During the spring it’s fun to see nesting birds in your yard, neighborhood or out on nature walks. But what should you do if you come upon a baby bird that has fallen from the nest? As bird lovers our first instinct is to want to do something to help, but many times the best course of action is not to intervene.
Many birds spend a few days flopping around on the ground, unable to fly, but are learning skills from their parents and are being taken care of. They may look awkward but it’s part of learning how to fly, find food, and protect themselves. Many people make the mistake of thinking the baby has been abandoned if they don’t immediately see the parents, and try to “rescue” the bird. If you bring a bird inside during this stage, you are taking away this critical teaching time with their parents. Most of the time intervention is not necessary.
So let’s discuss what to look for if you come upon a baby bird, and how to know if it needs your help. I’ve made a handy flow chart you can reference, and below we will dig into the topic a little deeper.
Determine the age of the bird
The first step in deciding which action to take is to determine what stage of development the bird is in. Before becoming juvenile birds who are independent from their parents, baby birds go through three stages;
- Hatchling: approximately 0-3 days old. Hatchlings have just come out of the egg and haven’t even opened their eyes yet. They have no feathers and might look mostly “naked” with only a few thin wisps of soft down. At this age they cannot leave the nest and are completely dependent on their parents.
- Nestling: approximately 3 – 14 days. Nestlings are starting to develop their feathers but they may look like odd tubes at this age because they are still in their protective sheaths. Their eyes are starting to open and they are becoming more aware, but are mostly immobile. Nestlings are still completely dependent on their parents and should not leave the nest.
- Fledgling: approximately 14 days and older. Fledglings are fully covered in feathers. They are usually still small and don’t have their adult shape, their wings and tail may be short. They can hop around and flutter and are becoming more mobile. Fledglings are ready to leave the nest and learn how to fly, but the parents will stay close-by and take care of them.
What to do if you find a hatchling/nestling
If the baby you find has few or no feathers, closed or barely opened eyes and cannot hop or move around on its own, it may be a hatchling or a nestling. If you come across birds in this stage your number one priority is to get it back in the nest. These babies can’t move much on their own so they likely have not traveled far and the nest should be very close by. Locate the nest and gently place the baby back in. It is 100% ok to touch the baby. Parent birds do NOT recognize the babies by smell and will not smell “human” on the baby and abandon it. This is a myth.
If you cannot find the nest or you see the nest itself was destroyed, you can make your own out of anything handy. A small basket with sides no higher than 4 inches lined with dry grass is best. Use a wire to secure to a branch or shrub. Place the makeshift nest with baby in a tree as close to where you found the baby as possible and wait to see if the parents come back.
What to do if you find a fledgling
If the baby you find is covered in feathers and is hopping or flopping around on the ground it is likely a fledgling. Once fledglings leave the nest they usually do not go back, they have “flown the coop” for good. So even if you think you see the nest nearby, don’t bother putting a fledgling back as it will likely just hop back out of the nest again.
If you think the bird is in a dangerous location you may move it a short distance to a branch or shrub for a little bit of protection. If you have outdoor pets it would be best to bring them inside until the bird is gone. Chances are good its parents are in the area, gathering food and attending to other babies in other locations, and they will periodically come back and check on the baby.
Fledglings may look awkward and a little helpless, but it’s a natural stage. and only lasts a few days before they will be able to fly.
When to call a rehabilitator
The majority of the time, intervention is not necessary. But sometimes birds do need help from a professional. Here are the situations where calling a wildlife rehabilitator is appropriate.
- If the bird appears injured: if you see blood or an obvious injury, or saw a cat or other animal attacking it. (distinguish “weak” from injured. If it just looks weak that is likely normal, baby birds just look that way!)
- If you have found the parents dead
- If you cannot find the nest and the parents have not come back in 24 hours to the makeshift nest you created.
Google search the name of your state plus “wildlife rehabilitation”, or check your states department of the environment page for a list of licensed rehabbers.
Note: birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Act and are protected by many state laws. In most places it is illegal to keep wild birds in your possession unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Best to leave it to the pros!
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.