Bird Help Basics
The following information is intended to troubleshoot common situations and provide general education, but only covers these issues broadly. To find expert help in your area, you can contact animal control, your game warden, and local vet offices for a referral. Your state may also have an online registry of wildlife rehabbers. Local pet groups may be able to suggest pigeon- and dove-friendly vets or rescues. Please do ask questions and verify what will happen to birds you drop off with rehabbers, veterinarians, or organizations - pigeons especially are often euthanized as they are not native species, and many shelters are not equipped or trained to accommodate birds.
What NOT to Do
Never attempt to feed or put water down a bird’s throat. Improper diet and aspiration are among the most common killers of wildlife by well-meaning but misguided people. Don't delay finding help. Young birds grow at a rapid rate and cannot go without proper nutrition very long. Pain management is essential to alleviate suffering. Broken bones start to fuse quickly (in the wrong position), and infection/illness can rapidly overtake a bird. While some aspects of care seem simple, trained professionals are attuned to looking for and preventing problems that untrained people are not aware of. We are also in contact with other experts and veterinarians, and have access to reliable information, supplies and medications, and draw on years of collective experience to provide the best possible care.
Nests and Young
Doves are not skilled nest-builders, but both parents share in incubating and feeding young. If a nest is knocked down, you can re-nest by placing the old nest, or some straw in a basket or colander (any small container with holes that will allow water to drain) and attaching this new nest to an elevated safe place as close as possible to the original site. Place the babies or eggs back inside and stand far away to observe if parents return. If the nest is too far away from the original site, this method doesn’t work. Note that it is illegal to move or destroy the nest of a protected species, and these doves grow up and leave quickly anyhow (within 2-3 weeks). After young have left, if you want to prevent further nesting, you can take down the old nest and remove materials if parents try to rebuild.
If you find a nestling that has fallen from the nest, you can place her back in. Birds cannot smell well, and will not abandon the chick if touched. If the baby is fully feathered and running around, this is a fledgling and likely should be left alone. At this age, young birds are out of the nest and learning to fly and forage, with parents’ guidance. Keeping cats/dogs/kids away from the area for a few days gives the babies a better chance. While it is a dangerous time for young birds, they have a far better chance of survival by remaining with their parents to learn essential skills. Rehabbers do all we can to soft release fledglings safely, but it is no replacement for parent birds, and kidnapped orphans are at a disadvantage compared to parent-raised fledglings. If you aren’t sure what to do (or not do) your local rehabber or rescue center can advise on the specific situation.
Dove parents are very devoted and it is highly unlikely that they would abandon young unless the nest site is disturbed or seems suddenly dangerous (predators present or people disturbing the nest to look at the babies). Parents spend less and less time at the nest as the babies grow. Feathered chicks don’t need as much help regulating their body temperature, also the parents are under increasing pressure to find food for rapidly growing youngsters. Parents get in and out of nests quickly, so you may not see them unless you are watching 100% of the time for a long stretch.
PLEASE keep your distance from active nests. Doves are not sitting still because they think you are harmless – they are frozen in terror and bravely guarding their babies. Please don’t make it harder on them. In most cases we’ve experienced, people do more harm by intervening with wildlife than leaving wildlife alone (unless there is a clear, urgent reason they need help). We have handled multiple cases in which someone has spooked chicks out of a nest too early, trying to look at them or get an up-close photo. It’s heartbreaking that these baby doves died so needlessly. Some crashed to the ground or flew into a wall in fright, resulting in fatal injuries. Others bulleted off into the distance, starving or succumbing to predators, and leaving parents to return to an empty nest.
Birds who have been attacked by a cat or dog need antibiotics to prevent infections that result from bites and scratches. Even the smallest puncture is a gateway to infection, and feathers generally hide injuries. Broken bones need immediate pain relief – it causes just as much suffering as it would if a human had a broken bone. Birds hide suffering as a survival mechanism, but injuries are still extremely painful. Bird bones begin to fuse quickly and need to be set professionally. If they fuse in the wrong position, the bird can be left with little chance of being able to walk/fly – a death sentence for wildlife. There are too many possibilities of problems and their necessary treatments to list here, but making a bird wait for care causes them to suffer and all issues to worsen. Getting an injured bird qualified help ASAP is essential.
