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What to do if you find a baby bird

As soon as the weather starts to warm up, the arrival of baby birds is imminent. You might spot the remnants of egg shells on the ground, or even see fledglings as they attempt their first flights. But, what do you do if you stumble across a baby bird on the ground?

Baby birds are very vulnerable, and rely on their parents for food and protection. (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo/Ernie Janes)
Baby birds are very vulnerable, and rely on their parents for food and protection. (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo/Ernie Janes)

Baby birds are incredibly vulnerable. Without their parents and the relative security of their nests, they are at the mercy of both predators and the elements.

It’s a natural instinct to want to help if you see a baby bird alone on the ground when out and about (or even in your garden), but this isn’t always the right thing to do. Your decision depends on the maturity of the chick, and whether or not it appears to be injured.

Nestling or fledgling? 

Before you do anything, it’s crucial you establish whether the chick is a nestling or a fledgling.  

Nestlings

Nestlings have no, or very few, feathers. (Photo: iStockPhoto.com/s-eyerkaufer)
Nestlings have no, or very few, feathers. (Photo: iStockPhoto.com/s-eyerkaufer)

Nestlings are instantly recognisable, with no feathers at all, or very few. You are right to be concerned if you find a nestling on the ground, as they are much too young to be outside the nest and won’t survive out in the open. However, this doesn’t always mean the best plan of action is to scoop the chick up and put it back in the nest straight away.

Birds have a poor sense of smell and, contrary to popular belief, won’t reject their chicks if they have been handled by humans. If it’s obvious that the chick has fallen out of the nest, you are sure which nest it came from and it appears to be strong and healthy, it is a good idea to carefully (with clean hands or gloves) put it back in the nest with its siblings, taking care not to disturb them.

However, if the nestling seems unwell or injured, it might have been rejected from its nest. If this is the case, putting it back is a very bad idea. In this scenario, the best thing to do is to place the chick in a cardboard box lined with paper towels and take it to a professional wildlife rescue. The same applies if you can’t find the nest an uninjured chick fell from.

Fledglings

It's common to see fledglings during the warmer months. (Photo: Edo Schmidt/Alamy Stock Photo)
It's common to see fledglings during the warmer months. (Photo: Edo Schmidt/Alamy Stock Photo)

Fledglings are baby birds that are more or less fully feathered. It is common to find them on the ground during the warmer months, even if they don’t look to be moving around much.

The majority of fledglings will leave a cramped nest a day or two early, allowing their last few feathers to develop while they stretch their wings. The parents continue feeding and keeping an eye on their chicks; even if you can’t see them at the time, they will be away gathering food or watching you from a distance.

Unless the fledgling is visibly injured, the best thing you can do is leave it well alone. However, if you find a chick near the road, on a path or in another place that could pose a threat, gently pick it up and move it to a sheltered spot as nearby as possible. Birds communicate with one another constantly, so can easily reunite if they are in hearing distance.

If the fledgling is definitely injured, or is obviously unwell, transport it safely home before contacting your nearest wildlife rescue.

Why can't I raise a chick myself?

Taking care of a baby bird yourself – nursing it back to health and releasing it back into the wild – is a heart-warming thought. And, while there is a lot of information on the internet about raising chicks at home, it is best leaving it to the experts.

Baby birds need a specialised diet and feeding regime to reach full health. Injured or abandoned chicks are best raised by a professional wildlife rehabilitator, and there are plenty of organisations you can contact to locate one:

  • The RSPCA (in England and Wales)
  • The SSPCA (in Scotland)
  • The USPCA (in Northern Ireland)
  • One of the organisations listed by Help Wildlife
  • One of the organisations listed by the RSPCA
Fledglings are more or less fully feathered. (Photo: Andy Rouse/naturepl.com)
Fledglings are more or less fully feathered. (Photo: Andy Rouse/naturepl.com)

So, if you ever do stumble across a baby bird, remember to establish whether it’s a nestling or a fledgling. Chances are it will be a healthy fledgling pottering about while its parents watch close by. If so, you can leave it be and enjoy the spectacle of birds flitting to and from their nests and fledglings making their first big flight.

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