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You found a baby bird. Now what?

Spring has sprung and you are strolling along your local nature trail. Suddenly you notice a delicate baby songbird lying on the walking path. Your instinct jumps to the fore: save it!

“Baby Blue Jay Rehabber" by audreyjm529

The season(s) for babies

In spring and early summer, birds begin to build their nests and babies hatch. Occasionally a strong wind knocks babies out of the nest; other times their own clumsiness sends a hatchling careening to the ground. You rarely find dead birds and broken shells on the ground, because they don’t last long. Some of them survive, staying right where they landed or toddling about the middle of the street or sidewalk because they cannot fly yet. Whether stationary or simply grounded and exploring (if not badly injured), baby birds are vulnerable to the elements and to predators.


So, what do you do if you have found one of those youngsters that survived the drop? The proper response depends on two factors: their age and physical condition. Is the bird a hatchling, nestling, or a fledgling? Second, is the baby bird in immediate danger?


Recognize the age of the baby by these distinguishing features:


"Baby Bird Rehabber" by audreyjm529
  • Hatchlings are baby birds who hatched out of their eggs two to three days earlier. Hatchlings have closed eyes, look naked or with downy feathers, and are immobile. These birds are at their most vulnerable because they cannot fly or even walk to escape danger; they may not be able to see yet!


  • Nestlings are older baby birds than hatchlings but still not capable of being on their own. These baby birds are three days to two weeks old, with open eyes and freshly-sprouted feathers.


“1st Baby Bird (Finch)" by audreyjm52
  • Fledglings are juvenile birds are at least two weeks old, with more of their adult feathers. They are mobile and learning to fly.


It is important to remember that a baby bird is never abandoned by its parents. On the contrary, when parents notice their baby’s absence, they search for it.




“Baby Dove, Baby Pigeon Rehabbers" by audreyjm529

If you find a hatchling or nestling, try to locate its nest. Since these babies are not capable of relocating themselves, the nest is almost certainly nearby. When you find the nest, return the baby bird as soon as possible. Try to use clean hands or even gloves, but don’t worry—the parent birds are not deterred by the smell of a human, and can still recognize their young. If you see that the parent birds are dead, call or bring the baby to a wildlife rehabilitation center. To locate the one nearest you, click here. If the orphaned baby bird is sick or injured, it may need to be stabilized until professional help arrives or accepts it from you.


To protect the baby:

  • Put it in a warm, dark, well-ventilated cardboard box.

  • Minimize the noise and activity of people and pets.

  • Do not try to feed it.

  • Do not offer it milk or water.


Though you may be tempted, do not keep the bird as a pet! Beyond the basic sensibility of deferring to experts, keeping wild birds is a felony under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, with penalties ranging from hefty fines to imprisonment.


But what about fledglings? Since these youngsters are learning to fly, they are often found on the ground jumping and fluttering after a failed flight attempt. Fledglings need a sturdy surface to grip then launch from—like the cedar climbing wall found on The Peep Show! If you do find a fledgling on the ground, it is likely to be fine where it is, without needing rescue unless it has fallen in the middle of a street or walking path. Remember, the parent birds are likely nearby keeping an eye on their fledglings, so leave it alone. Birds have been reproducing for millennia without human intervention and this reality is not about to change in our lifetimes.


"Robin fledgling" by USFWS Headquarters

If the baby bird is in harm's way, of course, help it, but only to the point of removing it from imminent danger. The most impactful help we can give birds is to provide them a safe space to raise their young. Unrestricted logging, wildfires, droughts, and urban development have all reduced critical nesting habitat. Alison Ke et al. (2023) found that the impacts of deforestation can be mitigated by providing nesting boxes for tropical birds.


Still, you don’t need to be an ornithologist in an Ecuadorean ecological preserve to learn about baby birds unobtrusively. Citizen scientists across the United States are observing the home life of nesting birds from their own Peep Show nesting boxes!


Extend your smart-home to the backyard


Following stringent ornithological guidelines, we set out to design the most thoughtful birdhouse interior possible:

  • integrated ventilation holes keep the nest cooler and allow air to circulate

  • an elevated nesting platform creates a healthier nesting environment and reduces the likelihood of parasites

  • a sloped floor with drain holes helps keep the nest comfy and dry

  • a vertical surface of rough-hewn cedar provides fledglings a naturally more “grippable” climbing surface, easing their departure from the nest.


In sharp contrast, those inexpensive birdhouses you find at the big box stores often put profit ahead of the well-being of birds. Rarely do they feature proper ventilation, elevated nesting platforms, or other important features recommended by leading birding organizations. The life of a baby bird can be tough, so make it a bit easier with a birdhouse scientifically designed to give your feathery friends the best start in life.


Have you rescued a baby bird? Do you have a baby bird story to share? Tell us in the comments! Better yet, send us a photo so we can share your tale.


References

Ke, A. et al. (2023) ‘Cavity‐nesting birds are limited by nesting habitat in Neotropical agricultural landscapes’, Biotropica, 55(5), pp. 1045–1057. doi:10.1111/btp.13252. Accessed March 4, 2024.


Photo Credits

"Baby Bird Rehabber" by audreyjm529 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

"Baby Bird Rehabber" by audreyjm529 is licensed under CC BY 2.

 


 






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