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To Help or Not: What to Do When a Baby Bird is Grounded

Rachel Blackmere @2008
This fledgling oriole was removed from his home territory as he was learning to fly. 

Those looking for inspiration to celebrate their mothers and fathers this spring can peer into most any tree and witness nature’s nurturing.

This is the time of year when birds raise their young. And they tend to take chick-rearing very seriously, which is why it’s important for anyone watching over a fresh flock to know what human actions can ruffle bird mothers’ and fathers’ feathers—and inadvertently cause more harm than good.

A Fledgling’s Tale

When a teacher found a Northern Oriole alone on a walkway behind her school in Falmouth, Mass., she removed him from the path—worried that he’d be bothered by children nearby. What the teacher might not have realized is that the young oriole’s parents were likely watching her every move and were likely greatly concerned by her intervention.

Baby Bird Life Stages

– newly hatched, or less than 1 week old, eyes closed, may have down, most are naked.

Nestlings – eyes are opening; may have down and/or pin feathers (growing feathers)

Fledglings - fully feathered; growing tail feather

Fledgling orioles are fed bugs by their parents about every half an hour. Once this bird was moved away from his family, his source of nutrition and guidance was removed as well. He would not have been able to survive for long.

Fortunately he was brought to the Cape Wildlife Center, where staff knew just what to do. The first order of business was feeding him mixed soaked ferret chow, minced fruit, and mealworms to ensure he would survive the night.

Within two week’s time staff’s constant attention was no longer needed. The fledgling was finally strong enough to enjoy an outside aviary, where he acclimated to the weather and practiced flying. The oriole continued to gain weight, and staff closely monitored his development outside.

In two more weeks’ time, the now strong and fully fledged juvenile oriole was ready for his freedom. On a joyous spring day, staff successfully released him back to his home territory behind the school.

If You Care, Leave Them There

Many birds who appear to be orphans are not. A fledgling, or a young bird who is just learning to fly—or fledge—can look helpless hopping on the ground. But unless he has visible injuries, he doesn’t need help.

A fledgling is the equivalent of a toddler learning to stand up straight after falling. Because he’s just learning to fly, it’s easier for him to learn from the ground rather than from a nest high up in a tree. Birds’ parents carefully watch their grounded fledglings, so pets should be kept a safe distance away, where they won’t be able to interfere in the fledgling’s lesson.

There are other ways in which you can help a bird family. If you find a nest blown out of a tree you can put the nest back on its perch.

It’s not true that birds will reject their babies if people have touched them. Most birds have a very poor sense of smell and cannot tell if their nestlings have been held. Nonetheless, it’s best to wear gloves when handling any wild animal.

You can put a baby bird back in his nest or put a nest back in a tree. If the nest has been destroyed, create a new one using a margarine tub. Cut holes in the bottom of the tub for drainage and place toilet tissue inside for nesting material. The nest should be placed in the same tree or bush at the same height as the original—or a nearby tree at the same height. The parents will find their babies and continue caring for them.

You can also take the fledging to a wildlife rehabilitator if it appears as if his parents are missing in action. A nestling’s parents work very hard to feed their babies, who need to be fed every 10 minutes from sun up to sundown in order to survive. If an adult bird is found on the ground or if an adult bird has not visited his or her nest in several hours, then the babies might need to be rescued.

Under these conditions, bring the baby birds to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who will identify and feed them a special diet. Rehabilitators also provide appropriate perching materials for nestlings as they grow.

Related Links

  • Read about orphaned baby raccoons who spent time in rehabilitation before gaining enough skills to be released in the wild.

Offsite Links

  • To find a licensed rehabilitation center in your state, you can check these links for states (A-M) [link to ] and for states (N-W).

Posted: May 30, 2008