Question of the Week
Q. Why do birds leave the nest before they can fly?
Nestlings (left) are mostly featherless and helpless birds that should be returned to their nests, if possible. Fledglings (right) are mobile and well-feathered. Their parents are likely nearby and they rarely need help. (Images via Birdshare: Anne Elliot, left; Central Jersey Wildlife, right.)
At some point, nearly everyone who spends time outdoors finds a baby bird—one that is unable to fly well and seems lost or abandoned. Your first impulse may be to help the young bird, but in the great majority of cases the young bird doesn't need help. In fact, intervening often makes the situation worse. Here’s how to determine whether to take action:
The first thing to do is to figure out if the baby bird is a nestling or a fledgling.
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.
If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it's a nestling. If so, the nest is almost certainly nearby. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don't worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans.
If you have found both parents dead, the young bird is injured, you can't find the nest, or are absolutely certain that the bird was orphaned, then your best course of action is to bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator. A sick, injured or orphaned baby bird may need emergency care until you can get it to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Bottom line: remember that the vast majority of "abandoned" baby birds are perfectly healthy fledglings whose parents are nearby and watching out for them.
Past Questions of the Week
Q. How can I protect the baby birds in a nest from predatory birds and other predators like snakes and cats?
Q. What's the best recipe for hummingbird nectar?
Q. I found a nest near my house and want to observe it but I am worried about disturbing it. Can you give me any advice?
Q. I found a baby bird. What should I do?
Q. There's a bird nesting near my house. What should I do?
Q. I’m getting married next month. Is it true that rice causes birds’ stomachs to explode?
Q. What's good nesting material to offer birds?
Q. What is a “Big Day”?
Q. How can I keep birds from hitting my windows?
Q. I often see birds on telephone wires while I’m driving—how do I figure out what they are from such a short glimpse?
Q. Why do woodpeckers like to hammer on houses? And what can I do about it?
Q. I live in a high-rise apartment in the city. How can I attract birds?
Q. There's a bird in my yard I've never seen before. How can I find out what it is?
Q. I’m getting a little tired of winter—What are some of the first spring birds to arrive, and when will they get here?
Q. Why do birds have such elaborate and varied courtship rituals?
Q. How can Bald Eagles survive in northern areas after all the lakes have frozen?
Q. How long do wintering Snowy Owls stay with us before they return to their breeding grounds?
Q. Are cardinals brighter in winter?
Q. Will birds use nest boxes to roost in for warmth during the winter?
Q. There's a hummingbird at my feeder in the dead of winter. Will he be okay?
Q. Is it unusual to see American Robins in the middle of winter?
Q. How do birds survive in very cold temperatures?
Q. Why don't birds get cold feet?
Q. Do birds store food for the winter?
Q. What can you tell us about the habitat associations of partridges and in particular whether pear trees are ever involved?
Q. A hawk has started hunting the feeder birds in my yard. What can I do?
Q. How much do birds eat each day?
Q. Where did the domestic turkey come from?
Q. I thought geese migrated south in the winter and north in the summer. Why did I just see a flock of Canada Geese flying in the "wrong" direction?
Q. Why do migratory birds crash into buildings at night and how can people prevent it from happening?
Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?
Q. How do birds prepare for long migrations?
Q. Should I stop feeding birds in fall so they can start their migration?
Q. What is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?
Q. I’m seeing fewer birds in my yard. Is something affecting their populations?
Q. Sometimes I see little birds going after a big bird. Why do they do this?
Q. My feeders are being overrun with pigeons and blackbirds who eat all the food and keep the smaller birds away. What can I do?
Q. How can I share my bird photos with the Lab?
Q. How do I keep the squirrels in my yard away from my feeders and bird seed?
Q. Where can I go to watch hawk migration?
Q. Should I stop feeding hummingbirds in the fall so that they will migrate?
Q. After birds leave a nest, can I clean out the nest for future use?