Feeding of Casualty Garden Birds etc. (Small Passerines) (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 Wildlife Casualty & Convalescent Feeding 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 groups: 

This group include species which are predominantly insectivores, some which are mainly seed-eaters and birds which eat a mixture of foods. The proportion of different foods in the diet often changes during the year, for example taking advantage of berries in season, and with more insects eaten in summer and seeds in winter. The bill shape may give an indication of the bird's diet (e.g. short robust bills on seedeaters) and species identification and natural history may be used to recognise the diet required. (B163). Further details of the diets of the various species are indicated on the individual species pages.

Fluids (water):

  • Offer a rehydration (electrolyte) solution such as Lectade (Pfizer Limited) to drink on admission.
  • Water should be freely available at all times unless the casualty is unconscious or severely debilitated and unable to hold its head up.
  • Both water and a rehydration (electrolyte) solution, in separate containers, should be made available initially.
  • (V.w5, V.w26)
  • Gavage with rehydration (electrolyte) solution may be required on admission. (B156.15.w15, D24)

Convalescent Diet:

  • Casualties are often anorexic when presented and have an immediate requirement for energy.(B156.15.w15)
  • High-energy diets e.g. Complan (HJ Heinz Co. Ltd) or baby foods, mixed as directed on the packet may be useful in the short term. (B156.15.w15)
  • 50:50 mixture of A/D (Hill’s Pet Nutrition Ltd.,) and rehydration (electrolyte) solution may be more suitable for insectivorous species.(V.w5, V.w26)
  • Proprietary products such as Critical Care Formula (Vetark Animal Health) have been specifically designed as a short term product for anorectic and sick birds. (V.w26)
  • Use of convalescent diets:
  • May be given by crop tube (gavage feeding).
  • Give up to 2% of body weight per feed.
  • Assume 1ml of made-up feed equals 1g, therefore maximum 2ml of feed per 100g of bird
  • (B156.15.w15)
  • Great care must be taken, particularly in small birds, not to damage the soft tissue of the mouth and oesophagus through pressure and/or the use of sharp tubing.
  • See: Gavage / Tubing of Birds

Short term Maintenance Diet:

  • Food should be offered ad libitum in a shallow dish and replaced daily.

Encouraging feeding and acceptance of an artificial diet:

  • Birds may not recognise artificial food mixtures as being edible. For small birds in particular there is a relatively short time in which to initiate feeding, as the reserves of these birds is not large. (J23.26.w4)
  • Birds may need encouragement to take insectivorous food mixes: they will not necessarily recognise the mix as food.
    • Small amounts of foods commonly left on bird tables for garden birds, such as bread crumbs, cake etc. should be offered as these may be better recognised as food than more balanced diets, at least initially. (V.w5)
    • Adding live food such as maggots and mealworms to proprietary insectivorous food may encourage feeding. (B224)
    • A few mealworms may also be placed inside a small transparent tube (with the ends closed off) and the tube placed in the food disk. The idea is that the bird pecks at the tube, the bill slides off the tube into the mix and some of the mix is picked up and swallowed. (B118.8.w8)
    • Scattering food onto a plain unpatterned substrate (flooring) may encourage feeding. (B224)
    • A tray of short turf or other natural substrate containing hidden food items such as invertebrates may stimulate feeding and provide birds with occupation.(B169.43.w43)
    • Offer natural foods when possible:
    • Seeding grasses, and seeding heads of sow thistle, persicaria, dock and plantain are very useful. They should be gathered from places where pesticides are not used (therefore generally not from cultivated land, nor from beside main roads), and rinsed before use.(B99) Seeding heads of sow thistle, groundsel, grasses, dandelion (particularly for goldfinch), shepherd's purse, dock.(B118.8.w8)
    • Teasel - spent heads can be sprinkled with niger seeds to encourage goldfinches to eat (birds will probe the teasel heads and find the niger seeds). Niger seeds can then be sprinkled onto a finch seed mixture in a dish to encourage feeding from the dish. (B118.8.w8, B224)
    • Insects may be obtained by holding an open, inverted umbrella under an overhanging bush and banging on the branches with a stick. The contents of the umbrella are then quickly emptied into a smaller container and the container sealed. (B118.8.w8)
    • Buds covered in aphids are relatively easy to collect for small birds such as wrens and goldcrests to peck at.(B151)

Suggested foods:

