Britain is well known for its diverse and beautiful birds, from common city pigeons to rare species of woodpeckers, from mighty ospreys to wise owls. It’s clear we live in birdwatching heaven. Most of the birds you see are hopefully perched on a branch or soaring through the air. However, you may have noticed the occasional baby bird laying on the ground with no parents to be found. What should you do if you find a baby bird like this?
Brief Baby Bird Biology
Before we get into what you should do if you find a baby bird, it’s important to learn a little about bird biology, so some birdy-terms make sense. There are thousands of species of bird in the world, each with a different lifecycle, so we will only discuss birds generally. Some UK species may differ slightly.
As we all know, baby birds come from eggs, laid by the mother bird in a nest, usually in a tree. The mother (sometimes father or both) bird incubates the egg for a time while the baby bird develops inside the egg. Once it is developed, the baby bird will use its beak (more specifically, a special protrusion called an egg tooth) to break its way out of the egg. This is now known as a hatchling. Most hatchlings are tiny, featherless, defenceless birds that must rely on their parents to survive. Although some are capable of moving around and feeding for themselves, such as baby ducks or owls.
After a few days old, the hatchlings develop a downy fuzz and are known as nestlings; their eyes open and they are more active, but are still reliant on their parents. The final stage for baby birds is the fledgling stage. Fledglings have flight muscles and dull-coloured flight feathers, so are able to fly short distances and leave the nest. They are still mostly reliant on their parents until they can fly properly however. The age of fledglings varies from 2 weeks old to over 6 months. After the fledgling stage, juvenile birds are fully independent and will develop to sexually mature adults in time.
Why does this matter?
Having a basic knowledge of these stages is important. This will help you to know what action, if any, you should take if you find a baby bird. If this is a frequent occurrence, perhaps because you live in an area with many birds, we suggest becoming familiar with what common bird species look like at different stages of life. There are plenty of good photos online. As a rule, hatchlings will be naked, nestlings will be furry and fledglings will have dull feathers but can’t fly very well.
So You’ve Found a Baby Bird…
We will say now that you should almost always leave a baby bird where you found it. This is important, because many baby birds that are disturbed by humans are subsequently abandoned by their parents. Baby birds taken away from their nests before they are ready also have very poor survival rates. We will go into some exceptions later on, but keep this fact in mind.
Most of the baby birds you find on the ground will be fledglings, and they are doing what fledglings do! As mentioned above, fledglings are learning to fly and move about, so do spend time outside of their nest. Though this may look like a baby bird abandoned under a tree, most will in fact be close to their parents who are keeping a close eye on them and communicating with them. Getting too close can result in the parents abandoning the fledgling, or you even being attacked (owl parents often do this)!
If the fledgling appears active, healthy and uninjured…
You should probably leave it alone. Remember, they are quite clumsy so won’t move exactly like an adult bird! When you are out walking your dog, or are near your home and have cats, we recommend keeping your pets away from the area until you are sure the fledgling has returned to its nest. If the fledgling is somewhere dangerous, such as an open path or road, it may be appropriate to move it a short distance into foliage where it will be safer. Birds do not have a great sense of smell, so this should hopefully not result in abandonment.
There are exceptions where it may be appropriate to take further action.
If you find an injured fledgling, a fledgling near both dead parents, or a fledgling that has been definitely abandoned (you should observe from a distance for a few hours to check), then it may be appropriate to pick it up and contact someone. We will discuss exactly how to do this later. You may also rarely spot a hatchling or nestling on the ground. These baby birds should not be out of their nest. There is a chance that it has fallen out, and, if it is healthy, the parents may return it to the nest. You should, at most, move it to a safe position, and then observe to see what the parents do.
However, nature is often cruel, and the bird may have been thrown out of the nest by its parents in the first place. Birds do this if they feel the baby is weak or sick, and want to concentrate on raising the healthier young. Putting a baby bird like this back in the nest will most likely result in it being thrown out again. If the hatchling or fledgling is weak or injured, you may wish to contact someone to collect the bird. However, remember that the younger the bird, the slimmer its chances of survival away from its parents. This is especially true when looked after in captivity. In all cases, we strongly recommend not disturbing the nest for any reason. This can cause parents to abandon their chicks, and could even be illegal with certain species of birds.
Catching Baby Birds
If you decide that the baby bird on the ground does need rescuing (and we highly recommend waiting at least a few hours to see if the parents return), you should gently pick it up (gloves are useful) and place it in a small box lined with paper towel or something similarly soft. Keep the bird warm with a heat pad or a small hot water bottle, and keep in a dark, warm, quiet area. Never attempt to feed the bird, as you can easily feed it the wrong thing or cause it harm. Instead, you should first contact your local rescue and ask if they can look after a baby bird; failing this, contact your local vets.
Unfortunately, either of these may not have the capacity to look after foundling birds. Be warned that the answer may not be positive. If all other avenues have been exhausted, you can contact the RSPCA (SSPCA in Scotland or USPCA in Northern Ireland) and ask what they can do. Remember that the bird’s chances of survival are slim, and that charities and rescue centres are often strapped for cash. As a result, only rarer species of birds may be accepted. In many cases, the kindest outcome is for the vet to painlessly euthanise the bird.
So today we explained the different life stages of baby birds so you have a better understanding of what to do if you spot one left on the ground. For the vast majority, the bird is just finding its feet (or wings!) and will get home safely. In some rare exceptions, you may have to move the bird, or even take it. If so, contact a charity or the vets for further help. You should never get close to the nest and risk disturbing the young inside. We understand it can be hard to leave what looks like a helpless animal alone; but remember that baby birds have been jumping out of their nests for thousands of years and will usually survive. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for animals is to do nothing.