Spring and summer are nesting seasons for most birds, and concerned birders regularly find baby birds out of the nest and seemingly on their own. When you find a baby bird, understanding what to do can help you give it the proper care and best chances of survival.
Is This Bird a Baby?
If you find a young bird alone on the ground or otherwise away from its nest, you must first determine if it is, in fact, a baby in need of assistance. Many songbird fledglings leave the nest 2-5 days before they can fly, and the parent birds are still caring for them, feeding them, and watching for their safety. A fledgling will have almost fully formed feathers, though the wings and tail may be short, and it will be able to fly or flutter short distances. With these traits, fledglings do not typically require more than minor intervention from concerned birders.
A hatchling, on the other hand, is much younger and needs assistance. Hatchlings may appear bald or only have tufts of feathers, they are much smaller than fledglings, and they do not have nearly as much energy as fledglings. They cannot fly and may not even have their eyes open.
When you first notice a baby bird, observe it closely. Watch its energy level and behavior to determine if it needs assistance. Energetic, active birds should be fine on their own, while weaker, less active birds may need help. Birds of any age that have clear signs of injuries such as wounds or bent wings will need help.
When You Find a Baby Bird
If you find a baby bird that needs help, there are several steps that will ensure it gets the best care.
- Observe the bird. Before touching the bird or stressing it in any way, watch to see if it can care for itself or if the parent birds are tending to it. Many times when a human spots a baby bird, they fail to see the nearby parents that are ready and willing to feed and protect their offspring. It may take a half hour or longer for parent birds to return to their baby, however, so patience is essential.
- Intervene as little as possible. In the case of fledglings, simply moving the bird to a sheltered nearby location out of direct sun is the best choice to give it a helping hand. Younger birds may require more help, but it is always best to interfere with the birds in only minimal ways.
- Return the bird to the nest. The best place for a baby bird to be is in its own nest. If the hatchling is too young to be out of the nest, gently pick it up and place it back in its nest. If you are unable to find the nest or it is unreachable or destroyed, line a small basket such as a pint berry basket with tissue or grass clippings, and place it in the tree as close to the nest site as possible. Be sure the basket is secure (nail it to the tree if necessary), so the baby bird will not tumble out of it. The parent birds will hear their baby and find it easily, and since most birds have a poor sense of smell, they will not abandon it because it has been touched. It may take an hour or longer for wary adults to approach their baby again, but they will eventually resume caring for the youngster.
- Keep the bird safe. If the bird is in imminent danger from a damaged nest, predators, or other unsafe conditions, or if it is visibly injured or ill, it will need immediate help. Gently place the bird in a small box lined with tissues, paper towels, or similar material, and cover the top of the box loosely with newspaper or a towel. If necessary, keep the bird indoors in a quiet, safe location until outdoor conditions improve or until a wildlife rehabilitator can take the bird for proper care.
Orphaned Baby Birds
There will be times when birders know for certain that a young bird is an orphan. The parent birds may have been killed by a predator or a window strike, or a nest with living babies may be obviously abandoned for far longer than normal. In these cases, it will be necessary to collect the young birds and turn them over to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for proper care. Note: In most areas, it is illegal to keep wild birds in captivity even if you plan to release them—always seek the assistance of a knowledgeable rehabilitator instead of trying to raise baby birds yourself. Even well-intentioned birders who try to raise baby birds can cause more harm than good, since young birds require specialized diets and the company of their own kind to learn necessary skills for survival in the wild.
Tips for What to Do When You Find Baby Birds
To give baby birds the best chance of survival when you find them:
- Stress the birds as little as possible. Avoid excessive handling, loud noises, or unfamiliar conditions, and keep them close to where they were found in case the parent birds return. Keep children and pets away from young birds.
- Always wear gloves when handling young birds. Even baby birds can carry mites, lice, ticks, bacteria, and other unpleasant parasites that can be transferred to humans. After handling a bird, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
- Do not give baby birds food or water. While this may seem counterintuitive to helping baby birds, young birds have precise dietary needs that can't be met with kitchen scraps, birdseed, or other foods. Young birds need live insects for protein to develop properly, and their parents will feed them 3-4 times every hour to meet that need. Offering improper food can cause a young bird to choke or become malnourished. Instead, wait for the parent birds or a wildlife rehabilitator to feed the baby bird a proper diet.
Finding a young bird triggers compassion and helpfulness in most birders, but often the very best help you can give a baby bird is to simply leave it alone, or if absolutely necessary, to intervene in only minor ways. Infant mortality is high for young birds, and the strongest, healthiest chicks will survive even without human assistance, no matter how cute and helpless they may seem.
Tsiodras S, Kelesidis T, Kelesidis I, Bauchinger U, Falagas ME. Human Infections Associated with Wild Birds. Journal of Infection. 2008;56(2):83-98. doi:10.1016/j.jinf.2007.11.001