  • Seed-eaters (hardbills): Seed mixtures should be fed as the main part of the diet for birds which are predominantly seed eaters.
    • "British finch mixture" (includes canary seed, rape, linseed and hemp) should be offered if available, otherwise a budgie mix or millet may be used short term. (B203)
    • Sunflower seeds may be added to this for e.g. Carduelis chloris - European greenfinch, Pyrrhula pyrrhula - Eurasian bullfinch. (B99)
  • Insectivorous birds (softbills): A good proprietary insectivorous mixture may be used as the basic diet for insectivorous birds, with added live food such as mealworms, "clean" maggots (starved- no food in gut, no dark line visible along body) or waxworms.
    • Mealworms may be chopped into pieces for smaller birds, or mini-mealworms offered. (B118.8.w8, V.w5)
  • Egg cake mixture: 400g crumbles sponge or Madeira cake, 150g fine meat mix (100g finely minced meat, 40g crushed dog kibble, two hard boiled eggs, all mixed to a crumble consistency), four grated hard boiled eggs, one heaped tablespoon of grated cheese, one heaped tablespoon fly pupae (if available), a pinch of calcium carbonate and 1ml Avi-drops (P24.233.w9)
    • Also small amounts of high protein cereal mix (six parts high protein baby cereal mixed with one part of honey).
    • Add live insects.
    • Commercial insectivorous mixture if available.
    • Tinned dog food may be offered.
    • (P24.233.w9)
  • High quality complete dry puppy food soaked in water and with added vitamin/mineral preparation may also be used as a base.(B197.7.w7)
    • As much as 30-60% of the diet may need to be live food such as mealworms.(B197.7.w7)
  • A mixture of insectivorous and seed eater diets should be provided for more omnivorous birds. 
  • If the identity/diet of the bird is not known, offer a variety of foods such as insectivorous bird food, a good seed mix (e.g. those sold as "British finch mixture", mashed catfood, mealworms, waxworms and fruit. (D24)
  • The basic diet should be supplemented with fruit (e.g. pieces of apple, berries in season, particularly elderberries and blackberries for warblers, finches, thrushes, tits and green food such as young tender leaves of dandelion or groundsel).(B118.8.w8)
  • Grit should always be offered when seeds are fed.

In an emergency:

  • Bread crumbs or cake crumbs (up to 24 hours only). (D29)
  • Scrambled egg mixed with a little moist crushed cereal for insectivorous birds (up to 48 hours only). (D29)
  • Raw minced meat. (B203)
  • Crumbled biscuits.(B203)
  • Homemade "eggfood" type mixture: one finely-grated hard-boiled egg (boiled for at least 30 minutes), mixed with four times as much crushed digestive biscuit (or similar sweet biscuit), a pinch of salt and cold water sufficient to give a moist friable (crumbly) consistency. (B224)
  • Moistened turkey starter crumbs or rearing pellets.(B224)
  • Scrambled egg. (B224)
  • Small strips of lean meat.(D29)
  • Tinned dog food. (P24.233.w9)
  • Dog food may be used for starlings temporarily. (B197.7.w7)

Vitamin/mineral supplementation

  • Brewer's yeast may be sprinkled over seeds to increase vitamin B intake.(B99)
  • Proprietary food mixtures may already have vitamins and minerals added.
  • Addition of a vitamin/mineral mix is more important if only a single seed such as millet or a basic mix such as budgie seed is fed. (V.w5)
  • Calcium must be added if mealworms are a high proportion of the diet, in order to produce a more appropriate calcium:phosphorus ratio.(B197.7.w7).

Suggested foods by species:

Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula - Eurasian bullfinch), goldfinch (Carduelis cardualis - European goldfinch), greenfinch (Carduelis chloris - European greenfinch), hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes - Hawfinch), chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs - Chaffinch), redpoll (Carduelis flammea - Common redpoll), linnet Carduelis cannabina - Eurasian linnet), waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus - Bohemian waxwing), (hardbills, seed-eaters.):

  • Propriety seed mixes for budgies, millet etc. Often enjoy biscuit - offer this initially.(B203)

Finches, bunting, sparrows: (mainly seed eaters):

  • Provide mixed birdseed plus canary rearing food. (D29)

Sparrows, accentors (Passer domesticus - House sparrow, Passer montanus - Eurasian tree sparrow, (Prunella modularis - Hedge accentor (dunnock, hedge sparrow)) (seed and insect eaters, with more insects eaten in summer and seeds added in winter):

  • Offer both insectivorous-type food and seeds (e.g. budgie seed mix, millet) with grit.(B203)

Robins, dunnocks (Prunella modularis - Hedge accentor), blackbirds, thrushes, tits: (mainly insectivores):

  • Provide insectivorous bird food.
  • Milupa (Milupa) baby food may be used.
  • Lean meat in small strips may be offered, together with a vitamin/mineral supplement such as SA37( Intervet UK Ltd.) or Stress (Phillips Yeast Products).
  • (D29)

