Basic Steps for Reuniting Juvenile Raptors

Grounded brancher Great Horned Owl

Step 1:  Obtain a complete history right away.

There may only be one chance to interview the person who found the bird, so try to get as much information as possible. This will help you decide quickly whether or not the young bird can be reunited. A detailed checklist can help you gather this critical information. Here are the key questions:

Case History Checklist

Where was the bird found?  Ask for detailed directions to the exact spot. If at all possible, arrange to have the finder show you exactly where the bird was found. If possible, get photo documentation of the area or GPS coordinates from the finder.

When was it found? You need to know how long the young bird has been separated from its parents.

Were the parents seen? Reuniting is not an option if one parent is dead or injured.

Is the location of the nest known, and does it contain other juveniles? If the adult birds are still caring for other juveniles, they will accept their missing offspring no matter how long the separation.

What caused the separation? It is very important to know what caused the juvenile to become separated from its parents. If the separation was caused by disturbance of the area where the original nest was located, such as extensive logging or construction, the area may no longer support a breeding pair of raptors.

What care has the bird received since the separation? It is important to know exactly what the bird has been fed, and how often. Be sure to find out if the finder actually saw the bird eat, or simply placed food in the enclosure.


 Step 2:  Identify and understand the species.

Identifying the species of a young raptor may be quite difficult, especially for inexperienced wildlife rehabilitators. Click here for an archive of color photographs of the juveniles of 11 species of eastern raptors as well as information on their nesting behavior. You also need to understand the species you are working with, because each species has its own special behaviors.  Understanding the species of bird you are reuniting can make a life or death difference!

Hatchling Barred Owls                                       Photo:  Marcia Perry

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America Online—
Your ultimate resource for detailed behavioral information about North American birds!

For more extensive information about the behavior of birds of all North American species, you can subscribe to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s Birds of North America Online. This amazing resource can give you behavioral details of the breeding behavior of the particular species being reunited and can make a critical difference to your success.

Learning Resources for Reuniting Raptors

The information on this website is from the handbook, Calls of the Wild, Using Recorded Calls and Other Tools to Reunite Juvenile and Adult Raptors, by Anne G. Miller, which is distributed by the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.  Click here for more information.


Step 3: Assess the condition of the bird.

Examining a nestling Great Horned Owl

A careful physical exam should always be performed immediately to determine whether or not the bird is healthy and in good nutritional status. Blindness, fractures, and open wounds are all possibilities, as well as dehydration and malnutrition. Sometimes the thick, downy coat may conceal maggot-infested wounds, so examine the bird carefully. Even if the bird is uninjured, if it has been without food for more than a few hours, it may need to be rehydrated and offered special feeding before returning it to the nest. In some cases, the nest return may have to be delayed for several days to allow for supportive care. Treatment for internal or external parasites is extremely important, and may also require a delay. With ingenuity, though, minor problems can be resolved quickly and need not prevent reuniting.


Step 4:  Provide Supportive Care.

Feeding a hatchling Barred Owl

When caring for birds, always warm the chick before providing fluids or food. The next step is to rehydrate the bird by offering oral or sub-cutaneous fluids such as Lactated Ringer’s Solution. The oral route, using a feeding tube, is usually safest for juvenile raptors. As soon as the bird revives and defecates, or begins food begging, it should be safe to begin offering small feedings of skinned, finely chopped mouse, or mouse mush. (Note:  It is not the purpose of this website to provide detailed care instructions. For additional care instructions you can purchase Calls of the Wild, Using Recorded Calls and Other Tools to Reunite Juvenile and Adult Raptors, by Anne G. Miller, which is available from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association


Step 5:  Determine the bird’s stage of behavioral development.

You need to know how the young bird will behave when it is fostered or reunited. Obviously, young nestlings must have a nest structure to support them. But for older nestlings, branchers, and young fledglings, you can’t tell how they will behave by feather development alone. Some may still need a nest, while others are restless and want to perch and move around. The reuniting strategies for nestlings and branchers are quite different. Testing the juvenile’s behavior in a safe enclosure will help to determine the simplest and most effective strategy for reuniting.

To test a juvenile raptor’s behavior, you need a safe enclosure lined with a soft substrate such as pine straw or, if it is indoors, sheets and towels to cushion falls. A laundry basket full of tightly-packed branches padded with pine straw serves as the nest, and should be located on a shelf or small table at least four to five feet above the ground, close to slightly higher branches or other perches. At least part of the basket should be sheltered under leafy branches to provide dense cover. If the bird is still a nestling, it will settle comfortably in the nest and will make no attempt to move to a higher perch. On the other hand, if it refuses to stay in the nest, and jumps to a higher perch, then the bird is a brancher. A fledgling will usually fly. These “dress rehearsals” for older juveniles are indispensable. There is no point in taking the time and trouble to install a nest basket for a brancher that does not need it.

Nestling Barred Owls being tested in a nest basket

Nestling Barred Owls

Brancher Barred Owls

Step 6:  Reunite!

Reuniting is quickest and easiest if you act fast.  If you can, get a complete history, check the nestlings’ health, rehydrate and feed, and get them back out there within 24 hours.  The longer you wait, the more effort you have to expend to assess the situation, locate the parents, and make sure the reunion is successful.  That’s not to say it won’t work if you wait a few days, or even a week.  If there’s a health problem, or your tree climber can’t help you right away, you can still reunite after a separation of a week or more.   But if you want to maximize the number of birds you reunite, make a point of quick turnarounds.

But each young raptor presents a new challenge, depending on its age, what caused the separation, whether or not there are still juveniles in the nest, etc.  You need to develop a plan for each case, based on these special factors.  Click here for the next section:
Options for Returning Young Raptors to the Wild.

Tim Leopard reuniting a nestling Barred Owl

The mother Barred Owl watches from the canopy nearby while Tim returns her lost nestling.