Should I Stay or Should I Go?

If You Find a Baby Bird, What Should You Do?

You’re walking along and suddenly you notice a baby bird on the ground. What should you do?

The first thing you need to determine is whether the baby bird you’ve found is a hatchling, nestling, or a fledgling. Here are the differences.

Hatchling: A hatchling has recently hatched from the egg and looks like a newborn with no hair and the eyes are usually closed. Most likely it has fallen from the nest due to bad weather or some other disturbance. If you find a hatchling on the ground it will need help as they are unable to fend for themselves and will most likely die without intervention.

Nestling: A nestling is a little older than a hatchling but is still not capable of surviving on its own. Nestlings are usually around three days to two weeks old, and usually have a few feathers. If you find a nestling on the ground, it will need help like a hatchling because they it, too, is vulnerable to weather, predators, and malnourishment.

Fledgling: Fledglings are juvenile birds that are older than nestlings. Their eyes are open and they have more developed feathers. They are still learning to fly and are often seen hopping around after flight attempts. Most likely they are fine where they are and are not in need of rescue. The parents are probably nearby keeping an eye on things.

Stop and look at the surroundings and whether the bird seems injured. Do you see any fallen nests on the ground? Were there recent strong winds or storms that moved through? Most of the time, the best thing to do is to leave the bird alone as its parents are probably nearby.

If you find a baby bird, it likely does not need your help unless it is clearly a nestling that is featherless or has its eyes closed. These birds aren’t ready to leave the nest yet and are the most vulnerable. If you can locate the nest nearby, the best thing to do is simply place the nestling back in the nest. Make sure to wash your hands before and after you handle the bird or wear gloves. Not doing so could result in transmission of H5N1, or bird flu, as well as spreading germs or bacteria to the baby bird.

If you cannot locate the nest, leave the nestling where you found it or move it to a shaded area. The parents will come back.

As birds get bigger, they outgrow the nest and need room to move around, flap their wings and learn to fly. These more developed birds are fledglings and they can easily be identified by their more developed feathers. They can hop and flutter on their own. Fledglings don’t need help – their parents are nearby and still caring for them. Be sure to give them plenty of space. In this case it’s best to let nature takes its course.

If you are able to put the baby bird, a hatchling or nestling, back in its nest, hang around if you can and watch from a distance to see if a parent comes back to the nest. This may take some time but if you can’t stay, try to come back later and check on it.

If you are unable to find a safe place to put the baby bird, or it’s visibly injured, gently pick the bird up and put it in a paper bag or small box. Do not give the bird food or water, and bring it to a rehabilitator immediately. Finding a location that can handle the species you’ve found is key. Always call ahead and make arrangements before transporting the bird.

Many state conservation agencies keep a list of licensed rehabilitators on their websites. Try doing a web search for “wildlife rehabilitator near me” and you should find some resources. If you’re specifically looking for a bird rehabilitator, you can click here to access a map of bird rehabilitator locations.

Our feathered friends are currently facing multiple threats including loss of habitat, climate change, building collisions, outdoor cats, overuse of pesticides and more. It’s natural for us to want to help. But a good, simple way we can come to the aid of baby birds is to follow these basic rules before we decide whether to stay or go.

Ross A. FeldnerRCC Board Member

Publications and Web Consultant, Ross FeldnerRoss Feldner is the lead, with Bob Musil, of the RCC Bird Watch and Wonder Program. Ross is a life-long birder and photographer who is the editor of the Friends of Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge newsletter. Ross also serves as a guide at the Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge, a frequent birding spot for Rachel Carson who first learned about the health effects of DDT at the laboratory there. He is also the owner/art director of New Age Graphics, a full-service graphic design firm in Wheaton, MD.