It’s a common call/email/text that most bird watchers get this time of year:
“HELP! I just saved a baby bird! What do I do? What do I feed it?”
My typical answer is, “Put it back where you found it because you most likely found a fledgling learning to fly and it needs to be back in the wild to finish flight school,” which I find to be a very unpopular answer.
If it is an emergency and since I get calls and texts from all over the country (even a few out of the country), I direct people to Rehabber Search or Wildlife Rehabber. Both of those sites allow you to enter your zip code or state and find someone nearby who has the state and federal permits that allows them to treat wild birds.
However, let’s take a moment to figure out if the type of baby bird you found truly does need help. The general rule is that if it has feathers, it can fly and leave it be. But maybe this will help you triage the situation when you see a baby bird:
This is a very young House Wren. You typically do not find a bird this naked or featherless outside of the nest unless there has been a storm or the nest has been attacked by predator like a raccoon, chipmunk, squirrel or corvids. If you happen to find a baby bird this featherless, take a moment–is there a bird nearby chirping at you angrily? That is probably one of the adults. See if you can find a nearby nest, if you can reach it easily place the chick back into it. If it’s after a storm, try gathering nesting material and place it in a dish up off the ground. A Cool Whip container works well (punch some drainage holes below it) and the adults might still care for it. Keep in mind that if you stand out in the open and watch, the adult birds are going to think it’s a trap and ignore the chick.
If the nest was in a bird house, open the house and check the damage. You may be able to repair it and the adults will finish rearing the chicks. Do not worry about touching the baby birds. The adults of most species will still care for the chicks no matter how much you touch them. That’s an old wives’ tale that says bird won’t take care of a baby bird with a human smell on it–not true at all.
If you cannot find the nest or it’s too destroyed, do not try and raise a chick this young. It’s easy to choke it with food while you’re feeding it and chances are good that you’d raise the chick like a pet and you’d end up with an adult bird that doesn’t know what its predators are and seek humans for food and mating…aka an unreleasable bird. It’s illegal to raise wild birds (even orphaned ones) without state and federal permits. Use the wildlife rahbber links at the top of this page to find a licensed pro near you.
This young American Robin may look gangly but it’s supposed to be out of the nest, it’s fine. If you see a baby bird running around on the ground with this many feathers–it doesn’t need your help. This is the equivalent of a 15 year old with a learner’s permit. Believe it or not, most of the birds that nest in backyards are ready to leave it 13 – 15 days after hatching! They need another day or two to figure out how to use the flappy things on the sides of their body and yeah for a week they are going to be awkward in their movements and very vulnerable to predation (especially cats, keep them indoors) but this adults hang out and watch them. They give them warning calls, teaching them what is dangerous and when to hide. If a baby bird at this stage is taken to a rehabber, it’s waste of the rehabber’s time and the chicks will miss valuable training from their parents. Wildlife rehabbers are good, but what human can teach where to flip the best leaves to look for grubby larvae? What human can point out a fox hidden nearby and how to avoid it? Humans can fatten birds up and get them strong enough to fly, but we can’t teach them the really important stuff for bird survival.
Keep in mind that birds at this stage will flutter and look like it can’t fly very well, but it’s fine, it’s all part of the learning process. If it is in immediate danger from cats, try and shoo it away from the cat and lock the cat up indoors (preferably for good) or at least while the bird learns to fly.
Do not attempt to put a baby bird that is fully feathered like this back in the nest. Once they are old enough to flop out of the nest, they have no desire to stay there.
Young raptors like the above Bald Eagle chick are a different matter. They take a lot longer to grow and develop, unlike the two week growing process of most songbirds. If you find a young hawk or eagle out of the nest and it is covered in down and is unable to stand on its huge feet, it needs to get back in the nest. Many states have rehabbers who only do birds of prey. Many partner up with tree climbers who attempt to get the chicks back to the nest and under the care of the adults. Some even go as far as to rebuild the nest or make a platform beneath the nest and place the chick on that. When that isn’t possible, many raptor rehabbers keep tabs on nests and will place an abandon chick in a foster nest. Birds of prey look cool, but they can’t count. A female red-tail may leave a nest to hunt for her two chicks and return to feed a rabbit to three chicks without noting an increase in the number of chicks a rehabber has placed there.
Owls are a little different. They don’t build nests and some like Great Horned Owls take over old hawk or squirrel nests. They do no rennovations and the nests usually fall apart about midway through the season. Before baby owls (like the above Great Horned Owl chicks) are able to fly, they go through what is called a “brancher phase.” Their feet are already fully grown and very strong. If they blow out of the nest, they can usually climb their way up to a branch and the parents till tend to them. If you find a fluffy owl that looks similar to the bird in the above photo, it’s probably a brancher and the adults are waiting for you to leave to care for it. Leave it be. Feel free to contact a raptor rehabber, but they will guide you through questions about the brancher phase. Remember that owls are masters at hiding, you may not see the adults, but they see you and they won’t go near the chick while you are there…even if you’re hiding behind a tree. They have excellent hearing, they know you’re still there.
Young waterfowl are their own weird set of problems. Above are Canada Goose goslings. The first few years for female ducks and geese are kind of practice rounds. They need to learn by trial and error (often deadly to the chicks) where to safely place the nest, how to keep young in a tight group and hide them to avoid predators. Sometimes females have eggs to lay but no nest and the eggs can end up anywhere from other duck and goose nests…there was even a case in Minnesota where a Canada Goose laid an egg in an Osprey nest and the raptors incubated and hatched it!
The best bet for a lone duckling or gosling is to hook up with another brood of chicks. Experienced Canada geese will corral young from less experienced females and you’ll find rafts of 20 goslings tended by a four adults–safety in large numbers. A lone gosling or duckling is vulnerable to all sorts of predators like raptors, bass, herons, fox, snapping turtles and foxes (just to name a few). Try to get it too another family group or contact a wildlife rehabber. Some rehabbers even have surrogate ducks or geese that they can raise a lone chick with and teach it to survive. Never raise a wild goose or duckling yourself. Some feed stores try to sell the ducklings as educational projects for kids over the summer. The thinking is that in late summer when the ducklings are adults, they can be released in the wild. Granted, it’s fun for kids to raise some ducks but keep in mind, no one teaches these ducks what their predators are and most succumb to fox and coyote attacks within a week of being released as adults. Also, the ducks have associated humans as their flock and food and are very confused when dumped in a park.
At the end of the day, most of the baby birds dropped off to rehabbers do not need to be rescued. It’s hard to watch nature sometimes, it’s a bird eat bird world and when disaster strikes a nest, our love of birds often drives us to want to help them. Remember, that if it is an emergency go to Rehabber Search or Wildlife Rehabber and find a licensed pro wildlife rehabber to help you out.