How to Help Baby Birds

Robin - Merle d'Amérique Every spring, Le Nichoir sees a spike in the arrival of young altricial birds to the Barn. Yet these baby birds don’t usually need help.

“Most of the fledgling birds, including American crows, that we receive at this time of year are taken from their parents by people with good intentions,” says Susan Wylie, Le Nichoir’s executive director.

People out for a stroll often believe these birds are injured or abandoned. Out of the 775 nestling and fledgling birds that were brought to Le Nichoir in 2012, about 588 were either unintentionally or intentionally taken from their parents, with the remaining birds admitted due to injury. Le Nichoir has been working to bring down that number.

“By providing good information to callers, every year we’ve been able to drastically reduce the number of healthy baby birds being brought in,” says Susan.

Born featherless and with their eyes closed, most altricial birds spend two to three weeks on the ground after becoming feathered. This is a critical period for the bird to explore its environment, start to forage and develop its pectoral muscles for flight. The parents are not usually seen but they are always close by. They will visit the young every few hours, depending on the fledgling’s age, to feed the bird.

So seeing a fledgling on its own should not normally raise alarm bells. When Le Nichoir does receive them, it usually aims to reunite these babies with their parents, unless there is a justification, like an injury, to keep them.

“If we see that the bird is in good health, we will request that the bird be placed back where they were found, as their parents are looking for them,” Susan says. “It is in the best interest of the bird to be with its parents.”

“Even though we try our best to provide the birds with good-quality care, we cannot mimic exactly the diet the parents would be providing. We also cannot teach them survival skills, like hunting or how to avoid predators.”

Precocial birds, such as ducklings, are sometimes also unnecessarily “rescued”. These birds are covered in down and can walk and eat once they are hatched from the egg. Like altricial birds, they should be left alone if they are not injured or orphaned.

Susan says there are different ways to decide what to do when you come across a fledging bird.

“A trick with young American crows is that even though they are large fledglings, one way to identify if they are young is by the colour of their eyes,” she says. “Baby crows’ eyes are light blue to light gray. If you see a bright-eyed, healthy-looking crow with this eye colour, then they are being looked after by their parents.”

Here are some easy questions you can ask yourself if you come across a fledgling bird and are unsure about whether or not to take action:

• Does the bird look healthy and unharmed?
• Is it alert? Check if the bird’s eyes are open and if it’s looking for food
• Is it sitting upright or hopping around?
• Is the bird clean, mostly feathered and fluffy?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, then the bird should likely be left alone. Keep in mind that most baby birds are not afraid of people and do not see us as predators. So chances are, they will not be scared if you approach them.

If you come across a nestling that has fallen from its nest, there are ways to reunite it with its parents. Because nestlings are usually featherless, and are unable to move around, it is important that they remain in a nest. Most species of birds have a very poor sense of smell, so you can pick up the nestling and place it back into the nest. If this is not possible, an artificial nest can be made using a small plastic container.

Here is how you can build a plastic nest:

• Poke holes into the bottom of the container for drainage
• Line the container with any remaining nesting material you find on the ground; you can also use towels, but make sure there are no loose threads that the birds can get tangled in
• Once your nest is ready, attach it to the tree the bird fell from. Place the nest as close as possible to the height the bird fell from. Once the nest is installed, place the bird in the nest and observe for the parents.

“If you are not sure about the situation a bird is in, just call the Centre and ask for our advice,” says Susan. “That is what we’re here for.”

More information on nestling and fledgling birds can also be found on Bird Help 911.