Newsroom Midwest Region

I found a baby bird - what should I do?

Baby northern mocking bird.
Baby northern mocking bird. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

During the spring and summer, wildlife refuges, parks, zoos and veterinary clinics across the country are presented with a problem. People working in their yards, walking on trails or visiting other outdoor sites find a baby bird that cannot yet fly. It seems apparent that there are no adult birds tending to the youngster, so people immediately assume that the fledgling needs help. So they scoop up the bird, put it in a cardboard box, and bring it to the nearest facility they can think of to save the youngster. Sadly, this act of kindness probably does more harm than good. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to help you be prepared and know how to handle this situation for the best possible results.

Fledglings: Leave them be

The vast majority of baby birds brought to these facilities are fledglings. This means that the babies have grown to the point at which they are just too big for their nest and need room to move around, flap their wings, and learn to fly. In addition, because their parents built the nest, laid the eggs and fed the babies for a couple of weeks, predators may be homing in on the nest site by now. If the babies leave the nest and disperse into the surrounding vegetation, they can avoid predators. The parent birds keep track of the babies using certain types of calls. When the baby responds, the adults bring food to the baby.

Nearly everyone has heard the tale that you don’t touch a baby bird or the parents will smell your scent and not return. While completely false, this tale has probably saved countless birds. We must trust the parents to raise the next generation; they have been doing this successfully for millions of years.

If they can hop and flutter about on their own, leave them alone. This principle applies to other animals including deer fawns, baby rabbits, raccoons and opossums.

Nestlings: Likely need help

A smaller number of birds found by homeowners are truly nestlings. They are mostly featherless and sometimes the eyes are not yet open. They were probably blown from a nest, or the nest was destroyed. Without assistance, these birds will probably die.

The best thing that could be done is to place the baby back in the nest, if there is one. If you encounter nestlings in your yard, look for a nest within a few yards of where you found the bird. If you can safely replace the nestling, do so as soon as you can. If you are in a natural area, park or refuge, it is probably best to leave everything alone.

Most birds are not 100 percent successful in raising a brood each year. Predators often raid nests before the eggs hatch or while babies are still helpless. Nests can fail if they aren't properly built or they're placed it in an unprotected location.

Licensed wildlife rehabiliators

If you find some nestlings and the nest has blown down in your yard, where can you take them? Most parks and refuges are not set up to be wildlife rehabilitators. It takes very special people with special skills and proper permits to successfully raise infant wildlife to the point they can be released into the wild.

If you want to help nestlings survive, search for a wildlife rehabilitator near you. Many state conservation agencies keep a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators, but it's not always easy to find one. Researching local rehabilitators before you need one is a smart option.

Remember, the best thing you can do for the birds is to not interfere with Mother Nature; she will take care of them. Tell your children not to touch them, and if your children bring you a baby bird, help them return it to where it was found.