How to tell if a bird is stunned or dead?

A bird has just collided with your window and it falls to the ground. How can you tell if that bird is stunned and still alive or if it’s dead?

You find what appears to be a sick bird in your yard. Maybe you come across a baby bird that has fallen out of the nest. Or during spring or fall migration, difficult weather conditions cause a bird to land in an unusual place, dazed and confused, and exhausted.

There are so many causes of wild bird injuries – collisions with windows, power lines, or cars; attacks by predators or birds of prey, or natural occurrences like avian flu or parasites. Any one of these can cause a bird to become unconscious (or dead). What happens when you find one of these victims?

I found two stressed birds during early spring. A Virginia Rail that landed in a small, brushy area of a plaza near my workplace, and an American Woodcock that ended up in a New York City Subway atrium. Both had survived severe weather and were probably blown off course and sought shelter (not that there is a ton of green space in New York’s Financial District, but there are little areas with bushes and small fountains in front of some buildings). The Woodcock was taken in by a rescue group rather quickly (another Woodcock was found on Wall Street). The Virginia Rail crawled under one of the bushes and remained there until nightfall. It was found in Central Park the next morning.

Tips to help

Here are a few quick tips to help you assess the situation, help the bird, and what you can do to try to prevent future bird deaths.

Observe the bird for signs of life and visible injuries, like bleeding or a broken wing, or a leg that looks out of place. If you see an obvious wound or anything that resembles serious physical injuries, don’t hesitate to call a professional, like a wildlife rescue or wildlife rehabilitator. You can try calling a veterinarian, but many vets won’t take in wild animals. Chances are that they won’t handle a wild bird if their practice doesn’t normally deal with exotics.

If the bird appears disheveled, or confused, or if you know it’s in a place that it shouldn’t be, call your local wildlife rescue immediately.

While injured adult birds need to be looked after ASAP, baby birds on the ground require some initial investigation besides if they’re dead or alive.  Look around to see if you can find a nest in the trees around you. The baby could have fallen from the nest or been pushed out by a sibling or the parents. (Sick birds are often booted from the nest by their parents).

If you find the nest and the baby is in relatively good condition (squawking, attacking your hand, trying to get away, etc.) then if you can, return it to the nest.  

If there’s no blood, misplaced bones, or obvious injuries, and the injured bird is not showing signs of movement, then you have to decide if the bird is stunned or dead.

Your personal safety first

Before taking a closer look and making that decision on how to tell if a bird is stunned or dead, get a pair of gloves and some type of eyewear if you can to protect yourself if the bird comes to. You may think that it’s too weak to attack you, but you never know, so – wear gloves and glasses.  And use hand sanitizer or wash your hands if gloves aren’t available.

How to tell if a bird is stunned or dead

A Stunned Bird

While many birds that suffer window strikes or collisions with power lines, cars, or other large objects will survive them, some may not. You’ll need to assess the bird to determine if it’s just stunned or dead. Take a closer look – a stunned bird may well appear to be dead at first, but there are things to look for:

  Stunned Bird Symptoms

  • Look for signs of Breathing – Check the bird’s breathing. Look at the bird’s chest; if it’s moving up and down, then it’s breathing and therefore stunned.
  • Look for a Heartbeat – A stunned bird still has a heartbeat, even if it’s very slow.
  • Eyes – Stunned birds will blink, dead birds won’t.
  • Legs and feet – A bird that’s been stunned will have relaxed musculature of its legs and feet.
  • Body temperature – If the bird is warm to the touch, it’s still alive.

A Dead Bird

Well, there’s not much that you can do for a dead bird, but you do need to make sure that the bird is deceased. Forgive me if this reminds you of an old Monty Python routine about dead parrots).

  • Breathing – The chest is not moving; there’s no breath.
  • Heartbeat – No heartbeat.
  • Eyes – The bird’s eyes are closed or there is no blinking at all.
  • Legs and Feet – The muscles are stiff so feet and legs don’t bend.
  • Body temperature – if the bird is cold to the touch, it’s probably dead.

What do I do if the bird is stunned?

If you’ve inspected the bird and it just seems to be stunned or in shock, cover it with a soft cloth or paper towel to keep it warm and put it in a quiet, safe place (like a cardboard box, crate, or even a paper bag) – any dark place will do. If you use a box, make sure that you’ve cut some air holes into it so that the bird can breathe.

 It may take anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hours before the bird recovers if it does at all. Should the unconscious bird begin to move around, uncover it and walk away to give the bird some space. Periodically check in on your avian patient. Hopefully, it will have flown away and back into the wild during your absence.

FYI, Bird CPR is done with one finger pressing on the chest. You will probably never need to do this, but now you know.

If the bird is injured in any way and you’re afraid to handle it yourself, please call a professional. Don’t hesitate to call your local wildlife rehabilitator. They will tell you what to do until they can assess the bird. There are licensed rescue groups and wildlife rehabilitators everywhere, and wild birds account for many of their patients.

Keep in mind that most car and window collision victims suffer head trauma, and may not survive despite your best efforts to help them.

What do I do if the bird is dead?

Place the bird’s body in a plastic bag and put it in with your trash, unless there is a local ordinance about the disposal of wildlife.

Again, use gloves to handle the deceased bird and then wash those hands well.

I received a call at work from my husband saying a bird hit our front window and was killed in the collision. He had placed it in the garbage pail, and he didn’t want me to find it there without knowing what had happened. He said it was a beautiful bird with yellow on it. The bird turned out to be a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, which I never knew was present in our area.

I have seen Yellow-billed Cuckoos a few times since then.

How do I prevent future window collisions?

The sad answer is that you can do things to mitigate the likelihood of a bird hitting your glass windows, but you can’t prevent it from happening again.

There are decals that you can put on your windows, but they only work so well. The same outcome is true with plastic owls too – once the birds figure out the owl is no threat, they stop avoiding your yard.

What else can I do to prevent bird deaths?

Not too much. Nature is rough, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. What we can do, however, is to be prepared to act if we see an injured bird or animal.

Keep your bird feeders and birdbaths clean (use a non-chemical cleaner if possible) to prevent harmful bacteria and

Keep the phone numbers of your local wildlife rehabilitation center or rescue group handy. I have mine on my phone under “Wildlife – organization”. I also have the number of people licensed to handle bird carcasses listed as “Dead Birds” with their names).

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully, you won’t ever have to deal with a badly-injured bird. And if you do, you now have some knowledge of how to tell if a bird is stunned or dead.

When in doubt, call in the professionals. They’re used to handling wildlife. And they’re licensed by your state or local jurisdiction to do it.

 As far as dead birds go, you probably will encounter those. Death could have come from any source – predation, internal injuries, collision with man-made objects, etc.

It’s the circle of life.