What to Do If You Find a Baby Bird on the Ground
What to Do If You Find a Baby Bird That's Alone or Orphaned
Surprising to many is the fact that many baby birds leave their nest as part of a necessary stage of development. This is especially true of several species, including scrub jays, robins, corvids (crows), and raptors (owls). Parents will tend to their young while they remain on the ground for several days and return to feed them, protect them, and assist them in learning valuable life skills, like flight. In order to tell if a baby bird fell out of the nest too soon, you will want to know the difference between:
- Hatchlings: "Naked," eyes closed, fragile (have a hard time holding their neck up); rarely survive impact.
- Nestlings: Gaping, vocal, react easily to movement overhead; often require intervention.
- Fledglings: Mostly feathered, look "scruffy," can hop, flap, vocalize. Eyes are often open. May still be gaping. Hide out in brush and shrub. May attempt movement for short flights. The parents are typically surveying them.
Is the Baby Bird in Danger?
Nestlings often need rescue—these birds have left the nest too young. Contrary to popular belief, so long as you do not spook the parents, you can return a nestling to its nest and the parents won't be bothered by your smell.
Veterinary Advice: How to Save a Baby Bird
How Can You Tell If a Baby Bird Needs Help?
Sometimes, a bird's nest will get disturbed. Either a predator goes after the nest and bumps young or destroys the nest in the process, the nest gets disturbed by tree work or weather, or a fledging accidentally falls for one reason or another (or the parents pushed it out). It is often hard to distinguish the cause of the abandoned fledgling, but there are several steps you can take to handle matters appropriately:
- Observe: This is the most important step. Before acting and rushing to pick up the nestling or fledgling, take stock of the surroundings. Are the parents overhead and being vocal? Maybe your presence is scaring them? If so, they are likely watching their young. Is the nestling or fledging seemingly alone or on smoldering hot pavement? You will want to intervene. Watch for several hours (1-2).
- Call Someone: Get online and google either bird rescues or wildlife rescues in your area. If all else fails, you can always call animal control (sometimes they can lead you towards the right resource). Call your nearest facility and they can coach you through the questions you may have before you make the decision to intervene.
- Rescue: If you have determined that the bird is too young to be alone or that it has been abandoned and the baby has not been tended to, is injured (broken wing or leg), or looks sick (droopy, slumped, lethargic), or is in immediate danger (fell into a construction site or is surrounded by predators), consider intervening. Wear gardening gloves or similar to protect you and the bird. Go slow.
- Attempt to reunite: If the parents are nearby but the baby is in immediate danger, you can create a makeshift nest by lining a strawberry basket with toilet paper or cloth or a cardboard box with cloth. You can place this nest in a shaded area nearby where you think the parents might be. You can also create a toilet paper nest (see instructions below).
- Collect the fledgling: If no parents are in sight, you are going to want to collect the nestling or fledgling either to hold it in order to transport it to a rescue center or to keep it until someone can come and retrieve it.
- Do your research: Whether you have to care for the nestling or fledgling for just an hour, overnight, or longer depending on where you live, check with your state's local laws. In some cases it is illegal to keep native wildlife long-term, even if you are doing the right thing. Also, each species of bird has particular needs and particular diets, so before you do anything specific, take some time to check resources.
Though rarely communicable, birds carry diseases and it is best for you AND them to wear gloves—dish gloves, cleaning gloves, gardening gloves, knit gloves, etc.
How to Take Care of a Baby Bird
First, you will want to triage the nestling or fledgling so that you can take note of any injuries and relay this to the wildlife center.
- Are there any obvious injuries (cuts, scrapes, blood, puncture wounds)?
- Are there any broken limbs (droopy wing, neurologic signs—head trauma)?
- Was it attacked (predator wounds often require antibiotics)?
- Is the baby gaping (hungry, abandoned if left alone for hours on end)?
- Is the baby on hot cement or in a cold environment (hypothermia, hyperthermia)?
- Does the baby have shelter?
- Are there predators around (cat, dog, crow, hawk)?
How to House a Baby Bird
Collect the baby bird and give it a comfortable place of safety for the time-being. You can use a shoe box and line it with a hand towel, line a strawberry basket with paper towels, or—as I like to do—create a toilet paper nest. Here's how:
DIY Baby Bird NestClick thumbnail to view full-size
What If You Have to Take Care of a Baby Bird Overnight?
