Spring and Summer is the busiest time of year at The Bird Rescue Center, when hundreds of baby birds are brought to us. We would like to remind everyone that baby birds should only be brought to us if they are injured, or if you are certain that they have been abandoned by their parents.
Do baby birds on the ground need rescuing?
Sometimes, but not always. Here are some things to watch for:
Baby birds that are beginning to leave the nest are called “fledglings”. Their flight feathers haven’t fully developed, but they can flutter from branch to branch. Don’t be alarmed if you see a fledgling on the ground. It could be taking a rest from its first flight or it could be waiting for one of its parents to feed it. Do not attempt to replace such a youngster in the nest. Leaving the nest is a part of their normal development and it is best not to interfere with the process.
A chirping baby robin on the ground, for example, is most likely telling its parents that it is hungry and it is letting them know where they can find it. Parents coach their fledglings to find suitable cover, and feed them even after they are able to fly. Like all parents, adult birds can’t be everywhere at once, so if you watch a grounded fledgling for a half an hour or so you should see one of its parents bringing it several snacks. Keep all pets, children and curious adults away from the area and let the parents carry on with the process of rearing their young.
Many species of birds, especially precocial birds, nest on the ground. Precocial birds are ones that hatch from the egg with their eyes open, fluffy and ready to follow their mother. Quail, ducks and sandpipers are examples of this type of bird, and if you see one on the ground and a parent is anywhere nearby, leave it alone! It is supposed to be on the ground and its chances of survival are greatly reduced if it is taken away from the parents.
If the peep of the bird is weak or it can’t stand, and/or after 30 minutes of observation the adults do not appear, you will need to bring the bird to the Center.
What do I do with this little baby bird?
Determine its age. Does it have feathers?
If it is mostly or partially naked (few or no feathers), it is very young and can chill easily. These birds also need to be fed frequently. If you know where the nest is located, replace the hatchling in the nest. If the parents are still around, they will take over from there. Clear all pets and people from the area. Observe the nest from a position where you will not deter the adults from returning. If the parents do not reappear within 30 minutes, bring the bird to the Center.
If it is feathered, but the wing and tail feathers are still only partially grown, it may be at a stage in its development where it is old enough to begin trying to fly. It will leave the nest, and may end up on the ground. The parents will continue to care for it.
If it is feathered and not obviously injured (broken wing, leg, etc.), clear all pets and children away from the fledgling and observe it for an hour. Chances are the parents will return for it. They may be waiting until all the commotion has died down before approaching.
When close to fledging (when young birds leave the nest) some species will naturally spend some time on the ground. As long as there is nothing to threaten the youngster it is best to leave it there and let the parents continue to feed and care for it. Soon enough it will be attempting to fly and will move to a safer perch.
If the parents do not reappear or the youngster is in immediate danger, bring it to the Center.
I don’t know where the nest is and/or the parents haven’t returned. What do I do now?
Carefully pick up the baby and put it immediately in a small cardboard box or plastic food container large enough for the bird to stand up in or move around a bit. (Try to have the container ready before you pick up the bird; this will reduce stress on the animal.) Use facial tissue, toilet tissue or paper towels for padding, and loosely cover the container with a towel leaving a small gap at the edge for good air circulation. Keep it covered, as even a little bird may suddenly hop out of an uncovered box.
Place the box in a warm, QUIET area of the house and call your local wildlife rehabilitation center for further instructions. Do not offer the bird food or water, and avoid peeking at or disturbing the bird.
I think this baby is a duck or a quail. Do I do the same thing?
Absolutely. Precocial birds (such as ducklings, quail, pheasants, etc.) are able to walk and run within a few hours of hatching and will follow their parents as soon as they are able to get around. These youngsters imprint immediately on their parents and will not be seen wandering on their own unless they have become separated from their family. A youngster may be absolutely silent or it may begin calling for its parents. Either way, a lone baby is very vulnerable.
Always observe such a youngster before picking it up, and remember to stand at a distance so as to not scare away the adults.
If the parents do not appear to claim it within a short period of time, it is best to pick up the bird and bring it in. Do not try to place an orphaned bird with a different family. Some precocial birds, even when they have lots of babies, may reject or even kill an unknown baby.
If you’re sure the duckling, gosling, etc. is an orphan, follow the same steps as above. Place it in a padded box/container, covered with a towel, and put it in a warm, QUIET place. Cover the container, as these youngsters, particularly baby quail, can jump right out of a shallow container. Immediately call your local rehabilitation center for further instructions.
What about a baby raptor on the ground?
Young raptors typically leave the nest by gradually “branching”—moving about in their nest tree before attempting flight. But some, like great horned owls, will often outgrow their nest before they are ready to fly, and may spend several days on the ground, where the parents will continue to feed and care for it.
If you find a young raptor on the ground, call BRC and describe the bird and its situation, including whether the parents are present and if there are hazardous conditions. We can help assess the situation and determine whether the bird needs to be brought in.
Won’t the parent birds know I’ve touched the baby and reject it?
Most birds do not have a highly developed sense of smell. They will not “smell” a human and reject the nestling if you replace it in the proper nest.
Our local turkey vultures use their relatively acute sense of smell to help locate prey (dead and decomposing animals). However, even a good sense of smell is related to the location of food, not the rejection of young.
The baby has feathers but can’t fly. It must be sick or fallen from the nest, right?
Not necessarily. Several species of birds (e.g., jays, towhees, robins) continue to care for their young and, in fact, finish the fledgling’s education at ground level. As long as you can remove any potential hazards such as pets, children and curious adults from the area, and as long as the youngster is not injured and its parents are still in attendance, it is best to leave the youngster where it is.
How do you keep baby birds warm?
Baby birds, especially those that are featherless, need to be kept warm. Birds have a higher body temperature than humans, and babies should be warm to the touch. Heat can be provided with a hot water bottle or, if this is not available, a plastic shampoo bottle filled with warm water makes a good substitute. Bottles should be placed under the towel that lines the box, so that bird does not get burned by direct contact. Using two bottles, one on either side of the body, will provide even more warmth. This type of heat helps to prevent illness and dehydration by applying the heat to the body but not to the environment. Finally, do not place the bird in the sun. Although birds need to be kept warm, the hot, direct sun can quickly overheat the bird, which may not be capable of moving itself into the shade.
I found a duckling swimming in the pond. I know they need water, so I filled a bathtub and put it in the water and gave it bread. Is this ok?
Downy waterfowl are protected primarily by oil from their mother’s oil gland. Most do not yet have the ability to generate sufficient oil on their own for waterproofing. If they are placed in water they cannot get out of, they can eventually become waterlogged and drown. If they are with their parents, this is not a problem.
Feeding bread is a common misconception. Nutritionally, bread is a poor meal for a baby bird. A youngster may not be able to process the bread at a sufficient rate to prevent it from becoming a sodden, indigestible mass in the crop (food storage area off the esophagus in some species). This can be fatal.
I brought a baby bird into the house and turned on classical music to soothe it. Is this ok?
Contrary to popular belief, music does not “soothe the savage beast.” Baby birds are wild animals and as such have no experience with music. This will, in fact, frighten them and add to their distress. Before and during transport, keep the youngster warm and as quiet as possible.
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