Just the other day, when I went to get the mail, I found a baby bird sitting on the ground under our maple tree. When I looked up, I noticed a bird’s nest directly above where the baby bird had fallen and a very frantic mother robin flying around my head. I wasn’t the only one around. Neighbors were in their yards tending to their gardens while others were passing by while out on their walks. The baby bird and stressed mother drew the attention of a small crowd and everyone voiced their theories on what had to be done. I heard everything from old wives tales to improper handling of the little one. It dawned on me, then, that most people have no clue what to do in this situation.
What do you do if you find a baby bird on the ground? How can you tell if it’s orphaned or injured? Do you return it to its nest or just let it be? Here are all of those answers:
If the chick has no feathers at all or has soft, fluffy down feathers, it is safe to return it to its nest. Contrary to popular belief, you can handle a baby bird; its parents won’t abandon it if you do. Birds have little or no sense of smell and will be unable to detect that the chick has been touched by a human. You do want to be absolutely sure you are returning it to the correct nest, though, so check carefully.
Keep in mind that there are times when a baby bird is purposely pushed out of a nest. Adult birds can sense when a developmental problem exists, and the mother will push the baby bird out rather than expend valuable food and energy on a chick that will not survive. It can be difficult to determine if a bird has developmental problems simply by its appearance. If you are in doubt, consult a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. These individuals are trained and experienced in helping orphaned and injured wildlife.
Many baby birds appear orphaned but really aren’t. If the bird has developed adult feathers, has a short tail and is able to hop along the ground, it is likely fledging, meaning it is in the process of growing the feathers that will allow it to fly. The parents are probably nearby, and the bird will probably attempt to fly again soon. At this stage, it is normal for a young bird to be left alone for short periods of time. Human interference may impede a valuable flight lesson. Meanwhile, the parents are likely stopping by to feed this young bird, a process that only takes a couple of seconds.
If a bird that is fledging is found in an unsafe area such as near a road or sidewalk, you may remove it to a safer location in close proximity to where it was found. You’ll want to make sure you remove it from danger while keeping it near its original location so that its parents can find it again.
In the case of the baby robin I found, it was clearly fledging (based on the description above). However, it was also on the road. Though at first it seemed a bit disheveled, it wasn’t injured, and the mother clearly had a desire for it’s safety. So we gently relocated the bird into the grass nearby while still keeping under the maple. Soon after, the mother had calmed down, and a neighbor said she saw her stop by to feed the little guy.