Feeding of Casualty Swift, Nightjar, Swallow & 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 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: Apus apus - Common swift, Caprimulgus europaeus - Eurasian nightjar, Delichon urbica - Northern house-martin, Hirundo rustica - Barn swallow, Riparia riparia - Sand martin.

These species are from the families Apodidae, Hirundindae, Caprimulgidae.

These birds are insectivorous and normally feed on the wing. See individual species pages for further details.

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)
  • No water bowl for swifts; give fluid by moistening food boluses or from the moistened tip of a paintbrush.(V.w28)
  • All these species may be offered water by the moistened tip of a paintbrush. (V.w28)

Convalescent Diet:

General Bird information:

  • Casualties are often anorexic when presented and have an immediate requirement for energy. (B156.15.w15)
  • High-energy diets or meat-based or baby foods, mixed as directed on the packet are useful short term. (B156.15.w15)
  • 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:

Swifts - Apus apus - Common swift:

Hand (assisted) feeding of these birds is required, as they normally feed on the wing and appear unable to learn to feed from a dish. (B203, J23.26.w4, D24, D62). This also applies to nightjars. (B224, J23.26.w4)

  • Present food as rolled boluses.
  • Feed every two hours during daylight:
    • Hold the swift's head, gently pull the lower bill open, place a small food bolus in the back of the mouth, close the mouth and wait for the bird to swallow.
    • Offer water or rehydration (electrolyte) solution from the moistened tip of a fine paintbrush between mouthfuls of food, or moisten each bolus.
    • If the bird does not grab at the brush when water if offered the bill may be gently prised open with a thumbnail and water wiped from the brush onto the inside of its mouth. Offer small quantities of water at twenty minute intervals . (D62)
    • Allow a brief period of rest between boluses.
    • Do not disturb after feeding as this increases the risk of regurgitation.
  • (B203, B151, D24, D62, V.w28).

Suggested foods:

  • Minced meat, insectivorous mix, vitamin/mineral supplement (e.g. Nutrobal, Vetark Animal Health) and dead mealworms, mixed. (D24)
  • Mixture of 75% mince meat, 25% proprietary insectivorous food, moistened with water. (B203)
  • Mealworms, dusted with vitamin-mineral powder such as SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd).(B203)
  • Hills feline maintenance diet (Hill’s Pet Nutrition Ltd.) soaked and mixed with "beef dinner" baby food.(B203)
  • Waxworm larvae.(B151)

Swallows and house martins (hirundines) - Delichon urbica - Northern house-martin, Hirundo rustica - Barn swallow, Riparia riparia - Sand martin. :

  • May require hand feeding as described above for swifts (B224, J23.26.w4).
  • May feed unassisted: maggots should be offered in a dish with vertical sides just sufficiently high to prevent the maggots escaping.
  • May take food presented using tweezers during flight while exercising in an aviary.

Suggested foods:

  • "Clean" white maggots (starved - no food in gut, no dark line visible along body), or waxworms.
  • Minced meat, insectivorous mix, vitamin/mineral supplement (e.g. Nutrobal, Vetark Animal Health) and dead mealworms, mixed. (D24)
  • Add vitamin/mineral supplement (e.g. Cricket Diet Calci Paste, International Zoo Veterinary Group).(B151)
  • Small to medium-sized crickets may also be offered.
  • (B151, V.w26)
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.
  • 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. 
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.
  • Lectade, Pfizer Limited: from veterinary suppliers and agricultural feed suppliers.
  • 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)
  • Maggots may be available from fishing shops (sold as bait).
  • Mealworms may be bought from some pet stores.
  • Hills feline maintenance diet (Hill’s Pet Nutrition Ltd.) may be bought from some pet stores and veterinary surgeons.
  • Cricket Diet Calci Paste is available from International Zoo Veterinary Group, Keighley, North Yorkshire.
  • SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd, Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 0FP)
  • Vitamin/mineral supplements may be bought from pet stores or mail-order bird/pet feed suppliers.
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • Experience and good dexterity are useful for hand feeding.
  • Expertise is important if assisted feeding (force feeding) is undertaken.
Cost/ Availability
  • Short term feeding of these birds is not expensive.
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

Return to Top of Page