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Stress and Rescued Wild Birds

In the wild, birds naturally recognise predators and humans are at the top of that list, so when they are rescued, they are quite likely to be in shock and become severely stressed. Just because a bird is sitting quietly and staring at you does not mean it is not stressed, if you were to feel or listen to the creatures’ heart you would find it would be pounding. In some cases, the stress associated with capture and handling is enough for them to keel over and die. Always bear in mind we are seen as a predator, despite our best intentions.

These photos show that our eyes are in a similar position to a cat which is a predatory animal

Effects of Stress

It is not just the short-term stress of capture that is detrimental. For wild birds kept in captivity while sick or injured, the whole process can cause short-term daily stress, as well as longer term chronic stress. The chemicals released into the body due to stress such as cortisol can cause immune-suppression, delayed healing and predispose them to further disease such as Aspergillosis, so it is essential to reduce stress wherever possible.

Pheasant trying to hide in the back of its cage but watching every move

Signs of stress

Should a bird become stressed during your examination you will need to place it gently back into its box. Leave it for 10 or 15 minutes before recommencing your examination. This will allow the bird to de-stress. Signs of high stress in a bird could include:

  • Panting or breathing with its beak open

  • Struggling profusely

  • Being very noisy

  • “Fainting” or looking sleepy

Harrier on the defence and very stressed


Shock can kill and it is important that the first person on the scene ensures that they do everything possible to minimise shock and stress. To do this we capture efficiently and kindly, then recommend that the bird be placed in a warm, dark and quiet area, preferably away from pets while you plan what to do next. Please keep in mind sudden noises, unfamiliar smells, over-handling and cold temperatures will contribute to the bird being stressed further.

Peacock penned and ready for capture


When handling wildlife, it is important to keep in mind that they are wild, and they should not be handled in the same way you would a pet i.e. you would avoid being too hands-on and comforting. To the bird we are just another predator and they will not understand your good intentions. There will be times that the birds seem unafraid and that is usually with young birds and adults that are semi-conscious with a concussion.

Caspian Tern on an examination table, unable to move and quite likely stressed

Long term tips

Under all this stress we expect them to heal and recover! For birds to do this we should always try to minimise anything that is likely to put them under stress i.e.

  • Keep noise to a minimum

  • Handle the wildlife quickly and quietly

  • Avoid using sudden movements - move calmly and deliberately

  • Keep pets, children and unnecessary people out of the recovery areas

  • Keep people traffic to the bare minimum

  • Where possible give them things to hide behind or under

  • Avoid stroking and talking to them

  • Don’t stand staring at them

  • Don’t place a prey species of bird in the sight of a predatory species

  • Provide housing that allows the bird some privacy

Juvenile Kingfisher not very well after hitting a window

If you decide to care for a bird long term, please make sure you know what you are doing. Don’t care for a bird just because you think you know! There are experienced individuals and organisations that are looking for volunteers and foster carers, and they will work with you so you can learn to do things correctly.

Permits are also usually required for rehabilitating native, endemic and game birds, so know your country’s regulations before you start caring for birds.

Written by

Mandy Robertson

Wildlife Rehabilitator

(All photos are the copyright of Wild Bird Care – NZ)

Learn Bird Care was co-founded by Dr Janelle Ward and Mandy Robertson and we offer specialist online courses on wild bird rescue, first aid and rehabilitation.

To stay in touch and find out about new blog posts and courses as they are released, register for our free newsletter today and you will also receive our ' Basic Bird Rescue and Initial Care' booklet!

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