If you've found a baby bird on the ground, you’ll need to know two things to determine whether the bird needs help: whether the bird is injured and whether the bird is a nestling or a fledgling. Quick intervention can mean the difference between life and death for an injured wild bird, but there are situations where human intervention can do more harm than good.
Follow these tips for how to help if you've found a baby bird.
Is the baby bird injured?
If it is clear to you that the baby bird is injured, you will need to take the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Consider the bird injured if they're bleeding; they feel cold; their eyes are closed or partly closed in a slit; and/or they look exhausted, dehydrated, droopy, or rather lifeless. If you aren't sure whether the baby bird is injured, a wildlife rehabilitator can help you assess the situation over the phone.
If you've determined that a baby bird needs human intervention, it's not a good idea to try to rehabilitate the bird yourself. 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.
Is the baby bird a nestling or fledgling?
If you think the baby bird is not injured (i.e., the bird seems lively and normal), then the next step is to determine whether the bird is a nestling (too young to fly) or a fledgling (ready to fly). However, it can be 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. If possible, send them a photo or video of the bird.
A nestling can:
- 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 their feathers but still look quite fluffy and not like an adult
- Look quite pear-shaped, as if their body is too heavy for their small wings
- Seem rather tame and might gape (open their mouth for food) or chirp energetically
A fledgling can:
- Look like an adult (and be roughly the same size as an adult) but seem unable to fly
- Seem rather awkward or hesitant in their movements
- Look like they have all their feathers but might be a little fluffy
A fledgling might gape or chirp energetically as well, which can make telling the difference between a nestling and a fledging more difficult. But in the spring and summer, a bird you find on the ground who looks old enough to fly is likely to be a fledgling.
If you feel certain that you have a nestling or that you have a fledgling, please read the appropriate sections below.
Nestlings: How to help 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. The parent birds do not have the ability to pick up the baby birds and return them to the nest. And 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 whether other babies are there who look the same as the one you found.
- If there are, place the baby gently in the nest. It's OK to use your hands. (It's not true that parent birds won't feed their babies after they've been touched by human hands.)
- Check nearby on the ground for more babies who might have fallen out. If you find more, put them back in the nest as well.
- Watch from a distance of around 80 feet or, even better, from a window inside to see whether the parents return and feed the babies. Don’t stand too close: If you are too close or if you are easily visible through the window, the parents will likely be too nervous to return. 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, don't take your eyes away from the nest at all, even for a moment, or you might miss seeing the parents return. They can be very quick when feeding their babies.
If the baby bird falls out of the nest for a second time, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. They might advise you to bring the bird to them.
What if the parents don't return to the baby birds?
If the parents don't 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 important. Songbird nestlings 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. Never attempt to rehabilitate the bird yourself; this often will do more harm than good. Do not give the baby bird any food or water because it is very easy to drown them.
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 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. Do your best to see whether they are there, but don’t ever shine a light into a bird’s nest at night.
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 I can't find the nest or it's inaccessible?
If you can't find the nest or you are unable to get up to the nest, take the baby bird to a rehabilitator. Sometimes the entire nest might have been blown away by wind or destroyed by a predator. If you suspect that the nest was destroyed by a predator, it's best to take any babies to a rehabilitator. Likewise, 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 put the nest back where it was (or as close as possible if you're not sure exactly where it was). Some ingenuity might be required if there was damage to the nest.
Try placing the remains of the nest in the bottom of a shoebox or other small cardboard box, or try creating an artificial nest of cardboard perhaps with some straw in it. The cardboard will need tiny holes in the bottom as drainage. You can also try using 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, and then watch to make sure the parents return 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 because they can look like they're struggling as they learn to fly. But uninjured fledglings who are with their parents do 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, the bird flies away, usually in a clumsy manner. They might land in foliage or on the ground underneath the nest and remain there for several hours or several days, only partially able to fly.
This is a very different situation from when a nestling falls out of the nest and lands on the ground. The fledgling can fly (or almost fly); the nestling cannot fly and cannot survive outside the nest.
