Leave Baby Birds Be

Baby_Bird_by_Monique_HaenThis is the time of year when birds begin their reproductive cycle in the northern hemisphere. People find eggs, nests, and baby birds and try to help them. Generally, that is not a good idea. Only 10-20% of songbird eggs ever result in an adult bird. The eggs might be infertile, die during incubation due to genetic or environmental causes, or be eaten by predators. Weather might blow the nest out of the tree or the young might starve. When young birds leave the nest they cannot fly and are still dependent on their parents and the risk of death from predators and weather is amplified.

During the first five days after hatching, baby birds are blind, naked, helpless and cannot maintain a steady warm body temperature. During the next five days or so their eyes open, they develop thermoregulation, and grow some feathers. At about 10 days of age they leave the nest. They are now fledglings. Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the young jump from the nest, unable to fly, and for the next ten days or so are fed by their parents. Unfortunately this stage is when they are most likely to be seen and found by humans.

Humans, being the empathetic creatures they are, feel sorry for this poor bird that “fell from its nest” and try to “rescue” it. Don’t do it. The parents may not be seen but they are there, taking care of their offspring until the young can fly. If you take the bird away, you badly disturb the bird family and you are unlikely to take care of the bird as well as the parents can. And don’t try to return it to the nest. Leave it alone. Repeat: leave it alone.

Occasionally, a young helpless bird falls or is knocked from its nest or a tree trimmer trims the wrong branch and the whole nest comes down. It this case, the babies or eggs will not survive. So what do you do? Well, if you have a bird rehab center in your area, call them. They have the skills and dedication to take care of the birds. But don’t just pick up the bird or egg and take it to a vet or wildlife official or nearest biology department because it is unlikely that they will have the time or resources to devote to hatching an egg and/or raising a baby songbird.

You can try to raise the egg or young yourself, but there are three important caveats here:

  1. It is VERY difficult to do without experience
  2. It is VERY time consuming as baby birds need to be fed around the clock
  3. It is ILLEGAL to do so unless you have a federal permit

Go to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for more information on orphaned birds.

Sure, it’s difficult to leave a baby bird alone when you see it on the ground. But this is how nature has operated for millions of years; human interference rarely helps. So leave the bird be unless you are absolutely certain the bird is abandoned and in trouble and you have a place to bring it for experienced care.


12 thoughts on “Leave Baby Birds Be

  1. I was picking up tree debris and found a nestling age bird on the ground. We couldn’t locate the nest but placed it in a little alcove (padded with soft palm tree material) up in a tree within feet of where the bird was found. Do the parents find the baby by sound? We hope they will find it. Is there a way for me to send a picture to you to see if you can identify what kind of bird it is. Its black and gray but it’s beak looks like a crow to me.

    1. When you find a nestling, half or more feathered, the bird jumped out of the nest because it was time to do so. Never try to put them back in the nest because they will just jump out again. They cannot fly yet but their parents will take care of them until they can. Just put the bird on the ground under a shrub – the parents will find it and care for it. You can send me a photo at rlederer@csuchico.edu

  2. I found a baby fledgling yesterday. I did not feel there was a safe place to put it as it was in the hot sun and right next to the road. I put it in some nearby woods. Do u think the mom will find it? What is an acceptable radius? It was only a bit down the block. I hope it will be ok.

    1. You did the right thing. I don’t know what an acceptable radius is as I don’t have any idea of your situation. Mom will probably find the baby and all will be ok. Thank you for your concern.

      1. We have a bird house in our yard and I believe a baby was recently born. Today I found a blind baby bird on the lawn and it was raining so I put on a glove and put the bird back in the birdhouse. Did I do the wrong thing?

        1. You may have done the wrong thing. If the bird came from a birdhouse, it probably jumped so it was ready to leave the nest in which case you should not have put it back. It’s not likely it fell out of a birdhouse if that’s where it came from.If it had feathers it was waterproof. By the way, you do not have to put on gloves to handle a bird or nest or eggs. Birds will not be repelled by human smell; that’s a myth.

          1. Thank you Dr. Lederer. Will this harm its development or will it simply leave the nest in the bird house again now?

  3. We found a baby bird under a tree. We took it home and only now I know we shouldnt have. We feed it with cats whiskas, eggs, buckwheat. It’s been with us for 6 days now. At the beginning was jumping in the box, tryi b to get out,. Now it isn’t. It doesn’t move much. Has great appetite and reacts when he sees us. Is it too late to bring it back under the tree..?

    1. Sorry I responded so late. I don’t know what you did with the bird but you are correct – you should not have taken it home. If it is domesticated now it will not survive in the wild.

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