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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

sparrow in hand

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.

sparrow in grass

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.

sparrow in yard

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.


27 Responses to “When To Help A Baby Bird, And When To Leave It Alone”

    • Anonymous

      I watched a Robyn take care of her babies & they all flew off but one, ….. I hope she flys away soon it seems like shes afraid but the moma bird keeps coming back to check on her , I hope everythings ok with the baby❤ I love bird watching .

      Reply
  1. Clint

    Very good to know. Thank you…again! And it makes me think of what might possibly make a story: why do we never see baby seagulls? Where are they!!?

    Reply
    • W. Marc

      They are on the roof terraces of our building. The nests can hardly be called nests, a few sticks, rocks, even a chicken bone randomly dropped in a spot.

      Reply
  2. Sally D

    Nice article to be shared with do-gooder friends!

    When I was a kid a ruby-crowned kinglet made a nest in a spruce tree right outside our dining room window. One day we experienced a particularly severe downpour, and the tree was offering scant protection. My mother went out and tucked an open umbrella above the nest. I have long thought that her protective act probably visited enough stress on the mother bird to have been more harm than good, but now I’m wondering? Do baby birds ever drown in nests in heavy rain?

    Reply
  3. Marie

    A mamma bird had 3 babies in a hanging plant in my porch over the days ive seen the mamma coming and going since we had a. Storm last night i haven’t seen her at all today ! What can i do ? They are in the nest with eyes open and mouths open help please

    Reply
  4. Shea

    I have watched these doves lay 4 times. This pair has gotten big enough to fledge…then one died unexpectedly. The other baby fledged shortly after his sibling fell from the nest. Now it’s dark,cold and he’s sitting on my fence all alone. I’m worried about him. I’m guessing I should leave him be…as hard as it is…especially after watching the other baby die.

    Reply
  5. Scott

    I didn’t know that birds don’t have a well-developed sense of smell. I had always heard that if you touched them in any way then the mother bird won’t care for them anymore. A couple years ago a couple baby ducks were hanging out in my yard. My children wanted to play with them, but I told them that the mother wouldn’t care for them if they touched them. Does the same thing apply to ducks as well?

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      If you touch a baby bird (ducks included) its mother will still take care of it.

      Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Good info, we just found a fledgling in the back yard and were wanting to help it but we keep an eye out instead and keep dogs from backyard. Thanks again

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      Literally same exact situation for me. Found 2 fledglings, 1 flew away with Mom. I was scared that it was an orphan, but I read this article, so I’m just keeping an eye on it. Keeping dogs out of backyard as well!

      Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Found a fledgling hopping around, learning to fly, but it was starting to snow. It was soaked so I dried it off and let it go. The parents were around and attended to it after I let it out, but it got too cold overnight and it didn’t make it. I know letting nature take its course is preferable, but I think I will keep it indoors overnight next time.

    Reply
  8. Marion

    Man, I really need think before I act,rather than acting first and thinking later..lol. I found a fledgling(didn’t know it was even called that at the time, just learned that here on this site) hopping around in my newly planted garden. I was watering and almost sprayed it,when I seen it run hopping away trying to fly but just couldn’t I felt SOOO bad. I immediately swooped it up and put it in a bird cage I had sitting outside that I just finished cleaning for my tiels, when 2 birds dive bombed me..guessing mommy and daddy?.. Well anyways, I still brought it in for the night and syringe fed it water and specialty formula for birds. I’ve already found 2 others dead in the backyard and I just couldn’t bear finding another. But then I read this,and immediately let it go back in the yard. Mom and dad are still hanging around, they actually never left but what I want to know is if they will still help it/look after it/teach it after what I did?? I really hope so! Pls let me know ASAP cuz if not I will call a wildlife rehab near me. Thanks!

    Reply
  9. Danielle

    I just took one in because 2 starlings were pecking and attacking him, trying to pick him up, and I guess kill it. I couldn’t bear that, so I scooped him up and now have him indoors in a big crate with a towel fir warmth, some water, and some bird seed. I feed it with tweezers with some suet on it. I’m planning on letting him go once this rain stops. I just had to take him in because I did not want anything to happen to him. I get wildlife is wildlife, but nothing is getting eaten alive under my watch!! I’m hoping he’s strong enough to fly when I let him go free. He really is the cutest thing ever!!!

