins or tissues (Fig 3). Avoid terry cloth, cotton, and gauze as they can strangulate toes.

Hatchling in makeshift nest

Figure 3. Line the makeshift nest with several layers of string and loop-free cloth or soft, textured paper towels, napkins, or tissues. Image by Audrey jm529 Click image to enlarge

Place the makeshift nest within a larger container like a bowl, box, or Plexiglass cage, particularly when the nest is not inside an incubator. This box will keep the baby bird confined, especially on that unexpected day it learns to hop out of its small “nest”.

Provide supplemental heat as needed (Box 1). Place the nest within an incubator or place a heating pad set on low underneath the box or cage.

Box 1. Supplemental heat recommendations
Developmental stageRecommended temperature °F (°C)
Hatchling90-94 (32-34)
Nestling75-85 (24-29)
FledglingRoom temperature
AdultRoom temperature

If skin is dry, place a moist paper towel in the cage corner to increase humidity

Fledgling housing

A hallmark of the fledgling is it refuses to stay in the nest (Fig 4). Unfortunately this is also a common reason for presentation to the veterinary hospital.

Fledgling cardinal

Figure 4. Fledglings, like this Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), refuse to stay in the nest. Note the lack of tail feathers. Image by Audrey jm529 Click image to enlarge

Provide low perches such as tree branches cut to size.
Perches should only be high enough to keep tail feathers out of droppings and food.

Provide a shallow, sturdy water dish.

Adult songbird housing

The primary goal when housing adult songbirds is to prevent escape while minimizing patient stress. If the songbird is only going to be hospitalized short-term, a small Plexiglas pet cage will facilitate easy capture because of the porthole in the snap-top lid (Fig 5).

Pet carrier with portal and snap on lid

Figure 5. Small Plexiglas pet cages facilitate easy capture of adult songbirds because of the porthole in the snap-top lid. Click image to enlarge

Avoid placing a wild songbird in a pet bird cage as the bird will strip its feathers on the cage bars, which can delay release. Cut a tree branch or doweling to size for perching material. Place this enclosure within a room that will allow for easy capture if your patient does escape. Use a bird net (with care!) or darken the room to catch escapees.

 

Conclusion

Animal welfare needs and legalities dictate that wild birds should not be housed in most veterinary hospitals long-term. If you do not have a relationship with a local wildlife rehabilitator, develop one! And in the mean time, contact your state wildlife resource agency, the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, and/or the International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council for help in finding local wildlife caretakers in your area.

References