A young bird sits in an urban setting. Photo: Jo Naylor /CC BY-SA 2.0

As I walked to work on a busy New York City street one morning, two peeping baby sparrows on the sidewalk stopped me in my tracks. Should I move them to a safer location? Were they old enough to survive on their own? Just as I started to worry, mom showed up, and I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.

Most people have probably had a similar experience (an Audubon colleague did just the other day). You see a baby bird, apparently alone and in distress on the ground. Perhaps it chirps a few times, pulling at your heartstrings as you wonder whether you should pick up the creature or leave it alone and let nature take its course.

The later is typically the better choice. However, how you proceed depends on whether it’s a fledgling (what I encountered) or a nestling. Nestlings are completely fuzzy or have little to no feathers. Fledglings have entered what’s best characterized as awkward teenagerdom. They’re no longer as cute as they once were, still mooch off of their parents, and haven’t quite learned how to fly. They can, however, flutter quite well and usually get themselves out of harm’s way.

Once you’ve made that determination, you can decide what to do. Say it’s a fledgling. There are times when you should think about moving that bird. In a large city such as New York, sidewalk motion rarely ceases and traffic flows endlessly—making neither place a solid option for a bird. “If there’s a place nearby that’s a little bit safer, I would move the bird,” says Tod Winston of New York City Audubon. “But you want to put it somewhere where the parents still have access to it.”

Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon, suggests that if you have a nestling on your hands, look for its nest. Contrary to popular belief, birds do not have a strong sense of smell and thus will not abandon their young if you touch them. Search carefully—the nest will likely be well hidden. If you find it, simply place the baby bird back in the nest.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, if you can’t find the nest, you may have to resort to plan B. Create a substitute nest for the bird—berry baskets lined with soft material (such as a towel) work well. Make sure that there are small holes at the bottom for drainage. Then, tie the new nest securely to a tree and place the bird inside. More than likely, the parents will find their offspring and continue to feed it. Watch from a safe distance; if you’re right next to the nest chances are the parents will stay away until you leave.

If two hours pass without any sign of an adult bird, it’s time to take more drastic measures. Find your local wildlife rehabilitation center, or go to your local veterinarian. Chances are, they’ll know what to do with a baby bird. Organizations such as the Wild Bird Fund or your local Audubon Society can also offer advice. Baby birds may be cute, but they require constant feeding and care so the job is better left to its parents or professionals.

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