Hand-rearing Swallow and Martins (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: Delichon urbica - Northern house-martin, Hirundo rustica - Barn swallow, Riparia riparia - Sand martin.

These species are from the families Hirundindae.

If a house martin nest falls with chicks still inside, the parents may continue to feed the chicks if they are returned to near the original site in a substitute nest such as a box, a four-litre ice cream tub with an entrance hole cut in one side or preferably an artificial nest available from the RSPB secured to the eaves of the house within 12 hours of the original mishap. (D63, V.w27)

If it is possible to contact a local British Trust Ornithology (BTO)-licensed bird ringer, martin and swallow chicks may be placed into existing nests alongside similar-aged chicks and be accepted by foster parents. (V.w27)

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 30-35 C.(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 altricial/semialtricial bird information

  • Young birds, particularly altricial or semialtricial unfeathered/poorly down-covered nestlings, have 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 placed beside the nest box to indicate the temperature at which the chicks are being maintained.

Swallow and Martin specific information:

  • Keep in an artificial nest made from e.g. an ice cream tub.
  • The artificial nest should be placed inside a larger box and be provided with supplementary heat.
  • (D63)


Suggested foods include:

[Note: The experience of people rearing Apus apus - Common swifts strongly indicates that a diet of insects and insectivore food (based on insects) not meat is essential for the proper growth and development of swift chicks. (N43.3124.w1) It is probable that diets for swallows and martens, also, should be wholly or mainly insects or insectivorous food.]

  • Tropican Rearing Mix (Rolf C Hagen).
    • Mixed fresh each day for each group of chicks and kept refrigerated between meals.(B151)
  • Mixture of minced meat, insectivorous mix, vitamin/mineral supplement (e.g. Nutrobal,Vetark Animal Health) and dead mealworms.(D24)
  • Strips of ox heart, with scrambled egg; supplement with a "fine dusting" of SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd) vitamin/mineral powder. (P19.1.w4)
  • Yolk from hard-boiled eggs mixed with crushed, soaked digestive biscuits, strips of raw ox heart, mealworms, ants' eggs, tinned cat or dog food. (D63)
  • Offer natural food if available. (P19.1.w4)
  • Supplement with a vitamin/mineral mixture such as SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd). (D63)

Feeding Frequency:

Suggested feeding frequencies include:

  • Feed every hour during daylight. (D24)
  • Feed at least every two hours and ensure the chicks are fed at least eight times during the day. (D63)

Feeding Technique: 

Suggested feeding techniques include:

  • Feed by gavage directly into crop, using small syringe with a teat cannula attached. (B151)
  • Feed mix may be given using a paintbrush or a blunt-ended pair of tweezers.(D24, V.w27)
  • Assisted feeding may be required for some chicks until they start to gape for food. (V.w27)
  • Offer water using a moistened paintbrush between mouthfuls of food.(V.w26)
  • Clean the chick's face and bill after each feed.
    • A wet paintbrush wiped around the face may be used for removing spilt food while minimising handling.(V.w27)


  • Feed until the bird stops gaping.(B151)


General altricial bird information:

  • For young nestlings remove the faecal sac produced after the first cropful of each feed, using tweezers.
  • These sacs are delicate and care must be taken to avoid splitting the sac and soiling the bird or the nest.
  • (D24, D26, D29, B151, P19.1.w4, V.w26)


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)


  • Once eyes open, offer appropriate adult food but continue supplementing with hand feeding.
  • Wean after about two weeks.
  • Wean onto "clean" white maggots (which have been starved for 24 hours), mini-mealworms, waxworms or medium-sized crickets.
  • (B151)
  • See: Accommodation of Casualty Swifts, Swallows & House Martins


General bird information:

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.
  • Considerable input of time and effort is required to hand-rear these small birds.
  • Rearing of very young chicks (less than one week old, unfeathered) is difficult and has a high failure rate.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • There is a risk of damaging the bill if opening it manually.(V.w6)
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Live food is available from many pet stores.
  • Proprietary food mixtures and supplements are available from pet stores or mail-order feed suppliers
    • Tropican Rearing Mix (Rolf C. Hagen (UK) Ltd, Castleford, West Yorkshire, WF10 5QH)
    • Nutrobal (Vetark Animal Health, PO Box 60, Winchester, SO23 9XN)
    • SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd., Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 0FP).
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Initial time commitment for birds requiring frequent (e.g. hourly) feeding is extreme and would be prohibitive for most people.
  • Manual dexterity is important for caring for these very small individuals.
  • Requires empathy, observation skills and the ability to "read" the bird's body language.
  • Experience with hand-rearing is useful and likely to greatly increase the success rate.
Cost/ Availability
  • Cost of food is not excessive unless numerous chicks are being reared.
  • The cost of constructing a suitable pre-release aviary may be considerable.
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

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