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The art and heartbreak of rescuing baby birds

Benita Lee
Donna Nespoli holding a finch hatchling that came to her because it had fallen out of its nest.

What happens when baby birds aren’t successful in their initial attempts to fly?

They may end up with Donna Nespoli, a bird rehabilitation expert and founder of Colorado Native Bird Care and Conservation in Boulder County, a nonprofit that rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned and injured songbirds.

"I feed them every 20 minutes from sun up to sun down, and then they poop every 20 minutes from sun up to sun down. (If) they're eating and pooping I'm happy," said Nespoli.

Her specialty is raising the very young ones, the hatchlings, which she says these days are arriving early.

"I just received four older finch juveniles, which means they must have been born before even April. So this year it's very early to have babies. The height of the bird season is July 4th. Kind of like, if we can make it through July 4th, we can make it through the season," she said.

Nespoli says global warming is changing migration times, which means birds are coming back to breed earlier.

But global warming is just one of the human-caused reasons that Nespoli sees many young birds in need of help.

"For example, a cat will kill a parent bird, or get in a tree and destroy a nest. Also, when you do tree trimming in the spring and summer, you'll destroy nests," she said.

Before starting her own rehabilitation center, Nespoli completed an intensive year-long training program at Greenwood Wildlife Rescue in Lyons.

"And then I took a ornithology class at CSU (Colorado State University) and I was just blown away. And I went into birds and fell in love with birds," she said.

When Nespoli first receives a patient, she follows a series of protocols just like any medical professional does when checking in a sick or otherwise vulnerable patient.

"When we receive a hatchling, the first thing to do is to warm the baby up, they usually come in cold. After they're warmed up, we administer fluids. We then identify the species and formulate a diet plan on how to feed them and get 'em to grow."

Oftentimes Nespoli needs to administer medicines to the baby birds depending on why they came to her for help.

"For example, with cat attacks, the bacteria in a cat's mouth is particularly toxic, so if you don't get 'em in time and start antibiotics, they usually will die within five days. So any bird that has been in a cat's mouth, even though you can't see a visible wound, will get antibiotics. We have another little hatchling that just came in today and he was one that fell out of the nest, and we always advise people to put them back in the nest. But this little guy, they couldn't locate the nest and he had a cut on him. So we would start him on pain meds and antibiotics," she said.

Some baby birds should never have come to Nespoli at all.

"And that's another reason we get birds is well-meaning people, they claim to not see the mother or father feeding and they take the babies out of the nest. The adult birds do not spend a lot of time at the nest because they don't wanna draw predators. So to really see if you have abandoned babies, you really have to watch for two hours and you have to watch constantly," she said.

As an example, Nespoli shows four finch siblings in a terrarium like enclosure.

When she approached, they opened their mouths wide and began to chirp for food.

Nespoli suspected they had not been orphans after all.

"They were very well fed. The feather quality is beautiful, so that leads me to believe that they were kidnapped."

She says people also accidentally kidnap slightly older, but flightless baby birds when they find them on the ground.

"Some birds will fledge the nest before they're able to fly, which means they basically jumped and fall to the ground and they're on the ground for one to two weeks while they're learning to fly. And a lot of times those are the babies we get that are cat attacks and dog attacks because they're on the ground," she said.

"So for example, if you found a blue jay on the ground and he's not flying, that would be normal as long as a parent is around. But if you find a swallow on the ground, that is not normal. Because when they fledge, they're fully flighted."

Birds that nest in holes, in trees, or cavity nesting species like woodpeckers, swallows and swifts, only leave the nest when they can fly.

Other baby birds like corvids need more help.

"Blue jays are corvid, so they're in the raven and crow family. They have a long time to be with the parents and the parents actually teach them what to do. So with those kind of birds, I have to take the place of the parent and teach them what to do and how to find food," she said.

Just like with children, some things take a bit of repetition.

"If you were fortunate enough to watch a robin mom weaning a fledgling, they'll pick up an earthworm and put it in a baby's mouth and then take it out and drop it. They'll do that a couple times. So the baby connects the, oh, that thing on the ground, it's moving, I'm supposed to eat that."

Nespoli says birds begin to fly instinctively as well, and around that time, most of them begin to feel fearful of humans.

From a rehabbers perspective, that's good because the goal is that the birds survive on their own in the wild.

When it's time to release them, Nespoli tries to return the birds within 10 miles of where they were found.

If it's an unsafe environment such as a bustling city, she has to seek permission from the Colorado Department of Wildlife to release them elsewhere.

But wherever she sets her patients free, her maternal instincts stay with her even when the bird hurriedly flies off.

"I usually cry on the way home. Yeah. Cause I'm so worried they're not gonna be okay," she said.

Nespoli's rehab center has had a highly successful release rate for the birds that come to her as healthy babies, about 80 to 90%.

But injured baby birds are another story.

It's about 50/50, and when she can't do anything to help a suffering bird, she has to euthanize it.

Nespoli says she'll keep rescuing birds, although she has slowed down.

"It's kind of an addiction. Baby birds to me, are like an addiction. If I know they exist and they need help, I really have to save them. It's just hard being an animal, but working with animals, and even working with disadvantaged people or elderly people, you have that where you care about something and you have to keep doing it," she said.

"Because if you don't keep doing it, you feel like, what is the point of my existence? If you're not doing the things that you think are the right things to do."

Previously Nespoli cared for 250 birds.

Now she'll raise 50, which she says is still a lot of work for one person.

This story was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Benita Lee is a reporter at KGNU in Boulder, Colorado.