Nesting season is upon us, and baby birds are everywhere. Some are cute, some are downright ugly, but all are endearing. Isn’t nature wonderful?
But sometimes, it seems as if Mother Nature has a problem. Not all baby birds survive to adulthood. Being caring individuals, when we see a youngster in trouble, our first inclination is to help. We’re hardwired to care for young animals, and our compassion kicks in. But once we’ve gathered up that forlorn ball of fluff, what do we do next?
The first step is to back up a bit and ask, why is that bird on the ground? Is it old enough to leave home? Did it fall from the nest—or was it pushed? Did the cat get it?
Not every young bird out of a nest is in trouble. Even fledglings who leave the nest on time often look a bit “unripe.” They may have some down left, or shorter tail or wing feathers. The parents may still be feeding them. While some types of birds remain in the nest until they’re ready to fend for themselves, there are many others that leave the nest unable to hunt for food—or even fly.
I’ve seen Great Horned Owlets flopping around on the ground, adorable balls of down, seemingly at great risk of being preyed upon. However, they’re quite able to climb back up into the tree, and mom and dad are nearby, keeping an eye out for trouble. They don’t need our help, and interfering would just cause problems. (You might also find out how effective the owls’ talons are!)
Many ground-dwelling birds have “precocious” chicks—they hatch already able to run and peck. Chickens are one familiar example; so are plovers, sandpipers, and grouse. We don’t need to help just because a bird looks immature. The babies are perfectly fine. Let them be.
It’s fine to gently replace a baby that has clearly left the nest too soon. If the entire nest has blown down, the best option is to put it back where it was. You might need to wire it in place, or provide a basket to hold it. If the nest was destroyed, create a new one with a basket and some dried grass. Most birds have no sense of smell, so you don’t need to worry about handling the nest or young; the parents will still care for their offspring.
But what if you discover the chick on the ground again? Cruel as it may sound, some bird species actually boot “extra” chicks out of the nest, abandoning them in order to concentrate attention on the strongest young, those most likely to survive. Especially if food is limited—rainfall is lacking, development has replaced habitat—there’s little value in trying to save every offspring. It’s better to have one or two healthy chicks than three or four weak ones.
Sometimes, baby birds really do get into trouble. So do adults. They may fly into a window, get stuck in an open pipe, or be injured by a hunting cat.
Could the bird have hit a window? If so, it may just be stunned. Carefully put it into a cardboard box. Close the lid or lay a towel over the top. Then put the box somewhere cool and safe. Birds go into (potentially fatal) shock very easily. Don’t try to give it food or water. Every fifteen minutes, check the box to see if the bird has revived and can be released.
In the U.S., free-roaming domestic cats kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds a year. That’s billion, with a “b”! No wonder so many species are in decline. Don’t be deceived—even the fattest, laziest cat is capable of murder. You’ll do both the birds and your pet a favor by keeping cats indoors. Please.
Sometimes, a bird captured by a cat (or dog) is just exhausted, not dead. Again, a cardboard box provides a safe place to recover. In fact, it’s a good idea to let any injured bird recover on its own, if possible.
Sometimes the bird doesn’t recover, even after a few hours. In this case, the best course of action is to take it to a licensed wildlife rehabber. Providing proper care is tricky and requires specialized training and supplies. Besides, it’s illegal to keep wildlife without both state and federal permits. You can find a directory of licensed rehabbers online, or try calling the local animal shelter or department of wildlife for a referral. If you’re passionate about rescuing baby birds, you might want to become a licensed rehabber yourself!
Birds, from top: White-crowned Sparrow, Great Horned Owlets, Northern Cardinals in nest.