Hand-rearing Seabirds (Wildlife Casualty Management)

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species: Alle alle - Dovekie (Little auk), Alca torda - Razorbill, Cepphus grylle - Black guillemot, Fratercula arctica - Atlantic puffin, Fulmarus glacialis - Northern fulmar, Hydrobates pelagicus - European storm-petrel , Morus bassanus - Northern gannet, Oceanodroma leucorhoa - Leach's storm-petrel, Phalacrocorax carbo - Great cormorant, Phalacocorax aristotelis - European Shag, Puffinus griseus - Sooty shearwater, Puffinus puffinus - Manx shearwater, Uria aalge - Common murre (Common guillemot).

These species are from the families Laridae, Phalacrocoracidae, Procellariidae, Sulidae.

  • These are altricial species, fed by the parents.(B163)
  • Chicks of these species are infrequently presented for hand-rearing. Advice may be sought from specialist rehabilitation centres and zoos/aviculturists with experience with keeping these or similar species.

Initial Care: 

General bird information:

  • On arrival any young bird should be weighed, warmed, and given supplementary fluids by an appropriate route to counteract dehydration.
  • Cold, weak chicks may benefit greatly from a short period, for example 30 minutes, left in a dark cardboard box at 30-35C.(P19.1.w4).
  • The age should be determined if possible.
  • See: Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife for further general information.

General Care (including warmth and hygiene):

General precocial bird information

  • Young chicks have a poor ability to maintain body temperature and are prone to hypothermia, hyperthermia and burns.
  • Keep out of draughts but ensure ventilation is adequate. (V.w5)
  • A thermometer should be used, within the brooder box, to indicate the temperature at which the chicks are being maintained.
  • Provide heat to a maximum of 95F initially directly under a heat lamp, with a temperature range such that the chicks can chose the position at which the temperature is comfortable. Ensure the minimum temperature is not low enough to allow the chicks to get chilled.
  • Reduce the temperature gradually as the chicks grow so that by the time they are fully fledged no heat is required.
  • (B118.5.w5, V.w5)

Seabird Specific information:

  • Example of accommodation for a burrow-nesting species:
  • A puffin chick (Linda cirrhata - Tufted puffin) was reared from about 24 days old. Accommodation was provided in a 12-litre black plastic bucket placed on its side and lined with polyvinyl matting; this was placed in a larger plastic bin also lined with polyvinyl matting and covered with shade cloth to reduce light and the room was lit only by red light.
  • (J23.33.w1)


Suggested foods for hand-rearing include:

  • Fish such as sprats, sand eels, herring.(B151, B118.18.w18)
  • Supplement with thiamine.(B151)
  • Krill and small smelt have been used for hand-rearing alcids.(J23.33.w1)

Feeding Frequency:

  • General bird information: 
    • Varies depending on species and age.

Feeding Technique: 

  • Hand feed, offering fish from above the bird.(J23.33.w1)
  • Leave fish available to encourage self-feeding. (J23.33.w1)


General bird information:

  • Most species of bird eat 10-20% of their body weight per 24 hours. (B150.w2)
  • Do not necessarily feed until begging stops: chicks may beg well past the point at which their upper digestive tract is full.(B150.w2)
  • Carnivorous birds (raptors, fish-eaters, shore birds) may take up to 50ml/kg body weight per feed.(J34.9.w1)

Seabird specific information:

  • A hand-reared puffin chick (Linda cirrhata - Tufted puffin) was fed 40% of its body weight in fish (small smelt) and krill daily.(J23.33.w1)


  • Not required.


General bird information:

  • Regular weighing provides a good indication of growth, however a balance must be chosen between the frequency of weighing for accurate monitoring of progress and the stress which may be caused by repeated handling.
  • Individuals in a brood or being reared in a group must be individually identifiable in order to allow the progress of each chick to be monitored.
    • Temporary identification may be made possible using small colour marks applied to the feathers. An appropriate non-toxic material such as coloured correction fluid (e.g. Tippex) or nail varnish may be used for this purpose.
    • Alternatively, for larger chicks, lightweight leg rings made of flat plastic may be used. These are available in a wide variety of colours. Rings must be of an appropriate size and changed as the bird grows.
  • (B150.w2, V.w5, V.w26)


  • If fish are made available, chicks will start to feed themselves:
    • A hand-reared puffin chick (Linda cirrhata - Tufted puffin) was noted to feed itself regularly by about 31 days old.(J23.33.w1).
  • For information on diets and feeding methods suitable for adult seabirds see: Feeding of Casualty Seabirds
  • Older chicks should be given access to water for swimming:
    • A hand-reared puffin chick (Linda cirrhata - Tufted puffin) was given access to a 1.8m diameter 0.6m deep plastic wading pool with salt water filling and running though it from 47 days old. (J23.33.w1)


  • General bird information:
    • Move to an aviary for at least two weeks prior to release, to allow exercise, flying/swimming as appropriate, and exposure to the weather.
  • See: Release of Casualty Seabirds
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Wild animals should not be taken for hand-rearing unless they are definitely orphaned or abandoned, injured/visibly unwell, or in immediate danger.
  • A considerable input of time and effort is required to hand-rear these birds.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • There is always a risk of damaging the bill if opening it manually.(V.w6)
  • Thiamine deficiency may occur if fish, particularly frozen fish, is not supplemented with thiamine.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Fish should be available from fishmongers or specialist animal food suppliers.
  • Thiamine supplements should be available from veterinary suppliers.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Time commitment is considerable
Cost/ Availability
  • The cost of food for hand-rearing seabirds could be considerable, as could the cost of suitable accommodation for older chicks.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Hand-rearing should not be started unless the carer is prepared to give the time and effort required for rearing to release, or to ensure that appropriate care will be continued through to release.
  • Consider whether hand-rearing is the best option for the individual compared with leaving it in the wild.
  • Consider whether euthanasia is a more humane/kinder option for the individual than attempting hand-rearing.
  • An offence may be committed under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 Section 1 if a released animal does not have a reasonable chance of survival (i.e. a chance similar to its non-rehabilitated peers). It is an offence under this Act for a person having control or charge of an animal to abandon it permanently or otherwise in circumstances likely to cause unnecessary suffering. This may include release at an unsuitable site, in the wrong territory, unfit, not having learned to hunt, at the wrong time of year etc. (J35.147.w1, B156.21.w21, B223, W5.Jan01)
  • See: Legislation relating to Wildlife Casualties
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman

Return to Top of Page