Why Wild Doves Don’t Make Good Pets
In addition to legal prohibitions, wild doves are not suitable pets. Because they are not domesticated, they have not been bred to cope with life in an artificial environment. This means they are more susceptible to deficiencies that occur when living outside of their natural situations. Metabolic Bone Disease (MBD) is one major issue captive wild doves face due to lack of sunlight and proper nutrition, along with stress from being in captivity. Wild doves often hold very still when scared, which people mistake for calm. They will not “tame down” and even those who survive novice care are generally more stress-prone, nervous, and flighty than domestic doves. DIY raising, especially without siblings, is likely to result in an imprinted dove with no fear of predators and no survival skills. If you release a DIY-raised bird without following protocol, they will likely die in the wild, and you won’t see the consequences of improper raising. If you have a genuine interest in helping wildlife, licensed rehabbers are needed everywhere – and if you are willing to learn, there is likely a rehabber or center that would appreciate a dedicated volunteer or trainee.
For rehabbers with doves, - specifically growing juveniles and longer term cases: modos and ECDs should receive as much natural sunlight as possible. It cannot be over-stated that sunlight filtered through window glass is not enough - and artificial lights are not enough. A predator-proof outdoor aviary is ideal, but for birds kept indoors, even half an hour daily (or as much as possible, when weather allows) is good - though we are unaware of any research that gives a scientifically proven minimum. Doves should be in a safe cage and supervised when outdoors to protect from predators and ensure that they do not get too hot or cold. Dappled shade is fine - full direct sun in summer is likely to be uncomfortable, and isn't necessary. The addition of hardware cloth over window screen can make a convenient safe indoor option for getting sun from an open window if weather allows.
Ringneck Doves are a domestic species without survival skills - not to be confused with Eurasian Collared Doves. (ECDs were introduced to the USA and have spread in the wild. They are generally slightly larger and have a different call.) Ringnecks come in various colorations, from the wild type, to white, to pied and other variations. If the dove is banded or has colors different than the wild type, you can be certain it is a Ringneck. Wild-type coloration Ringnecks have white fluffy feathers under their tails, while ECDs have gray. If you see a Ringneck Dove outdoors, this is a lost or deliberately abandoned pet with no survival skills and needs to be caught - in the same way a puppy or kitten would need help. These birds are doomed to starve or are killed by predators unless helped. They can be offered dove seed (wild birdseed or parakeet type seed will do in a pinch) and a water dish. Lost domestics are likely already dehydrated and starving, so it's important to offer at least water immediately. Don't force any food or water or put anything down their throat. View our Doves as Pets page for more information on how to care for them.
Pigeons most commonly found in cities are feral, having been hatched and raised in the wild. You might also see domestic racing pigeons, "white dove release" birds, or even fancy breeds. Contrary to myth, they do NOT carry disease or pose a risk to you.
Caring for a Pigeon
If you find a pigeon who is injured, sitting fluffed up and not active, or approaching people or trying to enter a building, they need help. You can put them in a box (they will need light) or pet carrier, and provide a water bowl and wild birdseed. If unable to be caught easily, a compromised bird can often be caught by tossing a sheet over the bird, allowing them to enter a door or window, or using a trap (only if the trap is being observed). Put them in a safe, quiet place such as a spare bathroom, away from the stress of pets or curious children. Our Pigeons as Pets page provides more information on general care. Sections below highlights common situations and issues.
Common Pigeon Problems
Dehydration / Starvation - This situation can range from serious to catastrophic, depending on severity, and exacerbated by comorbidities. It is a common occurrence with lost domestic pigeons (who lack survival skills) and juveniles. If too cold, birds must be warmed before offering water. Then birds must be hydrated before offering food. Taking this protocol out of order can be fatal. In severe circumstances, a bird may need subcutaneous fluids and tube feeding of Emeraid to stabilize their system before transitioning into self-feeding. In most cases, if you are unable to get immediate advice about the situation, it is safe to make sure the bird is not cold, and offer water from a dish. You can dip just the tip of the beak into the water, but do not dunk the bird or drip anything down the throat. A bird who doesn't drink on their own is in critical condition and needs help asap.
