by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
Garden Centers attract a lot of birds and, believe me, we see a lot of them this time of year. They don’t seem to mind all the human activity in our retail setting and nests often are found in our trees! (At the nursery we consider a birds nest as ‘Good Luck’ to the gardener that buys one of these trees.)
This is nesting season for most birds, and our customers regularly find baby birds out of their nests and seemingly on their own. When you find a baby bird out of its nest, understanding what to do can help you give it the proper care and best chances of survival.
Fledglings – If you find a young bird alone on the ground or otherwise away from its nest, first determine if it truly is a baby in need of assistance.
We see many songbird fledglings leave the nest 2-5 days before they can fly. We also see the parent birds still caring for them and watching for their safety. A fledgling will have almost fully formed feathers on its wings, its tail may be short, and it’s able to fly or flutter short distances. With these traits, fledglings need only minor intervention from concerned gardeners.
Hatchlings – On the other hand, hatchlings are much younger and need assistance. They may appear bald or only have tufts of feathers, they are much smaller than and do not have as much energy as fledglings. They cannot fly but may have opened their eyes.
When you first notice a baby bird, observe it closely. Watch energy levels and behavior to determine if it needs assistance. Energetic, active birds should be fine on their own, while weaker, less active birds may need help. Of course, birds of any age that have clear signs of injuries such as wounds and/or bent wings will need help.
If you find a baby that you believe needs help, there are several things you can do to ensure you’re caring for it properly.
Before touching the bird or stressing it in any way, watch to see if it can care for itself or if the parent birds are tending to it. Many times a gardener spots a baby bird, and fails to see nearby parents ready and willing to feed and protect their offspring. It may take a half hour or so for the parent birds to return to their babies, so patience is essential.
Intervene as little as possible. In the case of fledglings, simply moving the bird to a sheltered nearby location out of direct sun and in a protected spot is all that is needed. Younger birds may require more help, but it’s always best to interfere only minimally.
The best place for a baby bird to be is in its own nest. So if a hatchling is too young to be out of the nest, put on gloves, then gently pick it up and place it back in its nest. If unable to find the nest or if it’s unreachable, even destroyed, line a small basket such as a pint berry basket with tissue or grass clippings and place it in the tree as close to the nest site as possible. Be sure the basket is secure, nailed to the tree if necessary.
The parent birds will hear their baby and find it easily. Since most birds have a poor sense of smell, they won’t abandon it because a gardener touched it. It may take an hour or longer for wary wing-ed adults to approach their baby again.
If your bird is in imminent danger from a damaged nest, predators, other unsafe conditions, or visibly injured and ill, place it in a small box lined with tissues, paper towels, grass clippings, or similar materials and cover the box loosely with newspaper or a towel. If necessary, keep the bird indoors in a quiet, safe location until outdoor conditions improve or until a bird rehabilitator can care for it properly.
There are rare times when a gardener knows for certain a young bird is orphaned. The parents may have been killed by a predator or a window strike, or a nest with living babies may be obviously abandoned far longer than normal. It will be necessary to collect the young birds and turn them over to a bird rehabilitator.
When you find a bird in need of help ~
#1 Stress the bird as little as possible. Avoid excessive handling, loud noises, or other conditions unfamiliar to the bird. Keep it close to where it was found in case the parent birds return. Keep children and pets away from young birds; be especially careful of interested dogs.
#2 Always wear gloves when handling young birds. Even baby birds can carry mites, lice, ticks, bacteria, and other parasites that can transfer to humans. After handling a bird, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
#3 No food or water! While this may seem counterintuitive to helping baby birds, young birds have precise dietary needs not met with kitchen scraps, birdseed, pet foods, or tap water. Young birds need live insect proteins to develop properly. That’s why parents feed them 3-4 times every hour to meet their needs. Offering improper food can cause a young bird to choke or become malnourished. Instead, wait for the parent birds or a bird rehabilitator to feed the baby bird a suitable diet.
#4 Finding a young bird triggers compassion and helpfulness in most birders, but often the very best help you can give a baby is simply to leave it alone. If absolutely necessary, intervene in only minor ways. Infant mortality is high for young birds; only the strongest, healthiest chicks survive even without human assistance.
Note: In most areas, it is illegal to keep wild birds in captivity even if you plan to release them – always seek the assistance of a professional instead of trying to raise baby birds by yourself. Even well-intentioned birders who try to raise baby birds can cause more harm than good, since young birds require specialized diets and the company of their own kind to learn necessary skills for survival in the wild.
Until next week, I’ll be helping local gardeners attract more birds to their gardens.