For the Birds: Found a baby bird?
Last updated 5/25/2021 at Noon
It’s baby bird season! Some babies are already popping out of nests, fluttering after parents making sweet little “feed me” calls. Yet baby birds face a gauntlet of risks, and it’s why many do not make it to adulthood. Knowing when to rescue a baby bird can be super confusing. The internet abounds with poor and misinformed advice. What’s worse are the infographic flow charts that oversimplify young birds.
One hundred and ninety species of birds nest in Central Oregon. When a young bird leaves the nest (fledges) – and how — depends on the species. And there is a lot of variation in age, development, style, flight ability, and behavior. In fact, baby birds are incredibly fascinating for this reason alone. But let’s pin down just a few general rules.
First, we will never see the healthy, freshly fledged young of many songbird species. These babes stay well-hidden in dense shrubs or the tree canopy. They are not learning to fly — they are still physically developing. I call these “branchers.” They hop out of the nest and hang out quietly, getting fed by parents. Their feathers and bodies are still growing. When we finally see them, say, at the feeder, they should be capable of flying. Birds with this fledging pattern are the doves, warblers, flycatchers, all finches, cedar waxwings, dark-eyed juncos, blackbirds, and all corvids (jays, crows, and ravens).
Many songbirds stay in the nest or cavity until they can shoot out into the air, flighted. Like all physically demanding skills, getting good takes practice. But these birds should all be able to fly. These species are the swallows, chickadees, all nuthatches, all woodpeckers, all hummingbirds, western and mountain bluebirds, bushtits, Vaux’s swift, western tanager, western wood pewee, and red crossbill. On occasion, the larger of these species will do the “get out early” pattern.
The most confounding songbird fledglings are the robins and corvids. These ground-feeding species have long developments. They’re the active teenagers who want the car keys and to go exploring. Nestlings should not be on the ground, though, not yet. They will need time in the canopy before hitting the ground. True fledgling robins and corvids can run hard, evading predators with some flutter or flight ability, and are agile and active. We have to work hard to catch these buggers.
So, the first general guideline is: How easy is the bird to catch? Is the bird or baby sitting listless, hunkered down, out in the open? For the most part, if they are, we should ask why. Yes, babes wind up on the ground. The number one reason they do is nest disturbance, either by humans or predators. On occasion, high winds will knock a nest down. Naked babies and most nestlings will not survive on the ground. In fact, many parents abandon downed young (swallows, for example). The ground is not a safe place.
Nestlings and naked babies need help. Hypothermia, dehydration, injuries, and starvation occur extremely fast with this age group. Warm, fully healthy, hydrated, parasite-free babes might be able to be re-nested or placed in a tree. Ask us! Never put young in a separate nest from other siblings. They will perish. Impaired babes put back into nests can be bad for the other young.
Fledglings, too, can wind up in trouble: wet, cold, sickly, with a dead parent, too young still, injured, and hungry. Any fledgling that lets you pick her up is not OK. We can put some branchers back into the tree. But often there is a reason the bird was too weak to hang on. A quiet, immobile young bird should be assessed for disease, parasite loads, injuries, starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia. It’s OK if you cannot see these problems. They may not be easily visible. It’s what we do. Learn more about baby birds and what to do at www.nativebirdcare.org.