What to Do if You Find a Baby Bird All Alone

Last month I was thrilled to discover a dark-eyed junco nest under the eaves of my house. There were four tiny eggs, greenish-grey with brown specks, and within days I heard the chirping of the newborns.

When one of these minuscule birds landed on my front doorstep, I wasn’t sure what to do, but I decided to leave it alone and check back later. When I returned, it was gone.

Did I do the right thing? 

Five Steps to Follow if You Find a Baby Bird

1. Observe the bird carefully to determine if this is a fledgling or a newly born nestling. One easy way to tell is by the feathers: Nestlings are usually small and basically naked, with just a few fluffs — if they have any feathers at all. Fledglings are bigger and almost totally covered in fluff and feathers. Nestlings, or hatchlings, have almost no energy; they are unable to fly and may not even have opened their eyes yet. Fledglings, on the other hand, often leave the nest a few days before flying away, while they are still under the care of their parents. They have almost fully formed wings and can fly or flutter short distances.

2. Walk away from the bird If you determine it is is a healthy fledgling, advises Rita McMahon, co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund. Fledglings don’t need to be rescued. “Eighty percent of baby birds that come in have basically just been kidnapped,” says Melanie Furr, education director at the Atlanta Audubon Society. Fledglings are supposed to venture away from the nest and try out flying. They might appear abandoned, but mom and dad are likely watching from close by. 

3. Look for the baby’s nest in nearly bushes, trees or other concealed spots if you think you have found a nestling. The nest is the best place for the hatchling to be. Gently pick it up and put it back in its home. And forget the notion that parents will reject a baby bird that’s been touched by a human. “Birds have a sense of smell, but it’s not very well developed,” say Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon. “They’re not going to abandon their chick.” If you can’t locate the nest, line a small basket with grass clippings or even tissue, and place the basket, with the bird in it, in a secure nearby place.

Junco-parent-and-baby

Photo Credit: Getty Images

4. Assess if the bird is hurt, sick or at risk, whether it’s a fledgling or a nestling. Some signs include a fledgling that is unable to stand or hop normally; parent birds that have been killed by a predator; or a nest with living babies that has clearly been abandoned. In these cases, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If it is after hours, create a safe location for your rescue — like a closed box with air holes and a heating pad under it. If you do find a bird that’s not injured but at risk, perhaps from a curious cat or human feet, place the bird out of the way under a bush. And remember: It’s illegal in most places to keep wild birds in captivity, even if your plan is to let them go eventually.

5. Avoid giving baby birds food or water, however cute these little creatures are, and however much your parental instincts are kicking in. Young birds have specific needs that humans can’t meet. Their parents feed them regularly with live insects to give their babies enough protein, and giving them the wrong food, such as bird seed, can cause a baby bird to choke. 

I wasn’t sure about my own baby bird, but it was similar to the one posted above — definitely a fledgling. The next day the nest was empty, so I think this little cutie was experimenting with being outside the nest. She or he was ready to launch into life after only nine days in the nest. Wow! 

Photo Credit: Getty Images

93 comments

HEIKKI R
HEIKKI R8 days ago

thank you

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heather g
heather g8 days ago

A bird in a box or basket is still accessible to cats - but not to the mother bird.

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Julia R
Julia R10 days ago

Thank you for this important information!

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Kevin B
Kevin B12 days ago

Thank you for posting

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Chad Anderson
Chad A15 days ago

Thank you.

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Christine V
Christine V16 days ago

Good to know

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Vincent T
William T17 days ago

Tyfs

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Barbara S
Barbara S18 days ago

Thank you

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ANA MARIJA R
ANA MARIJA R28 days ago

Good reminders. Gladly shared. Thank you.

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Ruth R
Ruth Rabout a month ago

My favorite part. From the article:
' "Birds have a sense of smell, but it’s not very well developed,” said Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York Ciity Audubon. “They’re not going to abandon their chick.” If you can’t locate the nest, line a small basket with grass clippings or even tissue, and place the basket, with the bird in it, in a secure nearby place."'

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