In the third grade, my teacher found what she thought was an abandoned baby bird on the school grounds. She asked if someone in the class would care for it, and days later, the European Starling I named Bluego (for a reason I wish I remembered) was living in a cardboard box in my bedroom, padded with fake spider web left over from Halloween. As a child, I was thrilled to be on my way toward becoming a wildlife rescuer, but years later I wondered if it was the right thing to do.
As I’ve learned, it probably wasn’t. Like the vast majority of baby birds that people encounter, Bluego was a weeks-old fledgling—not a newly born nestling. And this distinction is critical, wildlife rehabbers say, because most fledglings don’t need to be rescued. “Eighty percent of baby birds that come in have basically just been kidnapped,” says Melanie Furr, education director at the Atlanta Audubon Society and a licensed volunteer at Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort. “They need to be taken back.”
Wandering from the nest is exactly what fledglings—which are just learning to fly—are supposed to do, she says. It's a normal part of a bird's development, and though these chicks might appear abandoned, they’re likely under surveillance by their parents nearby. Of course, there is a chance that they could be injured, sick, or in danger, so there are some cases where a fledgling might require assistance.
Nestlings, on the other hand, are almost always in need of rescue. Whether they fell or got pushed from their nest, they’re "not ready to go off into the world," says Rita McMahon, Co-Founder and Director of the Wild Bird Fund, a nonprofit animal rehab center in New York. How to help them, though, can vary.
To know when you should intervene—and how you can help if needed—ask yourself the questions below.
Is the bird a nestling or fledgling?
When you come across a rogue baby, first determine its age, McMahon says. And there’s one obvious sign: feathers. While fledglings are larger and covered almost completely in down and feathers, nestlings are small and typically naked—or with just a few fluffs. In other words, one looks like an awkward young bird, and the other kind of looks like a pink little alien. You can also distinguish age by movement: fledglings can hop, whereas nestlings might simply drag themselves on the ground by their bare wings.
If you’ve found a healthy fledgling: “Walk away from the bird,” McMahon says. Rescuing healthy fledglings is not only unnecessary, but it can be detrimental to their development. When raised by hand, she says, babies might confuse humans as their parents (not unlike the geese in the movie Fly Away Home). If that happens, “they don’t know how to be a bird,” McMahon says.
If you’ve found a nestling: Help. First, look for the baby’s nest in the nearby bushes or trees; if you find it, simply put the chick back and the parents will resume care. And don’t worry about touching the bird: The idea that once you’ve touched a baby bird it will be rejected is not true, says Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon. “Birds have a sense of smell, but it’s not very well developed,” Elbin says. “They’re not going to abandon their chick.”
If the nest is nowhere to be found or simply out of reach, just craft one yourself, Furr says. Find a small container, like a strawberry basket, and load it with a scrap of T-shirt or some straw—anything dry will do. Gently place the youngling inside, and affix the artificial nest in a tree close to where the bird was found. “You want to get it as high up as possible,” Furr says.
Once you've returned the bird to a nest—whether real or homemade—keep an eye out for the parents. If they don’t return within an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitation center.
Is the bird sick, wounded, or at risk?
Whether you come across a fledgling or nestling, it's important to assess whether the bird needs medical help or is in danger.
Often, it’s clear when the bird is in need of urgent care—if the cat dragged it in, that’s a sure sign. Other times the signals are more subtle: Though it’s a fledgling, it can’t stand or hop normally. The feathers might be wet though it’s not raining, indicating discharge or an illness that inhibits the production of preening oils. Or maybe it’s surrounded by flies, which might signal an open wound.
During hot summer months, dehydration is also common, McMahon says. “Their belly is like a prune, wrinkled, shriveled and suck in,” she says.
If you think you’ve found a sick or wounded fledgling or nestling, call a rehabber, state wildlife agency, or veterinarian immediately. If it’s after hours, take the baby to a safe and warm location, Furr says, such as a closed box with air holes and a heating pad beneath it. And even if your parental instincts kick in, don’t feed the baby, she says.
“People have good intentions and think the baby bird is going to starve,” Furr says. “But a lot of times it ends up doing more harm than good.”
At Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort, she’s seen babies with food in their lungs from improper feeding. But if the chick is just kept in a dark place, its metabolism will slow down, she says, leaving plenty of time for professional rehabbers to swoop in for a rescue.
You might also come across a fledgling or nestling that’s not injured, but at risk—such as from a prowling cat or human feet. Here’s an easy fix: “Put it in a bush,” Elbin says. In other words, hide the chick or put it in a place that’s out of reach or out of the way.
And after all this, if you’re still not sure if the bird needs help or what to do, before doing anything, call your local wildlife rehabilitation center. Helping animals—and preventing fledgling kidnappings—is what they do.
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