Found a baby bird? Here's what to do.
You may have heard the phrase, “If you care, leave them there.” Many young birds are unnecessarily “rescued” by well-meaning humans every year when they are just exhibiting normal growing-up behaviors.
When young birds are taken from the wild and cared for by untrained humans, they most often die, usually of stress and malnutrition. Even experienced, licensed wildlife rehabilitators are a very poor substitution for the parent birds.
Baby birds need to be fed every 15 minutes from dawn to dusk, and even when rehabbers undertake that extraordinary level of care, the babies may survive to fly away, but they have missed very important lessons learned from their parents about finding the right food and shelter as well as avoiding predators.
So, whenever possible, it is vitally important to avoid removing them from the wild if there is any chance the parents can care for them.
If You Find A Baby Bird
First you have to determine whether the bird needs help or not by asking the following important questions:
- Is the bird injured?
- How old is the bird?
If the bird is injured: If you notice any blood, cuts, punctures, air bubbles under the skin or any broken bones (misshapen legs or wings), then the baby should be taken to a licensed rehabilitator as soon as possible. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island is NOT a rehabilitator and does not have the licenses, staff or facilities to care for wildlife. Please contact the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island at 401-294-6363 or use ahnow.org to find your local wildlife rehabilitator.
Please understand that very few rehabbers will come and pick up wildlife. They do not receive any type of funding other than donations from people who bring them wildlife, and all their time and expenses are out of their own pocket. They are typically too busy caring for the animals they already have at their facilities (imagine having 20+ baby birds to feed every 15 minutes…and that is just the songbirds!) to leave to pick up another. Therefore, if you choose to intervene on the behalf of wildlife, you must be willing to get the animal to the rehabber.
For healthy babies, you must determine how old they are.
- Hatchling (0-3 days old): tiny wisps of down, eyes are closed, movement is shaky and uncoordinated
- Nestling (younger) (3-6 days old): eyes open, pin feathers start to emerge (look like bluish tubes piercing out of skin)
- Nestling (older) (7-10 days old): young start to respond to parents’ calls, primary feathers unsheathe and they start to stretch wings and legs and jostle around in nest.
- Pre-Fledgling (11 – 14 days old): They move about nest freely, can be seen sitting on edge of nest or nearby branches, they are fully feathered but have a short tail and primary feathers are not full length yet.
- Fledgling (14 – 28 days old): They have left the nest and do not return, but are still being cared for and support-fed by their parents in nearby trees or shrubs or on the ground. They are practicing flying and foraging, but may not have mastered these skills yet.
Any baby found out of the nest that is a healthy hatchling or nestling needs to be returned to the nest if at all possible to maximize chances for survival. Look in nearby trees and shrubs; many nests are in dense bushes. If the nest is not able to be found, is too high or is otherwise inaccessible, you can fashion a substitute nest out of a berry basket, woven basket or a deli tub with many holes punched in the bottom for drainage. You can line the bottom of the basket with grass. Fasten the basket to a sturdy branch in or close to the nest tree as high up and as close to the original nest as you can. Place the baby bird in the basket knowing that you have done all you can; trusting the rest to the parent birds and, ultimately, to nature.
If you discover that you have found a healthy fledgling, you need to leave it alone, or, at most, move it to a nearby shrub, so that it can learn to make its way in the world. The best way for you to help this youngster is to keep humans and pets away from it so that the parents can continue to raise it. Birds have little or no sense of smell, so unlike mammals, a parent bird will not detect your scent on a baby and will not reject it.
Wildlife should never be removed from the wild to protect them from pets or predators. Dogs and cats should be kept indoors until the babies can fly. If the pets belong to a neighbor, ask them to keep them indoors. If the pet owner is not known, you can spray the pet with water to encourage it to leave your yard. Predation by natural wild predators such as fox, crows, raptors, raccoons or other wildlife is normal and part of the natural cycles and processes in nature.
It is not uncommon for baby birds to leave the nest prematurely. Sometimes they are pushed out by rambunctious nest mates. Sometimes they are tossed out in a wind storm or taken out by a house cat or other predator. Other times they are ousted by their parents who have decided it’s time for flying lessons. The natural mortality rate for songbirds is very high at about 70%, and songbirds often have many young in the course of a year in the effort to assure that at least one or two survive. This is nature’s way of keeping populations in a balance that the natural environment can support.
Explore other frequently asked wildlife questions!