Photo: Mandy Dickinson, nwf.org
This is far from an uncommon occurrence. If your garden has plenty of trees that birds could nest in, it’s something you’re bound to run into. Sometimes, it happens several times a summer.
What should you do? Well, first, assess the situation. Starting with … what does the young bird look like?
If it’s a fledgling, that is a young bird fully feathered, not yet flying, but able to hop, you probably don’t need to do anything. It was probably learning to fly and ended up on the ground. The parents are likely nearby and in fact, may be making quite a ruckus. While their cries may seem like a distress call, they’re actually encouraging the fledging to try again.
If you leave it alone, the parents will likely come and feed it. In many species, fledgings usually do spend a few days on the ground or in low branches, working things out. This is just normal fledgling behavior. You might want to keep an eye on it for an hour or so, just to make sure the parents are caring for it. Otherwise, all you really need to do is to keep your cat indoors until it finally does take off.
Unfortunately, about 80% of the baby birds placed in rehabilitation centers are fledgings that were kidnapped by people thinking they were helping out, but they weren’t. Fledgings shouldn’t be taken from the wild. They were doing fine on their own!
You can put the little guy onto a low branch if you want: it will be a little safer than on the ground. But don’t put it back in its nest, even if you can see it: it has passed that stage and will only leave immediately. The nest is no longer its home.
But what if it is injured, with say a wing that sticks out instead of folding up, or there are signs of blood? Or it’s been attacked by a cat? (That may leave wounds that aren’t obvious, but could become infected.) Or maybe the baby is clearly weak? Then you should consider calling your local wildlife department to learn what licensed wildlife rehabilitation programs are available.
What, though, if it’s a nestling, scrawny, downy and featherless, far too young to be on its own? It was probably blown from the nest or accidentally pushed out. Such a bird will likely die if you don’t intervene.
Try to locate the nest, probably in the tree just above the baby. If you can and it’s of easy access (don’t risk your own life trying to save a baby bird!), put the baby back in the nest. Be forewarned that the parents may try to dive bomb you: they’re protecting their nest and don’t understand you’re trying to help.
Yes, you can pick pick the nestling up in your hand. The belief that mother birds will be able to smell that a human has handled a nestling and will then reject it is just an old wives’ tale.
If there’s more than one nestling on the ground, it’s likely the whole nest has blown down. If you can find it and it’s intact, try putting it back, fixing it to the branch with twine or wire, and setting the babies inside. If it’s in pieces, prepare a substitute nest, for example a small wicker basket, a kitchen strainer or a plastic bowl with a hole in the bottom (so any rain will drain out), line it with dry grass or cloth, then attach that to the tree. Then put the nestling(s) inside.
Do this quite quickly, as birds that young are quite fragile.
Now, watch the situation. If no parent bird shows up, call your local wildlife department.
What if it’s on the ground and running about, yet still covered in down? Then it’s probably “precocial”, from a species like a grouse, pheasant, duck or plover that nests on the ground. These babies are up and mobile within minutes of hatching, even feeding themselves. So, actually, there may not really be anything wrong, other than your presence that has separated the baby from its parents. So, pull back out of sight and wait to see if the parents aren’t just waiting for you to leave before collecting their baby. Usually, they are and the family will soon move on. Only if there is no sign of the parents after two hours should you consider intervening.
While Waiting for the Wildlife Rehabilitator
So, mama and papa bird have not shown up and you’ve called the appropriate wildlife rehabilitator? If so, they’re either coming or you’re to take it to them. In that case, put the baby bird in a small box like a shoebox with a cloth or some paper at the bottom and keep it warm, quiet and out of the wind and rain. Do not feed it. (Each species has its preferred diet and can be harmed if you give it the wrong one.)
What Not to Do
Do not bring the bird into the house thinking you’ll care for it yourself. In most areas, raising a native bird is illegal. In North America, it’s in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that covers Canada and the US. Even if you did try to raise it, it would not likely survive once released. A specialized rehabilitator, though, would know what to feed it and how to care for it and make sure it learns the basics of survival on its own before releasing it.
Or just walk away and let Mother Nature take care of the situation. She’s pretty cruel, though. One estimate is that only 30% of baby songbirds survive their first year. Baby birds are an important source of food for a large number of animals and other birds: foxes, hawks, snakes and many more. Some have to be sacrificed for the circle of life to continue: that’s just the way it is!