Baby Wild Birds – To Help Or Not to Help

By Thomas Hays

Spring is here and early summer is on the way. With early summer comes baby birds leaving the nest. Many people see a baby bird on the ground and immediately think they should do something to help it. However, before you try to help any baby wild bird you should be certain that the bird really needs your help. There are several things to consider before you attempt to provide assistance.

A key point to remember is that some birds actually nest on the ground, especially precocial birds. These are birds that are covered with down feathers and can move about with the parents almost as soon as they are hatched. Gallinaceous birds (quails, pheasants, turkeys, grouse), shorebirds and ducks are precocial. Therefore, if you see baby quails, turkey, shorebirds or ducks on the ground before they can fly, remember, they belong there.

Another thing you should know about is fledglings. These are baby birds that have left the nest but are not fully feathered. Their flying skills are limited to short low flights or long hops. Do not worry if you see a fledgling on the ground. Most birds leave the nest before they can fly and this is a normal part of their development. The parents will coach the young birds to safety by calling them or landing on the ground and leading them to shelter. The baby may be very noisy and that , too, is normal. The baby calls to the parents for food in much the same way a human baby cries for attention. Robin, Towhee, Jay and Sparrow fledglings are most frequently encountered on the ground in backyards and parks. Remember, they belong there.

Now you know that not all baby birds require your assistance. So, how do you determine if a baby bird is healthy and happy or one that truly needs you help?

The first thing you need to determine is if the parent birds are taking care of the baby or not. To best accomplish this clear children, pets and yourself out of the area but position yourself out of sight such that you can still observe the baby. This will give the parents the opportunity to come to the baby. Wait patiently for at least one hour to see if the parent birds come in to the baby. Why so long? You must remember that the parents will usually have more than one fledgling to feed and care for and each baby must wait his turn to feed.

If it is not possible to keep the neighbors cat or children away from the bird, by all means move the baby to shelter. This is best done by capturing the bird by placing a towel over it and releasing it in low, thick shrubs. Do not place a fledgling high in a tree. Remember, they cannot fly yet. Start timing the hour over again. Contrary to popular believe, the adult birds will not abandon the fledgling because you have touched it. They have very strong parental instincts, much like humans. The baby will continue to call and the adult birds will generally find him and continue to care for him.

What should you do when an hour has passed and the parent birds have not returned to the baby? Remember, all native wild birds are protected by law so the first step is to call a rehabilitation center or the local wildlife agency or game warden. These people are the best ones to advise you on the local species.

If it is not possible to reach anyone immediately you will need to take action. Locate a container which is large enough for the fledgling to stand and turn around in, but is small enough so that it can not flutter around and hurt itself. Line the bottom of the container with paper towels or tissues. Carefully capture the baby with a towel and place it in the container. Cover the container with the towel remembering to leave a small gap for air circulation. Place the container in a quiet and warm location. Do not play music for the bird or place him on a heating pad and avoid peeking at him as that will induce stress on the baby.

Continue to try to reach the proper officials. It is very hard for the average person to care for a wild baby bird. Different bird species need different foods and feeding the wrong food can be a disaster. Avoid feeding bread to young birds. Adult birds have gravel in their crop and can grind bread crumbs. Often, the crop of baby birds is empty and the bread can compact and can cause death.

ALWAYS REMEMBER that all native wild birds are protected by law and it is not legal for you to posses a wild bird unless you are licensed to do so. Get the fledgling to a licensed, experienced person as soon as possible. If you cannot reach your local game warden try the local animal shelter, humane society, police or veterinarian. With luck they will be able to provide you with the contact information that you need.

After 35 years as a professional ornithologist and bird bander Thomas Hays now assists others in developing bird and wildlife friendly habitats in their own back yards. Visit me at to see how I can help you formulate a backyard habitat for the birds in your area. Visit our website for more helpful hints on attracting birds and wildlife to your property.

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