How Should I Care for a Stunned Bird After It Flies Into a Window?

Stunned bewicks wren sitting on a rail with its mouth open

Larry Miller / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Q: Last year, I had a lot more bird activity and a couple of avian fatalities when birds careened into my windows. (My cats got to them before I could.) I’d really like to avoid any losses of life when the birds return this spring, but I’m unsure of the protocol when it comes to caring for a stunned bird. What exactly should I do to help them get their bearings and take flight again?

A: You must be putting out some darn tasty birdseed and have some alluring shrubbery and trees out back for the birds to feel so welcome around your home.

The downside, as you point out, to having a bird-attractive backyard is that there’s a greater chance that these winged visitors will fly straight into the windows of your home. According to the Bird Conservation Network, more than 100 million North American birds die each year from window collisions. Even outside of spring mating season when birds are more likely to be confused/distracted, bird collisions are extremely common simply because birds do not recognize glass as a barrier. Ornithologist Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College tells National Public Radio: "It's a very common phenomenon. Birds are deceived. They just don't see glass as a barrier and this is a problem for them."

So here’s what you should do in the event that you hear that distinctive thump against a window and go outside to find a stunned bird. Observe the bird for a few minutes. Often, stunned birds with no physical injuries like broken wings can recover quickly from a window collision without any human assistance other than a watchful eye to make sure no potential predators (e.g. your cats) swoop in for a quick lunch.

If the bird remains inactive after five minutes or so, pick it up carefully — carefully being the operative word here — keeping it upright so it can breathe and not restraining it. You can don a pair of gloves if you see fit. Place the bird in a box with a lid (shoeboxes work fine) lined with paper towels or a soft cloth. Poke a few holes in the box large enough to allow for some ventilation. I’d keep a couple of dedicated traumatized bird “rehab boxes” at the ready.

Next, place the box in a warm, dark and secure (read: cat-free) area of your home where the bird will be able to “reboot” in peace and quiet. According to Wild Bird Watching, when a stunned bird is removed from all stimuli there’s a greater chance it will heal from a potentially fatal concussion. Do not try to feed the bird, give it water or play the role of doting bird nurse. Just let it be.

After an hour or two, take the box outside, staying as far away as possible from your home or other structures. Open the box/bag and hopefully the bird will fly off, craning its neck to give you an appreciative, midair wink as it rejoins its buddies. You may need to pick the bird up once again to help it achieve takeoff.

This is the best-case scenario. If the bird is still in a vegetative state or seems worse off than when you first found it, close the box back up, take it back inside to a safe place and contact your local licensed bird or wildlife rehabilitation center for further instruction.

If the area around your home proves to be a bird magnet again this spring, I’d also take some preventive measures. Sure, it’s great to know how to take care of a stunned bird, but you should probably collision-proof your home. The National Audubon Society offers an authoritative list of things you can do including strategic bird feeder placement, installing window decals and drawing your curtains or blinds.

Hope this helps. Happy bird watching this spring!