Black clouds were rolling in from the east over the Atlantic as I drove to church that morning, late again. My umbrella and pink pashmina were both badly needed by the time I arrived and was forced to a parking space fit for a latecomer. An hour later, the rain stopped, sun came out, and it became a beautiful day.
Driving home along Fletcher (the road parallel to the Atlantic) I noticed a little red bump in the tiny median strip and realized it was a very wet, but not flattened, bird. I parked, leaving my flashers on, and grabbed my pashmina. Walking to the center of the road, I heard the little cardinal’s shrill chirp. “Definitely a teenager,” I decided. The heavy rain seemed to have shrunk him. Skin was visible beneath his matted feathers and his wings and tail had taken a beating. I scooped him up in my wrap and waved at a car that allowed me to cross. Fletch rode home quite a garish sight, wet red with bright orange lips and wrapped in pink, comfortably packed in an open cooler in the trunk.
He rested for a time in a butterfly enclosure and ate 5 worms plucked from the garden. Normally it is not recommended that you feed wildlife, but I feared the little guy had been stranded for some time and, as a fledgling, he was accustomed to frequent meals. I figured if he ate, he was on the mend. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and I let him enjoy the warmth and breeze on the screened porch. Each time I checked on him he made young bird noises and finally got the strength to hop about and try to fly, indicating he was ready to head back outside. When I unzipped the enclosure, he scurried out, first running along the ground calling out. Then he hopped into a bush and fluttered enough that I knew he could fly.
Later that afternoon, I saw three male cardinals in the tree above the spot where I released Fletch. Sure enough, one was Fletch. I could tell by his somewhat unique call and his still disheveled look. The two more mature cardinals were arguing with him, seemingly having a territorial dispute. It was heated enough that some of those previously matted underbelly feathers of Fletch’s came floating down from the tree and the bullies chased him across the street to another tree, finally leaving him alone. Unknowingly, I think I turned him loose in other males’ territory and that just wouldn’t do, even for a teenager not completely familiar with the rules. I hope Fletch enjoys a long and healthy life. It did my heart good to feel that I helped a creature that day, with only minimal intervention.
Meanwhile, the bird rescue volunteer checked in. “Often,” he said, “people call me to help them with hurt birds when they are really only just stunned. It takes an hour or two and if they are only stunned then they fly away.” That is exactly what happened with Fletch. I would not have moved him from the place I found him except that Fletcher Avenue is no place for a cardinal of any age. I suspect the heavy wind and rain blew him some distance and he was fortunate enough, or perhaps smart enough, to end up in the bird-sized median strip.
I’ll be watching for Fletch. If the other male cardinals allow him, I think he will return to the garden where he will find clean water, seeds from friendly plants, and plenty of bugs. Perhaps he’ll have a family and their mother will keep them safe from busy roads, predators, and outdoor cats that, in the United States, kill approximately 2.4 million birds every year (according to the American Bird Conservancy). Stay safe buddy!
I’ve provided some suggestions to help you figure out what to do if you find an injured bird. If you want to know more about cardinals, this link to Cardinal Facts is very interesting.
What to do if you find an injured bird
Determine if the bird is sick, injured, or simply stunned (such as when they fly into windows).
Is it an adult, fledgling, or baby (babies usually have few feathers and squawk more)?
Call your local bird rehab facility or wildlife rescue organization and share this information. Their recommendations may vary according to the above answers.
If the bird is in the road, you will need to remove it safely to the side of the road to prevent more injury. If it is a raptor or large bird and it can walk, herd it to the side of the road and immediately call your local bird rehab facility while you keep it safe without touching it. Raptors can shred small mammals and you do not want your appendages harmed.
If it is a small bird or a badly injured bird, you will need a box with air holes and a top and an old towel that you don’t want back. Pick up the bird with the towel, without touching it directly, and place it on the towel in the box. Then answer the questions above and call your local bird rehab facility or wildlife rescue organization.
Unless the bird is in the road or in harm’s way, do not move it or touch it but simply keep predators away while you wait for instructions from your local bird rehab facility or wildlife rescue organization. They may instruct you on how to safely transport it to a rescue facility, but wait to talk to them before taking further action.
Remember that birds are wild, and their feathers and feces carry mites and diseases that you don’t want to be exposed to. You will want to throw away any items used to capture the bird (such as a towel, or in my case a pink pashmina) and wash your hands with soap and avoid touching your face after being around the bird.
There are laws and regulations to protect wildlife. You do not want to inadvertently break the law while trying to “help.” Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed, trained, and know the law. Let the professionals guide you.
How to find your local rescue organization
Google “find wildlife rescue” or “find wildlife rehabilitator”
In Northeast Florida
Florida Wildlife Care in Gainesville
24-hour hotline (352) 371-4400
Bird Emergency Aid and Kare Sanctuary (BEAKS) in Jacksonville
The ARK Wildlife Care and Sanctuary in Hilliard