If you see a fledgling on the ground and you're able to approach and pick up the bird, then set the bird on a low branch. This can help to protect the bird from predators and other hazards. If the bird appears uninjured, leave them alone. 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 and parents have been separated?
Separation from the parent birds can happen if a cat, dog, other animal, or even a child (or an adult attempting to "rescue" the bird) has picked up the fledgling and moved them to another location. If that’s the case, the fledgling will be unable to survive on their own. 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.
Moreover, because fledglings can starve to death if they're separated from their parents, they must not be released in a different location from where they were found — even if you discover that they can fly. They cannot feed themselves.
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 might be possible to arrange for the pet to stay inside and be taken out on a leash 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), so it will be easier for the bird to escape a predator.
If it’s not possible to remove the danger, and particularly if other birds have already been killed, then you might need to take the fledgling to a rehabilitator. But do not take a fledgling away from the parents unless it is really necessary.
How to handle an injured or orphaned baby bird
When handling wildlife, it's important to keep both yourself and the animal safe. Baby birds generally will not hurt you, though they can carry diseases. It's a good idea to wear gloves to provide a level of protection. Also, do not hold the bird any longer than you need to. Be aware that the bird is frightened and probably feeling very vulnerable because they're being handled by a large predator — a human. The older a baby bird is, the more frightened they will be.
If you find a baby bird on the ground, pick up the bird and hold them firmly but gently. Take care not to hold the bird too tightly, but make sure the bird won't accidentally fall or flap out of your hands either. 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 baby bird (e.g., a pigeon), 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 body.
The next step when rescuing an injured or orphaned baby bird is to take the bird inside into a room where the door can be closed. No children or pets should be in the space. A small, minimally furnished room like a bathroom is often the best choice.
If you brought the baby bird in because you thought they might be injured but you weren’t sure, take this opportunity to look closely while still holding the bird. Note whether the bird is bleeding, cold, listless, or has their eyes half-closed in a slit. If this seems to be the case, the bird must be taken to a rehabilitator immediately. This is also what you should do for birds who cannot be returned to their parents.
How to prepare a bird for transport
To prepare a transport box for the baby 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 birds can catch their beak or toes on the fabric loops.
Then, make a nest that fits the bird. You can use several tissues wrapped around in a doughnut shape. If the bird is old enough and well enough to walk or perch, they might do that, which is fine. But if the bird is only a few days old or is too sick to move, they will likely stay in the makeshift nest, which will help support them. 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 the bird's head.
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, carefully place the bird inside the makeshift nest, and securely tape the box shut. Be aware that a fledgling might try to fly out, so quickly shut the box after placing them in.
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 box to an area inside your house away from pets and children. The area also should be quiet and dark, not air-conditioned, and not in the sun.
Because it’s very easy to drown a bird, don’t give the bird any food or water unless a rehabilitator specifically instructs you to do that.
How to transport a bird to a wildlife rehabilitator
Call the wildlife rehabilitator before you transport the bird to them. When you call, make sure 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, but 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 typically volunteers who care for many 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 then leave immediately.
Your goal is to get the baby bird to a rehabilitator within an hour. But no matter the length of time that has been, take the bird to the rehabilitator as soon as possible. In some areas of the country, you might need to drive for an hour or even two. Remind yourself that you are doing your best to save the life of the bird so that they 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 Fahrenheit. 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 you found the bird, the location where you found the bird, and a description of the incident (if you know why the bird ended up needing help).
How can I be prepared for wildlife rescue?
If you'd like to be prepared ahead of time in case you find a baby bird who needs help, there are two things you can do for such an emergency:
- Have the name and number of a local licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your phone contact list. Better yet, have multiple rehabilitators' numbers in case one isn't available. Verify which animals they accept.
- Find a suitable box in which to transport a bird and have it prepared. Consider keeping a box both in your home and your car if you have one.
Remember, time is critical when you find an injured or orphaned animal who needs help. With an action plan already in place, you can be the difference between a bird losing their life or being successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild.