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"Orphaned" Baby Birds

At some point or another, nearly everyone who spends time outdoors or who feeds backyard birds finds a baby bird, unable to fly very well and apparently lost or abandoned by its parents. Our first impulse is to adopt this apparently helpless creature and try to raise it ourselves. But in most cases, the young bird doesn't need our help at all, and, in fact, we may be doing more harm than good.

If you find a baby bird.

Look the young bird over for signs of physical trauma. If it's injured, take it to a local veterinarian, or call your local game warden or conservation department for the name and telephone number of the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. (You can carry it in a small enclosed box, such as a shoe box, lined with paper towels. Poke a few holes in the bottom of the box for ventilation.) If you're having trouble finding a wildlife rehabilitator in your area go to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.

Nestling or Fledgling?

If the bird is uninjured you should ask yourself "Is it really an orphan?" Nearly always, the answer will be no—most baby birds that people find are actually recent fledglings that cannot fly well. The first thing to do is determine whether it is a nestling or a fledgling.

Let the young bird perch on your finger. Is it gripping firmly? If so, it is a fledgling. The best thing to do, to get it out of harm's way, is to place the baby bird in a shrub or tree—somewhere above the ground—and leave it alone.

If the bird seems unable to cling well to your finger or to branches, it is most likely a nestling. Look around in nearby shrubbery or trees for the nest the bird came from. It will probably be well hidden. If you do find the nest, simply put the young bird back in it. If you can't find it, you can provide a substitute nest by tying a berry basket (the kind with holes in the bottom, for drainage) in a tree. Line it with some tissues or other soft material, put the baby bird inside, and leave it alone.

This is usually all the help a baby bird needs. As soon as you leave, the parents—which have probably been watching you the entire time—will return and continue feeding their youngster. If you want to be sure that the parents are still around, watch the baby bird from a distance. If the parents don't return to an undisturbed nestling in two hours something may be wrong. The parents may have been killed by predators or hit by a car. But don't worry if you see only one parent—a single parent can raise its young alone.

Should You Hand-raise a Baby Bird?

We strongly advise you against doing this. If, however, you decide to try raising a baby bird yourself, be forewarned: rearing a young bird is an incredibly labor-intensive task. Nestlings are ravenous eaters and must be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. If the young bird is only a day or two old, it may be weeks before it can be released. And adults birds teach their young the skills they need for survival—where to look for food; how to avoid predators; how to communicate. Humans simply aren't equipped to provide this essential guidance to young birds. Added to this is the problem of a very young bird imprinting on its human caretaker—becoming irreversibly socially-bonded to humans instead of to its own species. Such birds are unafraid of people, vulnerable, and often permanently dependent on humans for food—a bad situation. All in all, despite the best efforts of human foster parents, most hand-raised birds die, often before they're even old enough to release. If at all possible, avoid rearing a bird yourself.

A Warning!

Besides being difficult, raising a wild bird in captivity is illegal unless you have the proper state and federal licenses. Call your local game warden or conservation officer for advice if you find a young bird that needs care. They should be able to put you in touch with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who has been trained to care for sick, injured, and abandoned birds and other animals.

Questions and Myths about "Orphaned" Baby Birds


Q. If I handle a baby bird, its parents will pick up my scent and abandon it.
A. It's a myth that parent birds will abandon young that have been touched by humans—most birds have a poor sense of smell and are probably unable to detect the scent of humans on their eggs or nests.

Q. If I don't pick the baby bird up my cat or dog will kill it.
A. The best thing to do is to keep your pet inside until the bird is gone. This helpless stage is temporary, and, if the young bird can be reunited with its parents, it will become stronger and be gone in a couple of days. Try to keep your pets under control that long.

Q. Why do birds come out of the nest so early if they can't fly?
A. It's to young birds' advantage to leave the nest as soon as they can. People tend to think of birds' nests as safe, cosy little homes. But actually a nest is rather a dangerous place because, by concentrating all the vulnerable young in one location, marauding predators may eat them all if they find them. Parent birds work to raise their young and get them out of the nest as quickly as possible. Then they can spread the youngsters out and move them around to a different spot every night, enhancing each one's chances of survival.

Q. Where can I learn more?
A. For information about Wildlife Rehabilitation try the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.

For excellent, well-reasoned information about the (few) pros and (many) cons of raising baby birds in captivity, visit Dr. Kevin McGowan's webpage I Found a Baby Crow. Information there pertains to baby American Crows but applies to other baby songbirds as well.