If you find a baby songbird on the ground, you’ll need to know two things to determine whether or not the baby bird needs help. First, you’ll need to know if the bird is injured and, second, you’ll need to know if the bird is a fledgling or a nestling.
Is the baby bird hurt?
If it is clear to you that the baby bird is wounded, you will need to take him to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. (See “Wildlife Rehabilitator: How to Find One.”) Consider the bird injured if he is bleeding, if he feels cold and has his eyes closed or partly closed in a slit, or if he looks exhausted, dehydrated, droopy or rather lifeless.
If you are not sure whether the baby bird is injured or healthy, call a rehabilitator and ask for advice. It’s generally a good idea to call first, in any case, before taking a bird to a rehabilitator.
Fledgling or nestling?
If you feel that the baby bird is not injured (i.e., the bird seems lively and normal), then it will be helpful to try to determine whether the baby is a fledgling (ready to fly) or a nestling (too young to fly). Making this determination will help you know what to do next. However, it can be very difficult for people who are not accustomed to studying birds to tell the difference between a fledgling and a nestling. If you feel doubtful, call a rehabilitator and ask for help.
A fledgling may:
- Look like an adult, but seem unable to fly
- Seem rather awkward or hesitant in his movements
- Look like he has all his feathers, but he may (or may not) be a little fluffy
A fledgling looks like an adult, and is the same size as an adult of the same species. In the spring and summer, a bird that you find on the ground who looks old enough to fly is likely to be a fledgling.
A nestling may:
- Have no feathers at all, just bare skin
- Be covered in down
- Have pin feathers, which are little dark beginnings of feathers that look like pins
- Have most of his feathers, but still look quite fluffy and not like an adult
- Look quite pear-shaped, as if his body is too heavy for his small wings
- Seem rather tame and may gape (open his mouth for food) or chirp energetically
A nestling may also have none of these characteristics — and a fledgling also may gape or chirp. As you can see, it may not be easy to tell the difference!
If you do feel certain that you have a nestling or that you have a fledgling, please read the appropriate section below. Otherwise, call a rehabilitator for help.
Nestlings: How to save a baby bird
A nestling is a young bird who belongs back in the nest. Sometimes, nestlings fall out of the nest, and they need help getting back in, since the parent birds do not have the ability to pick up the baby bird and return him to the nest. Baby birds are unable to survive outside the nest, even if their parents are still feeding them.
If possible, a healthy nestling should be returned to the nest. Here’s how to do this:
- Look for the nest. Once you find it, look in the nest to find out if other babies are there who look the same as the one you found.
- If there are, place the baby gently in his nest. It’s OK to use your hands. (It is not true that parent birds will not feed their babies after they have been touched by human hands.)
- Check nearby on the ground for more babies who may have fallen out. If so, put them back in the nest.
- Watch from a distance of around 80 feet (you’ll need to use your own judgment) or, even better, from a window inside, to see if the parents return and feed the babies. Don’t stand too close: If you stand too close, or if you are easily visible through the window, you will be preventing the parents from returning to feed the babies. This is a very common mistake; birds have excellent eyesight, and they can easily see you.
Keep children and pets inside while you are watching the nest. If you see the parents return to feed the babies, you can stop watching — the baby birds should be fine. While watching, do not take your eyes away from the nest at all, even for a moment, or you may miss seeing the parents return. It may only take them a second to return and feed the babies; they are very quick!
If the baby bird falls out of the nest a second time, he should be taken to a rehabilitator.
What if the parent birds don’t return?
If the parents do not return, either you are standing too close or something else is preventing them from returning. Parent birds are excellent caregivers and will always feed their babies if they are able to. Move farther away and watch again. If the parents still don’t return, call a wildlife rehabilitator and ask for advice.
Quick action is very important. Nestling songbirds are fed by their parents several times each hour. They can generally go for an hour or so without food, but you must take action within a short time after you discover the bird. The baby bird cannot wait until you return from work in the afternoon or until you run some errands: He will not survive. Never, ever attempt to rehabilitate the bird yourself, since you’ll do more harm than good. Do not give the baby bird any food or water, because it is very easy to drown them. Instead, call a rehabilitator.
Even if you don’t see the parents return, if the babies in the nest appear active and healthy, that is a good indication that they are being fed, and they should not be moved. However, if the parents are not sitting on the nest by nightfall, something is definitely wrong. Pigeons and doves don’t need to feed their babies often, but like other birds, they will always return at night. Don’t ever shine a light into a bird’s nest at night.
This advice is given to be helpful, but every situation is different and if, at any point, you feel confused or uncertain, call a rehabilitator and ask for help that relates specifically to your situation. The sooner you call, the easier it will be to help the baby birds.
What do I do if the nest is inaccessible or nowhere to be found?
If you cannot find the nest or you are unable to get up to the nest, take the baby bird to a rehabilitator.