    Reply
  10. Cecilia

    All good information. Me and my fiance found a fledgling stuck down below in a window well, so we scooped it out and let it go. But it ran near another window well just so I covered that well up with some cardboard to keep the fledgling from falling in again. He’s seems to want to stay on top of the cardboard so we’re just leaving him there. His parents are nearby, hopefully keeping an eye on him. Since it’s been raining tonight though, we left him some birdseed and a dry piece of sweatshirt close (the well has a roof over it) so hopefully he stays warm. And I left that basement window open, so hopefully he also gets a bit of heat from the house. I hope he survives and that his parents haven’t abandoned him.

    Reply
  11. danielle erickson

    May 24ish 2016-July 18, 2016
    Branches too high for me to return or make nest for hatchling-nestling thrown from nest during high wind so took home. Thanks to advise from experienced humane society and especially CORNELL ORNITHOLOGY DEPARTMENT ,Bird, (once feathered, a grackle, yes, they too have purpose) bird fledged and after days of walking around with me in the grass and staying outside for several hours each day and out two separate nights (free to come and go)–hopefully learned enough skills to survive–in retrospect the last time she tried to come back was the hottest day of the summer–over 90 degrees and she looked more than distressed. Stools were purplish and watery, eating only berries?? A little shade, food, water and protection from neighboring hawk might have been called for but I left. I fear she may have tried to follow me to location she had not been before. She was a beauty and funny! Hopefully, she made it despite my poor last decision. I miss her antics. Thank you for your patience and expertise, Cornell. It has been an education!

    Reply
  12. Marion

    Have a birdhouse in my yard, keeping an eye on them because twigs and bedding might have been too much for them as one appeared too close to falling out of opening. Come home, and two baby birds fell in grass under house. Placed them back inside gently, can I remove some twigs ? Mom and Dad are very attentive bringing bugs for feeding, babies as big as my thumb, feathered eyes closed not hopping yet…HELP? Also saw sparrow peering in house, babies are not sparrows…

    Reply
  13. Leah

    Hi I have a problem with my bird box my dog has killed and ate a parent and ever since I hadn’t seen a parent so I looked in to check on them and I seen scratch marks from my dog and I called the rspca and they said take it in the house when we went to take it as soon as we moved the bird box an adult flew out but it was not like the bluetits that we had well it looked much darker but if it was a parent will it come back or not?

    Reply
  14. Nancy

    Good to know this information We have baby blue birds being fed by mom and dad. We love watching them so much. Should be flying out soon. 😊

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    I’m training a baby bird but its mother still giving it worms.

    Reply
  16. Jennifer Starost

    I was trimming my tall spiral bush late yesterday and noticed some plastic wire mesh hanging off the top and pulled it. Well to my surprise, a whole nest came out with 2 hatchlings. One rolled onto the grass. I put on gloves and put it back in the nest. I put the nest back. I kept worrying that the intervention may cause them to be abandoned. What do you think? I checked on them this morning and they are still alive. I haven’t ever seen any parents around but its not in an easy to watch spot and i have to get out a step ladder out to see inside. I don’t want to intervene again in fear of disrupting them but how long should i wait before trying to find them help? Like how long can they live without mom or dad? If they are only a couple days old then in reading here they should need food every 20 min.

    Reply
    • Jennifer Starost

      Update:. I watched here and there and there was no mom. I had to leave during the day and got home around 4pm. Only one was alive. But to my surprise there was actually 3 birds in there and it must have been dead before I found the nest. I suspect that the nest was abandoned prior. So i took the hatchling in and gave water before i researched what to give it, but i didn’t drown it thank god. I brought it into the humane society to give to the wildlife rescue and they suggested wet cat food in the interim so thats what we gave it. Hope its doing well in their care.

      Reply
  17. Craug

    I found a little fledgling on the ground in my backyard. It was flying at my feet chirping. I left it alone then came outside again right before dark and it was flying at my feet again. Seemed it was asking for help. It lookd healthy so I put it in a shoe box with some tissue. I am going to release it first thing in the morning. I figured the cats in the neighbourhood were going to get it so just for tonight in the shoebox and hopefully it makes it tomorrow when released. There was not even any twilight when I grabbed it.

    Reply
  18. J Dixon

    We had a Robins nest on our porch for a while now and today when I got home the babies had left their nest. I removed the empty nest because we are having work done to our porch. I just went back outside 2 hours later and the 3 baby birds are perched where the nest was. I am devastated! Did I remove the nest too soon? I’ve read in so many places that the babies don’t return to the nest once they leave. Does anyone have any idea why this has happened?

    Reply
  19. Michael Taylor

    We have a pigeon nest in our garden. The adults have been taking turns to look after the baby for 4 weeks. We haven’t seen either adult for over 24hrs now, that’s not to say they haven’t been back, we just haven’t seen them. However, we can see the baby in the nest. Seems quite healthy. Should we intervene?

    Reply

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