What to Do if You Find a Baby Bird

If there’s one question people ask us the most this time of year, it’s some variation of “I found a baby bird—what should I do?”

And we get it. When you come across a helpless-looking baby bird out of its nest, it’s hard to resist the overpowering urge to come to the rescue. But if you really want to do your part, it’s usually best to leave it be. How do you know when to take action and when not to? For that, you need to know the growth stages that many baby birds pass through.

The Stages
This time of year, a baby bird falls into one of three categories:

  • Hatchling. It hasn’t yet opened its eyes, and may have wisps of down on its body. It’s definitely not ready to leave the nest.
  • Nestling. It’s older than a hatchling. Its eyes are open, and its wing feathers may look like tubes because they’ve yet to break through their protective sheaths. Nestlings are also not ready to leave the nest.
  • Fledgling. Young bird that is fully feathered. Its wings and tail may be short, and it may not be a great flyer, but it can walk, hop, or flutter. It has left the nest, though its parents may be nearby.

Helping Hatchlings and Nestlings
If you find a hatchling or a nestling on the ground and you can see its nest, you should try to safely return it. Contrary to popular belief, the parents will not abandon a young bird that smells like people. If there’s no nest, you can make one by fastening a wicker basket to a branch.

It’s never a good idea to bring a baby bird home and try to raise it. In fact, federal law prohibits anyone from having wild birds in their possession. Law aside, a baby bird, cared for by untrained people, once released, most likely won’t survive as well in the wild. It has missed key lessons from its avian family, like how to locate food and avoid predators.

Giving Fledglings Room to Grow
For fledgling encounters, the best course of action is to leave it be. There’s only one exception: if it’s obviously injured.

As awkward as a fledgling bird may look, this is natural stage, and the parents are most likely nearby, hunting for food and keeping watch. If the bird’s in immediate danger, you can put it in a nearby bush or tree.

When in doubt, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Photo via b0jangles/flickr

17 thoughts on “What to Do if You Find a Baby Bird

  1. Jessica wiliam

    Hatchlings are newly hatched baby birds. They have zero to very few feathers, with their skin almost bare and eyes not outright open. Hatchlings cannot walk or fly yet, and they are fully dependent on their parents.

  2. Jessica wiliam

    The young avian could have fallen from the nest due to bad weather. It could also be caused by an unstable nest or a poor attempt to get out to find food. However, when you find a baby bird on the ground with no nest, it’s important to identify whether the baby passerine is a hatchling, a nestling, or a fledgling.

  3. Amelia

    I I found two starlings in my phone it’s hard to tell if the hatchling what should I do

  4. Becca Holton

    That was a bit surprising to learn that parents won’t abandon a young baby bird that smells like people. I wish I knew that a couple years ago since my friend found a baby bird in her backyard. It actually ended up dying because she didn’t know what to do. At least now I know next time something like that happens, the bird can be put back in its nest and if there are problems to call for help.

  5. Rachel

    I found a house sparrow fledgling in my backyard today. It’s parents are usually nearby, but I’m worried about it because there is a cat that lives in my neighborhood and visits my backyard during the night. It doesn’t have an owner so I can’t just ask someone to keep the cat inside for a few days. If the fledgling could fly, I wouldn’t be as worried, but it seems like it can’t. Is there anything I can do?

    1. Hillary

      There really is little that can be done in a case like this, and this is one of the reasons we so emphatically recommend people keep their cats inside (although obviously not possible in this case). Try putting the fledgling in a bush or on a tree branch to remove it from immediate temptation. If it doesn’t stay, don’t try again as this will just put a lot of stress on both the fledgling and the parent.

  6. Trista

    I live in an attic apartment and around 11pm I hear this wild bang / i appeoach my third story window where i have my ac set up andi pull uo the shades – the bang was a baby bird that either fell out of the nest or somewhere off the roof. He hit the sc pretty hard. He was moving his head a little – i watched for his parents from the nest. None of the birds came. I dont know if the bird is still alive / i have him wrapped up in cloth on a heating pad – his body feel stiffer now

  7. Natalie

    What if you have a baby fledgling in your own back yard and you have a outdoor cat? Do I put it back in the house with its sibling??

    1. Hillary

      The best option is to keep the cat indoors if possible, until the bird can fly out of harms way.

      1. Natalie

        Well I’ve just been watching the cat its not allowed in the house because of my dogs. Now it went threw a hole in the fence its in the neighbors yard now 🙁 its a starling but I still feel bad.. I also don’t dare to get to close because there are a lot of very small looking bugs all over the bird house and around the area. I’ve been paranoid they might be mites??? They are very small.

  8. Joanne

    I wish I saw this last year, we tried so hard on keeping a baby that fell out of the bird house in a tree and not on the ground ( we have wild animals that roam around and we have dogs.). The poor Wren did not make it. Not sure if it hit the head on anything. What can a person do when seeing that? It was sad. Rabbits now we have that run wild (sad to say the child in me would want to pick it up no matter what and save it 🙂 too 🙂

  9. mrsjdt

    At a Flea Market yesterday, with thousands of people walking thru the pavilion…a starling baby (fully feathered) “plopped” into the middle of the walkway from the rafters..not wanting him trampled I corralled it and placed him in a birdcage (that WAS for sale) and kept him safe thruout the day, also giving him small amounts of bread soaked in water (due to the 87* temp). When the sale was done, and all vendors were moved out, it was released against the stage area. Can do nothing but hope for the best.(SOOOO wanted to give raising it a try)

  10. Suzanne

    I’d like to add here that baby bunnies found “abandoned” in your lawn don’t need help either. They are most likely not abandoned. They only need to feed for a few minutes a a day, and mom stays away for the rest of the day.

    1. El Montague

      The only trouble with “leaving” a baby bird or bunny, is when there’s neighborhood cats around all the time. I’ve seen too many not pretty endings with both bunnies and
      birds. Not many people realize there’s usually a town or city ordinance requiring cats to
      be kept inside or IN their own yard.

  11. Dale Vanyo

    I found a pair of mourning dove hatchlings blown from a nest with mom protecting them from the sun. I showed a NJ Audubon member in Dekorte Park. He put them back with my help. Interesting! The mom ran away with an apparent broken wing when we got close. When we didn’t follow, she flew back and did it again. The Audubon member was careful to show mom that the babies were being moved and after a few close up pictures, we backed away. Sure enough, mom went to the nest about 10 minutes later. BTW, he climbed on the roof of his truck to get to the nest.

  12. Mark

    I wish I saw this post yesterday as I came across a fallen nest and the chirping of a baby bird. Thinking a predatory animal would see this as breakfast, I immediately pulled a small empty box from my garage, collected the fallen nest, coaxed the fledgling bird into the box, and then left some food in the box for the bird. The little bird, which seemed to want nothing to do with me, managed to get out of the box and stood on its own letting out a stream of chirps. I would be glad to share a picture I took of the fledgling……

  13. Lois

    You may also mention the WildCare organization or others like it, that take injured or abandoned small animals. It is important to leave the baby bird alone, but to check on it periodically to see if the parent comes back to it. If not, people should take the bird to a rehab clinic if they desire. Wildcare has an entire barn dedicated to taking care of abandoned baby birds.

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