String Foot - Wild pigeons do their best to survive in an environment humans have littered with trash. String and hair can get tangled in pigeons' feet, cutting off circulation and even causing the loss of toes. An entangled bird needs help. There are various Facebook groups and other resources that cover de-stringing in more detail.
Broken Leg/ Wing - Broken bones need immediate pain relief – it causes just as much suffering as it would if a human had a broken bone. Birds hide suffering as a survival mechanism, but injuries are still extremely painful. Bird bones begin to fuse quickly and need to be set. If they fuse in the wrong position, the bird can be left with little chance of being able to walk/fly.
Canker - Juveniles and stressed birds are also commonly afflicted by canker - a parasitic infection of the mouth and upper digestive tract. It presents as yellowish plaques in the mouth and throat and can also be present without visible lesions - one indicator is a particularly putrid smell to the breath. Trichomoniasis needs to be quickly treated, as it can overtake a compromised bird rapidly. Meds (such as Metronidazole, Spartrix, and/or Ronidazole) can be delivered orally and also crushed into a paste to apply to throat lesions. Lesions should not be forcibly removed, as this can result in bleeding.
Parasites - Pigeons can have external parasites like feather lice. This type of lice is bird-specific and cannot transfer to you or your furry pets or survive off of the bird for long - and is treated easily with scalex spray. Internal parasites such as worms are treated with drugs like Pyrantel Pamoate and Moxidectin Plus. DO NOT USE PANACUR (Fenbendazole) or related drugs. These are toxic to pigeons and doves - but as these species are not commonly treated by vets or mentioned in the literature, your doctor may not be aware of the danger.
Baby pigeons, who are not fully feathered, should be re-nested if they fall out. If this isn't possible, they should be taken to a pigeon-friendly rescue or rehab to be raised with other pigeons and prepared for soft release back into the wild with a flock. A baby pigeon raised alone will likely imprint and be unable to survive in the wild. While pigeons are wonderful companions, it is extremely difficult to locate placement at a sanctuary if you become unable or unwilling to commit to their 20+ year lifespan. View our Pigeons as Pets page for details on their care requirements.
Juvenile wild pigeons can be distinguished by brown eyes (rather than adult orange), and a beak that may have not fully acquired adult shape. Juveniles may also have a few yellow wispy feathers, and might squeak instead of making adult sounds. Any one or combination of these traits indicates a juvenile (exception: some fancy pigeon breeds can have brown eyes as adults). Juveniles are out of the nest but learning survival skills from the parents and likely a flock. A juvenile alone, especially if lethargic or approaching people, needs help. The most likely case is a bird who is very thirsty and hungry. If you pick up the bird and can feel the keel (chest) bone protruding, it is an urgent situation. (See Dehydration/Starvation protocol above.)
Common Pigeons, or "Rock Doves" Columba Livia are native to Eurasia, and were among the first domesticated species. They have been living alongside humans for thousands of years. Wild or "feral" pigeons you see are descended from escaped domestic pigeons who have formed flocks and use their high intelligence and adaptability to survive in human-created environments like cities. These birds face a challenging life, surviving and raising young in often difficult conditions. They are filling a niche in spaces that have already been overtaken by humans, and do not harm native wildlife. Pigeons are granivores, but will scavenge other food based out of necessity. An ideal pigeon diet is a seed/grain mix, but wild birdseed will do for hungry birds in a pinch. They also appreciate fresh water for drinking and frequent bathing. Pigeons are highly social and form flocks for safety. They navigate well, and are devoted mates and parents. If a wild adult is removed from their flock to receive help, upon recovery they should be returned (if possible) to the familiar area they were found to rejoin their mate/flock.
Racing Homers, White "Doves" & Fancy Breeds
If a pigeon has a band, it is a domestic bird who hatched in an aviary. Banded birds generally do not have proficient survival skills and are either lost or abandoned. They are often unwanted by the previous owner. Outside of a protected aviary, these pigeons face starvation and predation. View our Pigeons as Pets page for more information on how to care for them if you find a domestic pigeon.