NOTE: This post is about how to determine whether or not baby hummingbirds are actually in need of rescue (spoiler: most “orphans” aren’t). If you need help for a baby hummingbird in obvious danger or distress (fallen from the nest and unable to fly, injured, peeping constantly, covered with ants, etc.):
DO NOT contact me about it—I can’t help you, and the bird may die while you’re waiting for me to respond.
If the baby is still the in nest and not peeping constantly, read on…
It’s wildlife baby season over much of North America, a time when people with big hearts and inadequate information sentence untold thousands of young wild birds and mammals to needless suffering and death. Inappropriate diet is a major killer, resulting in stunted growth, rubbery bones, and feathers that break as they mature (if they mature at all). The greatest tragedy is that many of these “orphans” never needed intervention in the first place.
Violet-crowned Hummingbird on nest
Hummingbirds are frequent victims of misplaced concern. Female hummingbirds spend large amounts of time sitting on their nests during the first three to four weeks of the nesting cycle, incubating the eggs and brooding the tiny, featherless chicks. The nestlings need this near-constant attention at first because they are “cold-blooded” (poikilothermic) at hatching and require their mother’s body heat to live and grow.
Once the nestlings’ pinfeathers break open and expand into an insulating coat of true feathers, their metabolism is ready to switch to “warm-blooded” (homeothermic) mode. At this point, 10 to 12 days after hatching, the mother no longer needs to brood them to keep them warm, even at night. To avoid attracting the attention of predators, she stays away from the nest entirely except for the few seconds it takes to feed them. These visits occur at intervals ranging from less than ten minutes to more than an hour and a half.
This is a critical time for hummingbird nests with a human audience. Observers unaware that this dramatic change in the mother’s behavior is part of the normal nesting cycle may miss the short feeding visits and think that the nestlings have been orphaned or abandoned. Panicked calls to nature centers, zoos, Audubon societies, and bird observatories often go something like this: “I’ve been watching a hummingbird nest and the mother hasn’t been back for two days and I’m afraid the babies are going to starve to death!” (If mama hadn’t been back for two days, the nestlings would already be dead.)
To keep these youngsters out in the wild where they belong and make sure that hummingbirds in genuine peril have the best chance for survival, Project Wildlife in San Diego has published guidelines on when and how to rescue young hummingbirds. Here is an abridged version of PW’s expert advice:
Black-chinned Hummingbird hatchling
IF YOU FIND A HATCHLING HUMMINGBIRD [gray/black, skin naked or covered in quill-like pinfeathers], DO NOT ATTEMPT TO FEED IT! GET HELP IMMEDIATELY.
♦ Try to keep the baby in the nest if possible.
♦ If not, line a plastic margarine cup with tissue and keep the baby warm (this is essential) by placing it under a gooseneck lamp about 5 inches away from the bulb.
♦ Do not overheat the bird. If it starts open-mouth breathing or its neck is outstretched, it is too hot. Overheating can kill the bird.
♦ Keep the baby warmed to an outside temperature—between 85—90 degrees.
Nestling Hummingbirds (10-15 days)
PLEASE WATCH THE NEST CONTINUOUSLY FOR ONE HOUR FOR THE RETURN OF THE MOTHER. [I’d recommend lengthening this to two hours.] She will fly in to feed them, which takes only 3-5 seconds, 4-6 times an hour. In our experience, mother hummingbirds normally do not abandon their young unless something has happened to the female.
Baby hummingbirds use silence in the nest as a defense against predators. If the babies are vocalizing by constantly “peeping” for more than 10 -15 minutes they are in trouble (starving) and need help immediately. Silent babies are usually healthy babies!
♦ If they have fallen out of the nest, gently pick them up, check to be sure there are no injuries and carefully place them back in the nest. Once again watch for mom’s return. (Always check the nest first for ants or other insects that may be attacking the babies). If there is a problem with insects, an artificial nest can be constructed.
♦ After placing them back in the nest, it’s important to watch and see that the female continues to feed her young .
♦ If, after monitoring the nest site, it has been determined that the babies are actually abandoned and have to be rescued and readily open their mouth, CAREFULLY drop three drops of sugar water (see adult recipe) into their mouth. Sugar water accidentally dripped onto feathers must be completely wiped off immediately.
♦ If the babies do not open their mouths, gently guide the birds’ beak into the tip of an eyedropper or syringe full of sugar water for feeding.
♦ Offer sugar water every 30 minutes until help can be obtained.
♦ Do not feed sugar water or “nectar” longer than 72 hours.
Pre–fledgling hummingbirds are fully feathered, have very short, stubby tail feathers and a bill less than 1/2 inch long. They are most often found on the ground. Once again, if you know where the nest is, please put them back and watch for mom’s return.
♦ After placing them back in the nest, it’s important to watch and see that the female continues to feed her young.
♦ If they need to be rescued and open their mouth readily, CAREFULLY drop 5 drops of sugar water into their mouth. Sugar water accidentally dripped onto feathers must be completely wiped off immediately.
♦ If the babies do not open their mouths, gently guide the birds beak into the tip of an eyedropper or syringe full of sugar water for feeding.
♦ Feed every 30 minutes until help can be obtained.
♦ Do not feed sugar water or “nectar” longer than 72 hours.
You can read the entire Hummer Hints handout (PDF) at the Project Wildlife Web site.
A few minutes may mean the difference between life and death for a wild creature in trouble, so right now—before you have a wildlife emergency—contact your state wildlife/natural resources agency, local animal control agency or nature center*, or the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association for the name and phone number of a wildlife rescue organization or independent wildlife rehabilitator in your area, or use this state-by-state directory (which may not be entirely up-to-date—try contacting the person or organization to make sure the listing is accurate). Keep the name and number by the phone so that you can get help as quickly as possible should the need arise.
* Normally I would recommend humane societies and zoos as resources, but not after what happened to the Wisconsin Mango.