By Patrick Kuklinski
All baby animals are fragile. But to many, baby birds in particular seem vulnerable. They typically hatch naked, with eyes closed, peeping helplessly. They appeal to our instincts to nurture the defenseless. Unfortunately, while many do their best to help, there are many misconceptions about baby birds and the best way to help them. Before trying to do something with good intentions, it’s important to first be sure you aren’t causing more harm than good to the bird.
All baby birds need help!
One of the most common problems people encounter when trying to help young birds is misidentifying them as birds that belong in the nest. Fledgling birds commonly are found on the ground; they jump out of the nest and will spend up to a week on the ground, clumsily practicing flying, with their parents attending them. This is perfectly normal - and removing a fledgling bird from the eyes of its watchful parents does more harm than good. Typically, fledglings can be identified by their feathers - they will have more developed feathers and will be more fully feathered across the body than a nestling, with very few to no down feathers. If a fledgling bird is in a dangerous area, such as by a busy road or a yard neighborhood cats frequent, you can carefully move them to another space, but be sure you do not move them where they can’t be found by their parents.
Photo credit: ©Patrick Kuklinski Reprinted with permission.
A baby bird is on the ground - I need to move him somewhere safe!
Although in some cases, moving a baby bird to a safer location is the right thing to do, many times there is a simpler solution. Nestlings frequently push and shove at each other within the nest while begging for food - which sometimes leads to a baby or two falling out of the nest entirely. If you find a nestling on the ground, first try to find the nest he came from before moving him to a new location. Unless he was pushed out by a predator or brood parasites such as the brown-headed cowbird, placing the baby bird back into the nest is typically the best option. If you find more than one or two nestlings on the ground, it is more likely that the nest was destroyed and abandoned.
The baby bird I found is hungry - I should feed him!
Many well-intentioned people who find a misplaced or injured baby bird attempt to feed the bird. But if they are inexperienced, this is actually extremely dangerous for the baby. If the syringe or spoon used for feeding is not placed at exactly the right angle, droplets of food can enter the lungs and asphyxiate the baby. If the food is too hot, it can burn the esophagus and crop. If too much is fed, it can cause the crop to distend, which is rarely treatable. There’s also the issue of feeding an incorrect diet, which can cause nutritional deficiencies or be indigestible or even fatal to the bird. It’s best to not feed unless instructed otherwise by a professional.
If I move the baby bird, the mother bird will smell me and reject him!
Many people fear moving baby birds under the impression that the smell of a human on the baby will make the mother keep away from the nest entirely. Most birds, with the exception of birds who rely on their sense of smell such as vultures, have a weak sense of smell. Even if the bird does catch your scent on their babies, it won’t make them reject the nest. Typically, the only way you could cause the parents to abandon the nest is by hanging around the nest excessively; quickly placing the baby inside the nest or briefly being in the area will most likely not cause problems. If you leave the nestling on the ground, he will almost certainly die; if you place him back into the nest, there is a very, very slim chance it will cause problems.
In general, it is best to leave care of baby birds to wildlife rehabilitators. You can temporarily place baby birds in a box lined with cloth (not cloth that will entangle the claws) or paper towels, and keep them in a quiet, safe location until they can be taken in. In situations where there is not a local rehabber, contact veterinarians (if possible, avian vets) or other animal care centers to see if they can help. Use common sense when taking care of any wild animal - if it wouldn’t be safe for your pet, it probably isn’t safe for them. Don’t expose birds in your care to loud noises, bright lights, or dangerous situations - including lung irritants such as household cleaning sprays, other animals such as dogs or cats, or objects within the bird’s container that could hurt him. If you are unsure about any aspect of the bird’s (temporary) care, try calling your local wildlife rehabilitation center and seeing if they can help.
Patrick Kuklinski is a longtime freelance writer working towards a Bachelor’s in Zoology, with experience writing for animal publications including Reptiles, BirdTalk, and more.