If you need to house the baby bird overnight, depending on where you live, you may want to make sure the baby is comfortable and warm. Most birds are exposed to the elements, so as long as you have them indoors and they are safe and away from children or household pets, keeping them in an open shoe box with a towel and faux-nest will be great (so long as the fledgling is not mobile).
Keep the Bird Safe and "Immobile"
If the baby bird is mobile and you do not have a spare bird cage (sanitized!), you can bird-proof a room. You can use an empty closet, a walk-in shower, or a small room to enclose the baby. You need to bird-proof this room—that means removing anything that the baby can injure itself on or in (close toilet lids to prevent them from drowning!). Also remove anything the baby can get caught on.
How to Keep a Baby Bird Warm at Night
Heating pads are tricky and should only be used if you have experience with young. In wildlife rehabilitation, we use heating pads and even incubators (sometimes) for hatchlings, nestlings, and fledglings. Generally, we will run a heating pad on low and have a shoebox and a towel on top of the pad.
Note: You can cause thermal burns, overheat a fledging, and seriously injure and wound a baby bird if you are unsure of what you are doing with heat!
Any baby animal that is being subjected to a heating pad should have an escape route—that is, if it's too warm, they can get off or away from the heat source.
Crows Imprint Easily
Gaping crows imprint easily. Wildlife rehabilitates will wear visors to hid their faces when feeding baby crows. DO NOT ALLOW THEM TO IMPRINT. You put any species in danger if you allow them to imprint. They will approach any human later in life—friendly or unfriendly.
What Do Baby Birds Drink?
It is possible for baby birds to drown if they are provided a water bowl and they are TOO YOUNG to be near water. Also, you can drown a gaping baby by simply giving it too many droplets of water (with a dropper). If the baby bird is in your care for several hours, you really need to take it to the humane society or similar.
In wildlife rehabilitation, we use 1 mL syringes and often put catheter tips on them to offer baby birds water. This is drop-by-drop and we calculate the mL based on body weight. I repeat, it is possible to DROWN a baby bird by offering it too much water. You can also cool off a baby bird too much by feeding it water that is not room temperature or slightly warm. You can also cause crop burns by feeding water or formula that is too hot!
Sometimes you can soak a Q-tip in water and simple let the baby gape and mouth the q-tip to suck some moisture off of it.
What Do Orphaned Baby Birds Eat?
Again, if you are at this stage, you should be researching your nearest wildlife rehab. service. Songbirds, corvids, and raptor diets are extremely complex. Many of these species will eat while being forcep fed. Hummingbirds require a specific solution and can only be catheter-tip syringe-fed.
- Some baby birds eat insects, seed, and rehydrated cat kibble (soft, fluffy, soaked overnight) in rehabilitation centers. Other birds strictly eat berries, seed blends, and rehydrated cat kibble.
- Pigeons often get fed specific formula, seed, and get offered oyster shell or grit for digestion.
- Corvids (crows) will eat rehydrated cat food (soft, fluffy, soaked overnight), thawed mice, seed, and fruit.
- Owls and hawks (raptors) will eat thawed meat.
Hatchlings and nestlings (most species) require specific formula at proper dilutions and should not be fed solids.
Baby Bird Feeding Guidelines
Staple in Diet
Soaked cat kibble (Science Diet)
Bird seed and berry blend.
Soaked cat kibble (Science Diet)
Egg (hardboiled), pigeon seed, mice, chopped fruit.
Should be at body temperature. Tube fed by experienced rehabbers.
How Can I Tell What Kind of Bird I Found?
If you are within North America or the United States, these are some of the most common native species on the Western Coast:
- American Robin
- Northern Mockingbird
- Hermit Thrush
- House Sparrow
- Lesser or American Goldfinch
- Western Scrub Jay
- Steller's Jay
- American Crow
- Mourning Dove
- Rock Pigeon
- Band-tailed Pigeon
What Not to Feed Baby Birds
As mentioned, you want to leave the feeding to wildlife rehabbers because each species has a different diet and diets range based on the bird's developmental stage, species, health, place of origin, etc.
Do Not Feed
- Large seeds or nuts
- Meat (to songbirds)
- Anything seasoned or artificial
- Anything not approved on a reputable site
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Layne Holmes