A young bird’s best chance for survival is with its parents. First, we need to assess whether we need to do anything. It is normal for young birds (called fledglings – like our human teenagers!) to come out of the nest a little bit before they can fly and fend for themselves. A fledgling is almost all feathered out, can hop around and tries to fly. Its parents are usually very attentive, and if you can observe it from a distance you will see the parents feeding it and encouraging it to fly. Though very vulnerable, the fledging stage is a very important part of the bird’s development. The best thing to do for a fledging is to leave it alone, keep the cats and dogs inside or on a leash, and keep people, small children and lawn mowers away. In some cases it may be best to place the fledging off the ground in a bush, but it may not stay put.
If the little bird does not have most or any of its adult feathers, it is called a nestling. Nestlings sometimes fall from the nest, or the nest may have been disrupted by weather or predators. If the nestling is found on the ground, we can help it by returning it to its nest or back in a substitute nest so that it’s parents can continue to raise it. Birds lack a strong sense of smell and the adult birds will not abandon its babies because of human scent on it. If you can find the original nest, put the baby bird back in that nest. If the nest is not intact or you are unable to find it, the next best thing to do is make a substitute nest and put it as close to where you think the original nest was. A good substitute can be made with a plastic margarine or Cool Whip container with small holes poked in the bottom for drainage. Line the container with lint from the dryer or dried grasses. This nest can be nailed to the side of the house or tree or secured to a bush or tree with twist ties, wire or duct tape. Do not feed the nestling, as its parents will respond to its squawking and return to feed it.
In both cases, after making sure the nestling or fledgling is safe, you need to observe and wait patiently to see if the adult birds are attending the little one. This can be the hardest part – waiting and watching from a distance not to disturb the parents. Quite often, it is hard to observe a nest from all 360 degrees, but if the little bird seems content and you see adult birds in the area, assume the bird is being cared for. Again, a baby’s best chance for survival is with its parents.
If you notice that the little bird is injured and know that the parents are dead or are certain that the parents are not attending the young bird, you will need to get the bird to a licensed rehabilitator. Mass Wildlife has a list of rehabilitators on their website. Please call Tufts Wildlife Clinic if you have a question regarding a little bird or are trying to find a rehabilitator in your area. Tufts Wildlife Clinic does not take in orphaned baby birds and mammals, but does care for native New England wildlife that are sick or injured. The clinic can be reached at 508-839-7918, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.