CROW Case of the Week: Injured Migrating Songbirds

Migrating songbirds, including many species of warblers, thrushes, vireos, orioles, flycatchers and grosbeaks, to name a few, are known to be strong travelers. During the course of an evening, these night fliers can cover more than 200 miles only to find a tree near dawn to rest up for another night of migration. Incredibly, some long-distance fliers – like the scarlet tanager and cliff swallow – can cover a distance of more than 10,000 miles on a journey.

Keep a watchful eye out. Migrating songbirds are on the move at this time of year. According to the National Audubon Society, there are hundreds of millions of small songbirds migrating north in early May. With that vast estimated number, you can expect songbirds are flying north over a large territory of land and water in this country. There are reports that say that some of these migrating birds often return to the same tree each year. That’s impressive! 

Unfortunately, these night travelers sometimes get disoriented and suffer window strikes. According to The Sierra Club, collisions are the second largest killer of birds in the nation after cats. Bright lights tend to confuse birds, especially on buildings that reflect trees. These situations trick birds into thinking such reflections are actually places to perch. That causes these tired fliers to fly headlong into the glare.

At CROW, there have been a number of different species of songbirds admitted to the clinic, most commonly from window strikes. 

“So far this year, we have admitted approximately 200 patients that sustained blunt force trauma from a known cause, such as window strike, hit by car, etc. Oftentimes, we do not have a history of what happened to the patient, so many other patients that are treated for trauma may ultimately fall into this category,” said Dr. Robin Bast, CROW veterinary intern. “In the past two weeks alone, we have treated 12 songbirds for window strikes. Oftentimes, people will find a songbird at the base of a window to their house. The bird cannot see the glass barrier and inadvertently flies into it, thinking it can fly through it.” 

When a bird collides with a window, CROW officials state swelling in the brain may cause it to be temporarily stunned. Often times, it will just need some time for the swelling to subside, while other times the swelling may prove fatal.

“When a bird flies into a window, it often hits the glass head-first, resulting in blunt force trauma to the head. If the bird wasn’t flying very fast, it may have only minor injuries, temporary mentation change or ‘stunning’ similar to a concussion in people,” said Dr. Bast. “However, it is also possible for the injuries to be more severe, resulting in brain swelling, permanent neurologic deficits and even fractures of the spine or shoulder bones.”

If a songbird is found after a window strike, keep it safe from predators while it recovers. Do handle the bird as little as possible but do not offer it any food or water. If the bird recovers quickly, it will fly away. If it is slow to recover or has a broken wing or leg, it is best to get it medical attention immediately.

“If you find a bird that flew into a window and needs medical attention, bring it to your local wildlife rehabilitator,” said Dr. Bast. “Place it in a box in a quiet, dark space until you can bring it to a rehabilitator for further assessment. Do not offer food or water - if the bird is stunned, it is at increased risk of drowning or choking. Once at the rehab center, it will be assessed for any fractures, given pain medication and placed in oxygen while it recovers.” 


CROW Case of the Week stories are written by Bob Petcher and appear weekly in the Island Sun and River Weekly Newspapers.

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