When To Help A Baby Bird, And When To Leave It Alone

Hatchling, nestling, fledgling? An expert and simple guide for determining if the bird you find in your yard needs your intervention.


By Vicki Croke

This baby sparrow, found on the ground, had no parents feeding him over an entire day, so he was placed with a rehabilitator. Photo: Christen Goguen.

There’s an old joke that goes:

Q: What’s the definition of a rescued wild animal?

A: Anything that couldn’t run faster than the well-intentioned human chasing it.

It’s not only funny (well, we think it is), it’s a good reminder of what NOT to do now during baby bird season.

This baby sparrow, found on the ground, was fed by his parents. He was flying in no time. Photo: Christen Goguen.

This is the time when you might just come across a little helpless looking chick on the ground and want to help. Generally, the advice is to leave the baby alone. As Mass Audubon says, “Most of the time it’s best to do nothing.”

But since it’s so hard to resist doing SOMETHING, the experts have some good advice and guidelines:

First, assess for injury. If the bird looks like it’s been attacked by a cat or other animal, for instance, you can call a wildlife rehabilitator in your area.

Yet another baby sparrow, found on the ground, was left alone–his parents knew where he was and fed him regularly. Photo: Christen Goguen.

Age plays an important role in figuring out what to do. Mass Audubon explains:

Determine Age
Baby birds go through three stages: 

Hatchling (usually 0-3 days old). It hasn’t yet opened its eyes, and may have wisps of down on its body. It’s not ready to leave the nest.

Nestling (usually 3-13 days old). Its eyes are open, and its wing feathers may look like tubes because they’ve yet to break through their protective sheaths. It’s also not ready to leave the nest.

Fledgling (13-14 days old or older). This bird is fully feathered. Its wings and tail may be short, and it may not be a great flyer, but it can walk, hop, or flutter. It has left the nest, though its parents may be nearby, taking good care of it.

Help Hatchlings and Nestlings

If you find a hatchling or a nestling on the ground and you can see its nest, you should try to safely return it. Contrary to popular belief, birds do not have a well-developed sense of smell. Therefore, the parents won’t know if a young bird has been touched by people and will not abandon their young.

If there’s no nest, you can make one by fastening a small wicker basket (sides no higher than 4 inches) to a branch. Cut two pieces of wire to 18 inch lengths and thread them up through the bottom of the basket and down again. Line the basket with dry grass, and securely wire it to the top of a branch in the same tree or shrub as the nest. Place the bird inside the basket.

Cornell says most of the baby birds people find are fledglings:

These are young birds that have just left the nest, are still under the care of their parents, and do not need our help. Fledglings are feathered and capable of hopping or flitting, with toes that can tightly grip your finger or a twig. These youngsters are generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail.

When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in—it will hop right back out. Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors. The parents may be attending to four or five young scattered in different directions, but they will return to care for the one you have found. You can watch from a distance to make sure the parents are returning to care for the fledgling.

Originally appeared on WBUR’s The Wild Life.

Follow @VickiCroke

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