Blackbird, starling, thrushes, tits, nightingale, wren, robin, wagtails (softbills): (mainly insectivorous):

  • Proprietary insect foods (from pet shops), also raw mince meat, chopped hand-boiled egg, cat or dog food.(B203)

Thrushes, wagtails, wrens, goldcrests, tits, warblers (insectivorous):

  • Small crickets, clean white maggots (starved- no food in gut, no dark line visible along body), with added vitamin/mineral supplement (e.g. Cricket Diet Calci Paste, International Zoo Veterinary Group).
  • Buds covered in aphids are relatively easy to collect for small birds such as wrens and goldcrests to peck at.
  • (B151)
  • Starling (Sturnus vulgaris - Common starling):
    • Pheasant starter crumbs plus insects and strips of meat has been used long-term. A tray of turf or other substrate with food items such as invertebrates hidden in is suggested to keep the bird occupied. (B169.43.w43)
    • Insectivorous mix with meat, live food, berries, soft fruit. (B97)
    • Dog food may be used, with additional fat. (B197.7.w7)
  • Sparrow ( Passer domesticus - House sparrow):
    • Pheasant starter crumbs with added seeds, buds, insects and scraps.(B169.43.w43)
  • Blackbird ( Turdus merula - Eurasian blackbird):
    • Equal mixture of insectivorous food , softbill diet and high-protein chick crumbs, with added chopped apple, chopped pear, mealworms.
    • Mealworms may be provided in a tray of suitable substrate such as coconut shell garden mulch to provide activity.
    • (B169.43.w43)
  • Carduelis cannabina - Eurasian linnet: 
    • Mixed seed with plenty of rape and good variety, plus plenty of green food (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress).(B99)
  • Carduelis cardualis - European goldfinch: canary seed, poppy seed (maw), niger, thistle seeds, lettuce seed, burdock seed, linseed, hemp. A piece of apple and some green food (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress) should be offered daily.(B99)
  • Carduelis flavirostris - Twite: insects and ants' eggs as well as seeds.(B97)
  • Carduelis spinus - European siskin: poppy seed (maw), rape, niger, lettuce seed, thistle seed, burdock seed, seeds from fir cones. Hemp may be given in small amounts. Elder and birch seeds are particularly preferred. Green food also (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress), particularly in late spring and summer; also small mealworms and aphids.(B99)
  • Carduelis chloris - European greenfinch: ripening sunflower seeds (taken readily), hemp, oats, canary seed, lettuce seed, poppy seed (maw), linseed, wild seeds. Also green food (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress), rowan berries, apple.(B99)
  • Coccothraustes coccothraustes - Hawfinch: rowan berries, mixed seed: rape, canary seed, poppy seed (maw), linseed, small amounts of oats, cherry stones. Also green food (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress), branches with buds, mealworms, ants' eggs. Apple, autumn berries if in season. (B99)
  • Pyrrhula pyrrhula - Eurasian bullfinch: mixed seeds: poppy seed (maw), rape, canary seed, small amounts of hemp. Also rowan berries. Sunflower seeds, various wild seeds, few mealworms, green food (chickweed, young dandelion leaves, green lettuce, spinach, watercress, mustard and cress), budding branches from fruit trees, berries in season, soft food.(B99)
  • Troglodytes troglodytes - Winter wren: hard boiled egg, fine-chopped, mixed with insectivorous food: gradually increase proportion of insectivorous food. Or mixture of cottage cheese, peanut butter and insectivorous food. (B99)

Nuthatches (Sitta europea - Wood nuthatch), treecreepers (Certhia familiaris - Eurasian tree-creeper) (Feed mainly on insects taken from tree bark):

  • Difficult to train to take food from a dish.(J23.26.w4)
  • Simulate feeding pattern in wild by smearing food over bark of a sturdy tree stump/log placed upright in the pen/cage.(B199, D24)
  • Tinned cat food, insectivorous food, mealworms may be offered.(D24)
  • Peanut butter and artificial, high-protein nectars may be offered as additional foods and are often taken readily. (B99)
  • Other live food should be given as well as mealworms. (B99)
Appropriate Use (?)
  • Fresh drinking water should always be available in a container of an appropriate size and type for the species concerned.
  • Fluid replacement therapy other than oral fluids may be required for casualties which are extremely dehydrated on admission or are unable to take in and absorb oral fluids.
    • Fluid therapy should continue until the animal is no longer dehydrated, even if it is self feeding.
  • Feeding of convalescents should take into account their requirement for additional nutrients for healing as well as maintenance requirements.
  • It is important to remember that the energy value (caloric content) of mealworms (average 204kcal/100g) and blowfly larvae (maggots) (average 150kcal/100g) is lower than that of good proprietary insectivorous foods. Small birds in particular may require very large intake of mealworms or maggots to meet their energy requirements.(J23.26.w4)
  • Grits should always be offered when seeds are fed.
  • The required fluid intake for maintenance should be considered when designing convalescent diets.
  • Energy requirements for maintenance and healing should be calculated and used to determine the quantity of food required for both convalescence and short-term maintenance diets.
  • Convalescent diets should be easily absorbed/digested.
  • Care should be taken not to under or over supplement with vitamins/minerals
  • Diets intended for feeding from a syringe or by stomach tube (gavage) must be of a sufficiently fluid consistency to pass through the syringe nozzle or down the tube without it becoming blocked.
  • The natural diet should be considered when deciding on suitable ingredients, including consideration of taste/smell.
  • Fresh food must be provided daily.
  • Regular cleaning of food and drinking water containers (e.g. daily) is important to reduce the risk of disease.
  • Food and water containers should be sited to minimise the risk of contamination with droppings/faeces/urine. 
  • Maggots should always be fed "clean", that is starved overnight so that no black line of the gut is visible along the body.
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Water bowls should not be left in the accommodation of a casualty which is unconscious or is severely debilitated and unable to hold its head up.
  • Dehydrated and malnourished individuals sometimes drink rehydration fluids but refuse plain water initially; others will drink water but not rehydration fluids. Both should be made available.
  • No diet, however well balanced nutritionally, is useful if the animal does not eat it, for example because it is not recognised as food.
  • Ingestion of food should be monitored, not assumed. This may include weighing food before presentation and weighing waste food after removal, and periodic weighing of the animal.
  • Monitoring of weight/body condition is particularly important for group housed/group fed animals, within which some individuals may take more food and others not get the food they require.
  • Diets suggested on this page are intended for short term use for wildlife casualties; they are not necessarily suitable for long-term use or in individuals which are breeding.
  • Diets suggested on this page are not necessarily suitable for feeding chicks; information on appropriate diets for very young individuals are described in the page on hand-rearing.
  • If naturally-available food items are gathered for feeding to casualties it is important to be aware of the possibility of contamination with chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides.
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Oral rehydration (electrolyte) solutions are widely available from veterinary suppliers and chemists. 
  • A basic oral rehydration (electrolyte) solution may be made by dissolving one tablespoon of sugar and one teaspoon of salt in one litre of water. (B203)
  • Lectade, Pfizer Limited: from veterinary suppliers and agricultural feed suppliers.
  • Seed mixes, proprietary insectivorous foods such as Prosecto (John E. Haith) and grit are available from petshops and from specialist suppliers such as John E. Haith, Park Street, Cleethorps, Lincs, DN35 7NF, UK
  • Milupa (Milupa, White Horse Business Park, Trowbridge, WILTS BA14 0XB)
  • SA37(Intervet UK Ltd., Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4  0FP)
  • Stress (Phillips Yeast Products), Park Royal, London, England
  • Complan (H J Heinz Co Ltd): from supermarkets etc.
  • A/D Hills Science Diet (Hill’s Pet Nutrition Ltd.) from veterinary suppliers
  • Critical Care Formula (Vetark Animal Health, PO Box 60, Winchester, SO23 9XN)
  • Vitamin/mineral supplemets may be bought from pet stores and mail-order suppliers.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • No particular expertise required, but persuading some birds to eat in care may be difficult. 
Cost/ Availability
  • Appropriate foods are generally widely available and short-term "emergency" foods may be found in most kitchens. 
  • The cost of feeding these birds is generally low unless large quantities of live food must be bought.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Under the Protection of Animals Acts 1911-2000 it is an offence not to provide animals (including captive wild animals) with necessary food and water. (J35.147.w1, B156.21.w21, B223, P19.2.w1)
  • Care should be taken not to let an individual become accustomed to a single food item as this may result in difficulties in feeding the animal if the food item becomes unavailable, and in preparing it for release.
  • Every effort should be made to provide appropriate natural, locally available foods to animals which have been maintained in captivity for prolonged periods before they are released, in order to re-accustom them to a natural diet and reduce the chance of digestive problems following release.(P24.233.w11)
  • The release of animals which, by virtue of an inadequate or inappropriate diet whilst in captivity, are not fit to survive when released may be considered an offence under the Abandonment of Animals Act, 1960.
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman

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