by Diana Bocco
If you find a baby bird on the ground, your first instinct might be to pick it up and rush it to safety. But this isn't necessarily the best option, and it may even be illegal.
“It is not a good idea to raise a baby bird, or any type of wildlife, yourself; in fact, it is illegal in many states,” says Isabel Luevano, center manager and former lead rehabilitation technician for the San Francisco Bay location of the International Bird Rescue organization. “Ideally, you wouldn't want to have the bird in your possession for more than 24 hours, and getting it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center, veterinary office, or humane society as soon as possible will give the bird the best chance of survival.”
In addition, each species of bird requires specific types of nutrients, supplements, diet, housing, handling, and substrates, Luevano points out. “If given incorrect care, birds can suffer defects in behavior, habituation, growth abnormalities, feather contamination, and even death,” said Luevano. “Many wild birds also carry zoonotic diseases, which can be dangerous to humans, especially to children and the elderly.”
Nestling vs. Fledgling: Why the Difference Matters
When it comes to rescuing birds, one of the first things you have to understand is the difference between a nestling and a fledgling.
“In songbirds, a nestling is a young bird that is mostly naked with little to no feathering, may have closed eyes, and may not be able to move well,” says Luevano. “A fledgling songbird is a young bird that has some to mostly feather growth, has opened eyes, can move, and is quite active and able to hop and flap.”
This is an important distinction, because many bird species jump from their nests even when they are not completed flighted. “These species are meant to be on the ground, hopping and learning to forage, with mom or dad keeping guard a few feet away,” Luevano says. And while it's true that young birds are very vulnerable to predators and injury during this time, this is a natural stage that all birds must go through.
Ensure Safety for the Baby Bird While Waiting
If you are unsure if the baby bird you see is a nestling or a fledgling, wait for a while at a safe distance, says Luevano. “If you see an adult bird coming, then the bird is not orphaned—if it's been longer than an hour with no adult bird in sight, then it would be appropriate to intervene and contact a wildlife center, vet, or humane society.”
While waiting, secure any free-roaming dogs or cats that might pose a threat to the bird, and then watch closely.
“It is important to not look away, even for a few minutes,” said Brittney Chrans, a wildlife rehabilitation technician at the California Wildlife Center. “Oftentimes, the parent swoops in very quickly, feeds the baby, and then flies away for more food; you might miss it in the blink-of-an-eye.”
If the bird is a fledgling and is in the open, Chrans says you can gently nudge it toward a nearby area with hiding places, like bushes or shrubs, but no farther than an 8-foot radius from where it starts. For a nestling, Chrans suggests looking very hard for its nest. “If you find the nest, gently place the bird back into it,” Chrans says. “It doesn’t matter if you touch the bird; the mother won't reject it.”
Taking the Lost Bird Home
If the parents don't return after an hour, or it's clear that the bird is injured and needs help, it might be time to intervene.
According to Laura Vincelette, LVT, with Pet Care Veterinary Hospital, clear instances of this include when the baby bird has no feathers (nestling), if there is noticeable bleeding or injury, or if the baby bird is in immediate danger from predators—like crows, cats, or dogs. In those cases, you can use a small washcloth to pick the bird up and gently place it in a closed box or container. “If the bird is placed in a box, small holes should be made for ventilation and the top taped shut or securely closed,” says Vincelette.
Home Care and Feeding for Baby Birds
Once you get the bird home, the basic rule is always to keep the bird in an environment that's warm, dark, and quiet, says Luevano. “Keeping the bird in a warm place ensures the bird will not get cold or hypothermic, being in a dark place will calm the bird, and having it in a quiet space will keep the bird’s stress levels down,” she said, adding, “as hard as it is, please avoid peeking in on the bird, as each time you do, the bird's stress levels increase.”
If you're using a clear container to house the bird, Vincelette recommends placing a towel over the container to make it dark.
Luevano suggests trying to create a nest inside the box using any small deep dish that's about two inches in diameter (such as a clean soup bowl) and draping a hand towel over it to create a sort of lip and a nice area for the bird to tuck into. “But not all species are used to nests,” Luevano cautions. “Some—especially if they have fledged from their nest—will not want a nest and will jump out of it,” she said.
While it might be tempting to try to feed the bird, experts caution that this is almost always a bad idea.
“I do not recommend any person feed a baby bird, as it is incredibly dangerous for the bird,” says Luevano. “If fed improperly, a baby bird can aspirate (choke) on any food or fluids given, which can cause respiratory infections and often death.” In addition, it's very difficult to determine what type of food the bird needs—some species eat insects, while others eat grains, seeds, or fruits, explained Luevano.
The solution? Luevano recommends speaking with a professional before trying to give any kind of food or fluid to a found bird. “If you have to keep the bird for 24 hours, the best option is warmth and a safe place to 'hide' until a professional can help,” says Luevano. “Many times, the bird is so stressed out that food given too soon can cause problems.”
The one exception to the rule is hummingbirds, as they need to receive food very often to survive. “For hummingbirds, mix 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, dip a straw or a Q-tip into the mixture, and let the bird drink from the droplet,” says Chrans. “Allow the hummingbird to drink as much as it wants, and then repeat this every 30 minutes for babies and every hour for adults until help is reached.”
Although sugar is not enough nutritionally for a hummingbird to thrive, it will keep it alive for a short period of time, until you can get it to a licensed rehabber to provide it with proper nutrition, said Chrans.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM