Finding a baby bird on the ground
At Wildwoods, we're currently swamped with baby wild animals of every description. We're also getting many calls every day about baby birds on the ground. Most of these babies are fine.
Sometimes a baby bird on the ground needs your help. Often they are going through a normal stage of development and human "help" interferes with this. How can you know?
When most baby birds hatch, they are naked, blind and utterly helpless. They depend on their parents for everything, especially warmth and food. They eat every 10-20 minutes and grow rapidly. When they are not eating, they are sleeping. At this stage, they are known as "nestlings."
Soon their eyes are open. They are covered first in downy fluff, then in new feathers covered in a waxy sheath. The feathers at this stage are called "pinfeathers." They are still nestlings. They still sleep a lot. The waxy sheaths of their pinfeathers soon flake away and real feathers appear.
The young birds don't sleep all the time. They can grip the edge of the nest, stand up and flap their stubby wings. They can hop. Soon, the babies have grown so much that they are too big to all fit in their nest.
So the babies "fledge," intentionally leaving the nest in a short, barely controlled fall/flight to the ground or to branches on the tree or bushes in your yard. They are now known as "fledglings." They look almost like adult birds but their tails are shorter, they have a few wisps of down still on their heads and the corners of their mouths are a bit fleshy. Plus they can't fly much or at all yet.
For the next several days/week or so, they will be learning to fly and to forage while mom and dad continue to care for them. The young birds are not growing as quickly now, so they may only be fed every one to two hours by their parents.
So you've found a bird on the ground. What do you do? First, is it obviously injured or has it been handled by a cat, though it might not have a visible injury? If so, bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.
Next, decide whether it's a nestling or a fledgling. Nestlings are naked, fluffy or have pinfeathers. They cannot stand or hop and they sleep most of the time. Warm the nestling in your hands until it is your body temperature.
Next, look for the nest. Since nestlings can't hop, unless it was blown down in a wind, the nest is directly above where you found it. If possible, put it back. Don't worry about mom not caring for it because you've touched it. That's an old wives' tale.
What if the entire nest has fallen? Secure it back in the tree it fell from — Duct tape is great! — and then watch from a distance for an hour to see if the parents come back to feed. They almost always do. If they don't, bring the babies to a rehabber.
What if the nest is destroyed? Make a new one! Plastic margarine tubs work well. Punch a few small drainage holes in the bottom so the nest doesn't turn into a swimming pool if it rains. Line the nest with dead grass (not Kleenex or fresh grass), secure it in the tree and watch from a distance for an hour for the parents.
If the baby is a fledgling and not injured, you don't need to do anything. If the bird is threatened by kids or pets, remove the threat. If you're still worried, you can watch from a distance for a couple hours for the parents. They are almost always there.
If you have more questions about baby birds, please check out our website. Also, feel free to call us at (218) 491-3604 with any questions. If you also text us a picture of the bird, that will help us assess the situation with you. Thanks for caring for our wild neighbors.
Peggy Farr is a volunteer and board member of Wildwoods and works in human health care.
Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth.