Finding a defenseless baby bird on the ground can be confusing as well as concerning.
What should you do? Should you leave it exactly where you found it?
Or should you pick it up and try to help? Is it really true that once you touch a bird, its mother will reject it? We have all the answers to these questions in this article.
Before Doing Anything Else, Identify the Age of the Bird
The first thing to do when you find a bird on the ground is to determine how old it is.
You need to know whether it is a hatchling, a nestling, or a fledgling.
Hatchlings have just emerged from their eggshell. They don’t have any feathers.
Their eyes are not open yet. They are vulnerable to cold, heat, predators, and injury.
They are still living on the nutrients from the yolk of their egg, and may not be eating yet.
Nestlings have been out of their eggs for at least two or three days. They have a few feathers.
Their eyes may already be open. Nestlings are almost as vulnerable as hatchlings, and they are definitely hungrier.
You are most likely to encounter hatchlings and fledglings when they fall out of the nest, or when something tips over or destroys the nest.
Fledglings are juvenile birds, two or three weeks old. They may not have all of their feathers, but they have enough feathers that they can try to fly.
You are most likely to encounter fledglings when they have not quite yet mastered the art of flight.
If you find a fledgling on the ground, it probably does not need to be rescued. It may be just moments away from flying away on its own.
What to Do When You Find a Baby Bird (Hatchlings or Nestlings) on the Ground
Hatchlings and nestlings are not likely to fall very far away from their nest.
The first thing to do when you find these baby birds on the ground is to look for their nest. It is probably just a few feet (less than a meter) away.
Once you have found the nest, follow these two steps:
- Put gloves on your hands, or at least wash your hands. This is to avoid transferring any scent that may have been on your hand to the baby bird. The birds may not be able to smell what was on your hands, but animals that hunt birds can.
- Pick up the baby bird and put it back in its nest.
If the nest is too high to reach, or it has been damaged. put the baby bird in a small woven basket that you have lined with cotton balls or soft, discarded cloth.
You can get wooden baskets in garden shops, home design stores, and hardware stores, as well as online.
Then hang the basket in the same tree where you saw the nest. Woven baskets look enough like nests that the parent birds will think to look there for their babies.
Next, watch to see if the parents come back to tend to their babies.
Parent birds may make as many as 75 trips a day, over the course of 12 to 14 hours, bringing food home for their hungry hatchlings.
Parent birds may make the food run for their fledgling just a few times a day.
After you put a fledgling back into the nest, it may be several hours before you see the parent bird coming to check on its offspring.
Don’t assume that a bird has been orphaned until you have waited several hours, observing the nest the whole time.
What to Do If You Can’t Find the Nest, or the Nest Has Been Destroyed
If it is obvious after a few hours that the parents of the baby bird are not coming back, or you find evidence that suggests the nest has been destroyed, it is time to arrange for professional care:
- Place the bird in a shoebox you have given a soft lining, such as tissue paper, paper towels, an old dish towel, an old baby blanket, or a soft item of used clothing.
- Provide warmth for the baby bird. Hatchlings need temperatures of 95° to 97°F (35° to 36°C), about the same temperature as their mother’s body. Use a heating pad with a thermostat or water bottle to keep their box warm. Or fill an old sock with rice and microwave it, placing the sock in the box for additional warmth.
- If you put a like on the box, remember to poke several air holes first.
- Find a quiet, dark place for the box, where it won’t be disturbed by children or pets.
- Don’t give the bird food or water.
- Call the nearest wildlife center to pick up the bird.
In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, it is unlawful to keep a wild animal such as a bird in your home, even if it is abandoned or injured.
In Australia, keeping a wild animal may require getting a license under Part 2 of the Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2016, although you can keep an injured or abandoned budgie as a household pet.
Always Check for Signs of Illness or Injury
Any time you find a bird of any age on the ground, you should look for signs of illness or injury.
If the bird you find is sick or injured, you may need to be extra careful to keep it isolated from other pets, who might mistake it for a food source, and other birds, so it can not pass on its disease.
Signs a bird is sick or injured include:
- The bird is limping or wobbling.
- The bird tilts its head.
- The bird droops its wings.
- The bird has difficulty breathing, such as wheezing, panting, puffing, or sneezing.
- The bird has matted, missing, or dirty feathers.
- The bird has fluffed its feathers out.
- The bird has dull-looking, red, or swollen eyes.
- (For fledglings) The bird can’t fly.
Don’t try to take care of a sick or injured bird by yourself. Let the experts at your local wildlife or conservation center do that.
They have the expertise and the tools to help birds get well so they can return to the wild.
Will Parent Birds Reject Their Babies If They Have Been Touched by Humans?
Birds do not reject their offspring that have been handled by humans.
Birds have a very poor sense of smell. Even if human scent rubs off your hands and gets into the baby bird’s feathers, the little bird’s parents can’t smell it.
It is safe to pick up an egg or a hatchling from the ground and put it back in the nest.
It is safe to move a fledgling bird that couldn’t quite take off on its initial flight to a safe spot under a bush or in a shrub out of danger.
Frequently Asked Questions About Taking Care of Baby Birds
Q. What should I do if I find a fledgling hopping on the ground?
A. Hopping is normal behavior for birds that have their feathers but can’t fly yet.
If the fledgling is not in immediate danger from a predator, leave it alone. But make sure it is separated from aggressive dogs and cats.
Q. What should I do if I discover a nest has been destroyed?
A. Build a new nest in a woven basket lined with some soft, warm materials, like an old baby blanket, or an old dish towel, or cotton balls.
Place any intact eggs, hatchlings, or fledglings you found on the ground into the new nest, and hang it in a secure location as close as possible to the old nest.
When the parents find it, they will know what to do.
Q. What should I do if my cat or my dog brings a live baby bird home?
A. If your cat brings the baby bird to you, you should assume it has been injured, and take it to a wildlife rehabbed.
If your dog brings the baby bird into your house, assess whether the bird is healthy, and take it back to the nest, if you know where the nest is.
If the bird your dog brought in is a nestling, look for the bird’s nest where your dog has been. Not all birds build their nests in trees.
Some birds build nests in shrubs, in cracks and crevices in walls and masonry, and, of course, in bird houses.
If the bird your dog brings in is a fledgling, take it back outside and separate it from your dog for at least an hour. It may try flying again. If it does not, take it to a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Q. How can I tell if a bird is in immediate danger?
A. Look for threats from pets, people, lawn equipment, and cars.
For instance, if a bird falls out of the nest while you are mowing the lawn, or someone is mowing your lawn for you, move it so it won’t meet an unfortunate end in the lawn equipment.
If a nest falls from a tree onto a street, rescue the birds and call a wildlife rehabilitation center to take care of them.
If your cat is stationed underneath a bird house waiting for fledglings to fall to the ground, take Kitty indoors.
Q. I put a fledgling back into its nest, and it hopped right out. What did I do wrong?
Fledglings seldom return to the nest after their first attempts at flight. They just gather their strength and take off again to find their own new homes.
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