Sometimes the entire nest may have been destroyed or blown down by the wind. If you suspect that the nest was destroyed by a predator, such as a cat, it is best to take the baby, or babies, to a rehabilitator. If the birds are in immediate danger from hazards like dogs or cats, construction work or tree-pruning activities, first try to remove the danger. If this isn’t possible, take the babies to a rehabilitator.
If the nest was blown down in a storm, it is often possible to fix the nest securely back in the tree. Some ingenuity may be required. You could try placing the remains of the nest in the bottom of a shoebox or other small cardboard box, or you could try creating an artificial nest of cardboard, perhaps with some straw in it. The cardboard will need a few tiny holes in the bottom as drainage. In areas with a lot of rain or in nests in trees, you may need to use plywood or a plastic container with drainage holes. The sides of the new nest should not be higher than the sides of the original nest. You can call a rehabilitator for advice on materials and location options.
Put the babies into the nest that you have secured, then follow the instructions above that explain how to tell if the parents are returning to the nest.
Fledglings: How to help a young bird
A fledgling is a young bird who is ready to leave the nest. Many fledglings are “rescued” unnecessarily by well-intentioned people. An uninjured fledgling who is with his parents does not need to be rescued.
A fledgling normally spends a period of time — from a couple of days to a week — sitting on the edge of the nest. Then he half-falls, half-flies off. He may land on the ground underneath the nest and may remain there for several hours or several days, only partially able to fly. This is a very different situation from the one described above, in which a nestling falls out of the nest and lands on the ground. The fledgling can fly (or almost fly); the nestling cannot fly, and he cannot survive outside the nest. They need different kinds of help; that’s why it’s good if you can determine whether you’ve found a fledgling or a nestling.
A fledgling generally looks like an adult, but you are most likely to find a fledgling songbird in the spring or summer. If you see a bird on the ground who looks like she should be able to fly, and if you are able to approach and pick up the bird, then lift the bird up (see the handling instructions below) and set her on a low branch. The bird will probably fly to a nearby branch. Whether or not the bird flies, if she appears uninjured, leave her alone — she should be fine. If there are other birds nearby who look the same, it’s a good sign, because they are probably parents or siblings. Two birds hovering about are most likely the fledgling’s parents.
What if the fledgling has already been separated from her parents?
Separation from the parent birds can happen if a cat, a dog or a child (or an adult attempting to “rescue” the bird) has picked up the fledgling and moved her to another location. If that’s the case, the fledgling will be unable to survive on her own, since the parents continue to feed fledglings for two or three weeks after they have left the nest. So, an orphaned fledgling always needs to be taken to a rehabilitator.
Because a fledgling can starve to death if separated from her parents, she must not be released in a different location from where she was found. Do not release a baby bird in a different location simply because you discover that she can fly; she cannot feed herself.
If a fledgling is in immediate danger from a cat or dog, construction work or some other threat, try to remove the danger. If the danger is from a cat or dog, it may be possible to arrange for the cat or dog to stay inside for at least a couple of days (longer is better). After a few days out of the nest, the fledgling will have had more practice flying (and the tail feathers will have grown in fully), so it will be easier for her to escape a predator. If it’s not possible to remove the danger, and particularly if other birds have already been killed, then you may need to take the fledgling to a rehabilitator. But do not take a fledgling away from her parents unless it is really necessary.
Remember the following:
- Any injured, cold or listless baby songbird (either fledgling or nestling) should be taken immediately to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- A healthy nestling should be returned to the nest; if this is not possible, she should be taken right away to a rehabilitator.
- A healthy fledgling who is being fed by his parents does not need to be “rescued.” A fledgling who has been separated from his parents, however, should be taken to a rehabilitator, since even if he can fly, he may starve without his parents around to feed him.
- Do not put any food or liquid into any bird’s mouth. If there is a delay in transporting the bird to a rehabilitator, call the rehabilitator for advice.
- It’s vital to act quickly if a baby songbird needs help. If at all possible, return her to her nest or take her to a rehabilitator within an hour.
- Finally, to find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, see “Wildlife Rehabilitator: How to Find One.”
Handling wild birds
Most of us are used to looking at birds as they fly or as they perch at a feeder. They are at least a few feet away. We are not accustomed to holding them or noticing how they look at a distance of a few inches.
If you find a baby bird on the ground, don’t be afraid to pick her up. Don’t worry that picking her up will cause her parents to reject her — that’s a myth. You’ll need to pick her up in order to help her. Pick up the bird with your hands and hold her firmly, but gently. Take care not to hold her too tightly, but don’t hold her so loosely that she is in danger of dropping.
You’ll want to support the body of the bird and the bird’s feet with one hand, keeping the feet in the palm of your hand. If the bird is small and fits easily in your palm, place your other hand over the top of the bird, being careful not to leave spaces between your hands that would allow the bird to escape.
If you have found a larger bird (a pigeon, for example), hold the bird in one hand, as described above, and put your other hand around the bird’s shoulders, with the wings folded in their normal, at-rest position against the bird’s body.
A baby bird will not hurt you, and, if you hold her securely and carefully, you will not hurt her. However, do not hold the bird any longer than you need to. Be aware that the baby bird is very frightened. Besides being injured, she has just lost her home and her parents, and is probably feeling very vulnerable because she is being handled by a large predator — a human. The older a baby bird is and the closer she is to being a fledgling, the more frightened she will be.
The next step is to take the bird inside, into a room where the door can be closed, and with no animals or children present. A small, minimally furnished room like a bathroom is often the best choice.
If you brought the baby bird in because you thought she might be injured, but you weren’t sure, take this opportunity to look again at the bird, while still holding her. Just glance quickly to determine whether or not the bird is injured, cold, listless, or has her eyes half-closed in a slit. If this seems to be the case, the bird must be taken to a rehabilitator immediately after you prepare a “nest” for her. This is also what you should do if the bird cannot be returned to her parents (for one of the reasons mentioned above).
How do I prepare a “nest” for the bird?
To prepare a nest for the bird, find a cardboard box that has a top and is not torn. A shoebox is generally a good size. Lay a cloth (a tea towel, T-shirt or a couple of paper towels) inside the box. Don’t use terry cloth (the fabric most towels are made of) because the bird could catch his beak or toes on the fabric loops.
Then, make a nest that fits the bird. You can use about a dozen Kleenex tissues, wrapped around and around in a doughnut shape, placing the bird inside it. If the bird is old enough and well enough to walk or perch, he might do that, and that’s fine. If the bird is only a few days old or is too sick to move, he will stay in the nest. The nest for very young birds must fit very securely around the bird, with no extra room. The sides should come up to about two-thirds the height of the bird, and not higher than his head.
If the bird is a fledgling and can fly, put the nest in anyway, since he may perch on it. Put the bird in very carefully, after the top (see below) is ready to go on, so that he doesn’t have the opportunity to fly away from you.
Before you place the bird in the box, punch some small air holes (each about the diameter of a pencil) in the top of the box. Then, with the bird in the box, tape the top of the box to the bottom. Take care to tape the box securely so that the bird can’t get out.
Next, if you have a heating pad, turn it on the lowest setting, put a towel on the pad, and place the box with the bird in it on top of the heating pad. Move the cardboard box to an area inside your house away from pets and children, an area that’s quiet and dark, not air-conditioned and not in the sun.
Important: Because it’s very easy to drown a bird, please don’t give the bird any food or water, unless a rehabilitator specifically instructs you to do that.
How do I contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator?
See “Wildlife Rehabilitator: How to Find One” if you don’t already have that information handy. Call the rehabilitator before you transport the bird. When you call, make sure that the rehabilitator takes in songbirds. If not, ask for the name and number of a rehabilitator who does care for songbirds. You’ll often need to leave a message; you should expect a call back within half an hour. Otherwise, call again or call another rehabilitator.
You’ll almost always be responsible for transporting the bird to the rehabilitator yourself. Rehabilitators are usually volunteers who care for a great many hungry birds, so they usually can’t leave to pick up another one. There are some exceptions, though, and you can always ask whether the bird can be picked up. Ask the rehabilitator any questions you have, make sure you get driving directions and/or an address, and then leave immediately.
How do I transport the bird to a rehabilitator?
Your goal is to get the baby bird to a rehabilitator within an hour. Before half an hour has passed is even better, but no matter what the length of time has been, take him to the rehabilitator as soon as possible. In some areas of the country, of course, you may need to drive for an hour or even two, but remind yourself that you are doing your best to save the life of the bird, so that he can be released back into the wild.
On the drive, try to maintain the temperature of the bird’s box at 85 to 90 degrees. Keep the box away from direct sun and any type of breeze, including from air-conditioning and from slightly opened windows. The bird will need a quiet and calm environment, so it’s best to not bring children with you. It’s fine, however to play soothing music at a low volume.
When you arrive, you’ll most likely need to give the rehabilitator some information, such as your name and address, the time that you found the bird, the location where you found him, and a description of the incident (if you know why the bird ended up needing help).
Can I take care of the baby bird myself?
It’s not a good idea to try to rehabilitate the bird yourself, since the chances of the bird surviving and being successfully released into the wild are very low. Only a licensed wildlife rehabilitator has the equipment, skills and knowledge to take proper care of wild birds.
How can I be prepared ahead of time?
If you’re reading this before you find a baby bird who needs help, there are two things you can do to be better prepared for such an emergency:
- Have the name and number of a wildlife rehabilitator in your phone contact list. If you don’t have that information already, see “Wildlife Rehabilitator: How to Find One.”
- Find a suitable box for the bird’s “nest” and get it ready (see instructions above).