During breeding season, it is not uncommon to find baby birds on their own out of their nest. Baby birds are extremely vulnerable, and it is natural to want to help them if you see them without their parents. However, this isn’t always the right thing to do, and you could do more harm than good.
The first thing you need to do is decide whether it is a baby bird in need of assistance. Parents birds are much better at taking care of their chicks than humans and very rarely abandon their chicks so in many cases a baby bird won’t need any help.
Most baby birds that are found out of the nest are fledglings. These are birds who have left the nest a few days before they can fly and while their parents are still caring for them. You can identify a fledgling bird by its fully formed feathers on the wings and short tail. It may be hopping on the ground or even attempting to flap its tiny wings. Parent birds sometimes leave their chicks alone for up to half an hour while they search for food so seeing a lone fledgling is perfectly normal.
If you find a fledgling on the ground, observe it for a few minutes. If it appears to be active, then it’s probably fine on its own and its parents will be close by. Don’t get too close as this may cause it undue stress and keep any pets well away from it.
If you think the bird is in danger, such as on a busy road or path, or in direct sunlight then you can carefully more it to a nearby safer spot. Make sure you move it only a short distance so the parents can still hear it and easily find it when they return.
It’s less common to find a hatchling or nestling on the ground. A nestling is a baby bird which is too young to have left the nest independently. They are very small and almost bald with just a few tufts of feathers. They don’t have as much energy as fledglings and won’t be able to move much on the ground.
If the bird is a nestling have a look around to see if you can see its nest. If you find it and can replace the bird without disturbing the nest and any other chicks inside, then gently return it. Only do this if you are sure that the nestling is strong and healthy. Many parent birds will eject the weakest chicks from a nest to give the others the best chance of survival.
Birds have a poor sense of smell and are unlikely to abandon their chicks even if humans have handled them. However, it is a good idea to wear gloves when handling baby birds as they may carry mites, lice, bacteria, and other parasites that can be harmful to humans. Always wash your hands thoroughly after handing wild birds.
Some fledglings and nestlings you find on the ground will be visibly injured, with damaged wings or legs, or obvious cuts. If they seem listless or swollen, then they are probably unwell.
If the bird has been caught by a cat, then it will need to be given antibiotics, as the bacteria on a cat’s teeth and claws can cause septicaemia, a serious infection of the bloodstream. A baby bird will often not recover from the shock of being caught by a cat or its injuries may be too severe. This is why it’s especially important to keep cats out of your garden during breeding season.
If you find an ill or hurt baby bird on the ground, or you are sure the parents are dead or you can’t find the nest, then place the bird in a small box lined with soft material and cover the top loosely with a newspaper or towel. Be extra careful when handling a baby bird as its bones are very delicate and you could inadvertently injure it.
Keep the bird indoors somewhere quiet and cool and contact a wildlife rescue organisation who can take it away to give it the proper care it needs. Do not try and nurse it back to health yourself.
It is illegal to keep a wild bird in captivity even if you plan to release it once it is healthy and able to fly. Baby birds need a specialist diet and training to learn the necessary skills required to survive in the wild when they are eventually released.
Get in touch with a local rehabilitation centre or contact one of the following national charities who will be able to give you advice.
The RSPB does not take care of injured birds, or run hospitals or a rescue service, so don’t contact them about a baby bird as they will be unable to help.
The best advice if you find a baby bird is to leave it alone wherever possible and only intervene if absolutely necessary. The chances are it is a strong, healthy chick getting used to life on its own and survival as an adult in the wild.