Many young birds brought to wildlife rehabbers are not in need of help at all. The key to avoiding unintentionally “kidnapping” a bird is to learn to tell the difference between a true baby bird, called a nestling, and a fledgling.
It is a natural part of many species’ development that they leave the nest shortly before they learn to fly. These fledglings spend time near their old nest, in shrubs or on the ground, learning and being fed and cared for by their parents. Eventually, they graduate from hopping and flying short distances to becoming completely flighted. These young birds should be left alone and allowed to continue their natural development.
You can tell that a young bird is a fledgling by the presence of well-developed feathers on their bodies, and they can walk, hop, and perch. The parent birds are likely to be nearby as well, but will leave their young for short periods while they forage for food. People who come across fledglings during these untended periods mistakenly assume the bird has been abandoned, but parent birds rarely abandon their young. You can help fledglings and their parents by keeping pets (and humans) away from the area to avoid disturbing them.
You should only interfere with a fledgling under the following circumstances:
- It has been attacked by a cat, or other animal. Even if there are no obvious injuries, any bird that has been in contact with a cat should be brought in for assessment and treatment. Feathers can hide wounds, and because cats’ mouths are full of bacteria, infection from even small scratches are often lethal.
- It is showing signs of injury or illness, including inability to stand/falling over, shivering or very weak, wing(s) drooping or at unnatural angle, or blood anywhere on the body.
- It is in a dangerous place, such as a road. Move the bird to the nearest cover (a bush, grass, or other vegetated or sheltered area). Your scent will not cause the parents to abandon it.
- It has truly been abandoned. Observe the fledgling from a long distance to make sure you don’t scare the parents. Watch for at least 30 minutes. If no parents return to care for the fledgling, they may have themselves been injured or killed or in rare cases just ceased to care for their offspring. Contact Sea Biscuit or another licensed rehabber to bring the fledlging in.
Nestlings (Baby Birds)
A nestling is a true baby bird, one that is too young to leave the nest. They can be distinguished from fledglings by a lack of feathers. Very young nestlings may not have opened their eyes yet.
Sometimes nestlings fall out of their nests. Search the area where you found the nestling for its nest. While you are searching, make sure the nestling is warm by placing it in a “nest” of tissue or a towel. If you can find the nest, replace the bird in the nest–your scent won’t cause abandonment–and observe from a long distance for 30 minutes to make sure the parents are still providing care. If the entire nest has fallen out of its tree or shrub, replace it and observe the area. In both cases, if the parent birds resume tending to the young, nothing else needs to be done. If the parents do not return, contact Sea Biscuit or another licensed rehabber to bring the nestling(s) in.