Rescuing Fallen Birds

Is It All Right to Intervene?
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Hardly any of us get through the summer without at least one encounter: A young robin or some other songbird materializes in the yard, huddled near a bush or struggling on the ground. It appears flightless and lost, or perhaps just so utterly terrified that we are certain it will perish without human assistance. What's the best course of action?

Knowing when a young bird needs help—and when it doesn't—is an all-important skill for anyone who cares about wildlife.

Nestlings versus Fledglings
A baby bird on the ground may or may not be there by accident. Knowing whether the little one is a fledgling or nestling is the first step. Nestlings are smaller and younger; they are sparsely feathered, often with fuzz and bare skin visible, and in most cases will still have sheaths on their feathers. Sheaths are the waxy casings that protect feathers as they develop.

Dealing with Nestlings
A bird that qualifies as a nestling has suffered a mishap. Its nest may have been damaged or destroyed; it may have simply fallen from the nest, or been knocked out by overzealous siblings; or it may have been tossed from the nest by its own parents. This is one of the darker realities of songbird life. If food sources should dwindle during the period of brood-rearing, parent birds may toss out some or all of their young to compensate.

If the bird is a nestling, chances are good the nest is somewhere nearby; if the nest can be found, simply scoop up the baby and return it to the nest. Don't fret about the parents rejecting it because the bird now has "human smell" on it. This is a misconception. Songbirds have a very poor sense of smell. The parents won't even notice.

Occasionally, an entire nest may come down, with several nestlings stranded on terra firma. If this happens, pick the nest up and return it to a sturdy branch of a tree, and then put the babies back. If the nest has come apart, get a plastic hanging basket of the sort used for flower displays; put the pieces of the nest in, along with the young birds, and hang it from a sturdy limb. In all likelihood the parent birds are nearby, and the chances are fairly good they will pick up with their brood-rearing activities.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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