The Bird Whisperer Speaks: Or, How to Help Baby Birds

Posted by on Apr 28, 2017 in Stop and Think | 4 comments

The Bird Whisperer Speaks: Or, How to Help Baby Birds

The other day, a friend messaged me to say she heard I’d saved a robin. “No, no,” I responded (more or less). “It was a crow, and a very long time ago.” Well, her son had been chatting with my daughter and he’d been adamant it was a robin, but no doubt that was a mix up.

It took me a moment, and then I went, “Oh yeah, there was a robin!”

About three minutes later, I went, “There was also that blue jay, once, in Washington DC.”

And, oh my goodness, I am only now remembering the baby pigeon we raised on our balcony! We actually set poor old Poopo (pronounced poop-o, as named by my mother) free, and he flew back to us after getting beaten up by the other pigeons. It was pretty brutal. We nursed him back to health, and the second time he flew away, he seemed to do fine.

So on this fine spring morning, I’ve decided to make it my business to address you, not as an author, but as an amateur bird whisperer, with a few fine points on what to do if you happen to find a young bird stranded on the ground. Because it happens this time of year. And you could be the one to save that little creature’s life. And that, my friend, is a wonderful thing.

If that baby bird is still kinda ugly instead of wearing its big-bird feathers, it’s a nestling.

First, if you happen across a really young bird, with pink skin or not that many feathers, you’ve found a nestling. Your first priority is to try to return it to its nest–so look around for that. Maybe the nest itself fell out of a tree and you can put baby and nest back up on a branch? Failing the ability to return it to its nest, make it a new nest. Seriously. Even a shoebox will do, add in some natural materials from around where you found the baby bird, and try to put that bird and new nest back up in that tree (nail it in as high as you can get). Mother (and often even father) birds almost never abandon babies, and, unless they’re vultures, they have a pretty bad sense of smell. They’re not going to “smell” you on their babies, and they’re going to be very grateful if you return their babies rather than run away with them.

But maybe that bird is older. This has pretty much always been my experience. It’s got some flight feathers and can flap around pretty enthusiastically, but it can’t quite fly yet. These birds are called fledglings, and they’re experts at falling out of their nests (cuz they’re trying to fly), so putting them back in isn’t a good idea.

You don’t usually want to approach or interact with a fledgling unless they’re in a dangerous place. For example: the robin I “saved” was in the middle of a four lane road; the blue jay was on the sidewalk of a busy street; and the pigeon was being stalked by a cat and we couldn’t reach the lowest branches of the only tree in the vicinity. Oh, and the crow broke his leg in his fall and had to have it amputated just above the knee due to infection. We nicknamed him Kamal and he was old enough to survive on our balcony–and our neighbor’s when I traveled–with regular feedings and his parents and family hanging out and talking to him from other balconies (literally) until he could fly away again. Crows are actually really amazing birds.

When you see a fledgling on the ground and it seems healthy and in a safe place, remember The Beatles and… Let it Be. (I totally went there.)

Here’s what you want to do if the fledgling isn’t in immediate danger: leave it alone. Its parents are probably watching it, and they’ll coach it through the next day or even week or two. It’ll learn to forage, hide, and so forth as it gets ready to fly. Keep pets and children away, and just let the fledgling be.

Here’s what to do if the fledgling appears to be in a dangerous situation: gently catch it and move it to its own tree or a nearby shrub. Getting it back into its nest isn’t going to make much difference because it can fly right out again. You just want to get it somewhere it can hang out and chat with its parents and not be immediately run over / scared into the road / eaten.

Here I give you a perfectly happy robin fledgling. Yay!

To catch a fledgling, you want to crouch alongside it slowly and put one hand some distance in front and to one side of it. This is your distraction technique. Make sure it is focused on your hand (wiggle your fingers slowly), and then gently reach up to it from behind with your other hand and scoop it up.

Don’t handle the fledgling excessively if you can help it (i.e. don’t show it off to a crowd of admirers), because you’ll just be stressing it out. Go ahead and set it in the nearest shrub / tree you can find that’s not dangerous, and go along your way. And that’s it! You’ve saved a life and kept a family intact. Now, if you weren’t wearing gloves, go wash your hands really, really well…

But what if there’s something terribly wrong, like what happened to Kamal the crow? Then you do need to act fast. If you’re certain the mother bird is dead, or the parents haven’t shown for many hours, or if the baby is visibly hurt / sick / being hunted, then you need to place it in a safe container (a shoe box with air holes or even a paper bag), with some dry cloths, and call a wildlife rehab center right away. These hours can be critical. Google can also be your friend in terms of how to keep the baby warm and dry (nestlings especially need help staying warm) and what kind of food you might want to offer it. Since the possibilities are so varied, I’m not going to try to coach you through what to do here–just encourage you to get the bird in a safe container and get help. You can do it!

Below are some links if you want to learn more about helping out baby birds. And that’s all I have for you! So tell me, have you ever found a nestling or fledgling before? What did you end up doing?


Baby Birds Out of the Nest (Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife)

When Rescuing A Baby Bird Is Not The Compassionate Thing To Do (Guest Post on Healthy Pets)

There are tons more resources out there as well, if you need them.

  • So much love for this post and its excellent advice, Intisar. And I just found out that we have more in common than a love of fantasy, égalité, fraternité and liberté! I rescue baby squirrels, as well as birds, when needed. (And cats, dogs, rabbits, the odd child…)

    • Oh how awesome! I seem to excel in birds, but I’ve also nursed kittens. (My heart still breaks over the first litter of kittens I tried to help when they were orphaned–I didn’t know what to feed them or how often, and without the internet, it was hard to find out. They died, and at the age of twelve that hit me hard, but after that I was able to help other kittens survive and even get adopted by other momma cats.) I have taken care of older stray cats with random wounds. For a while there, the local vet in Saudi would get this big grin on his face whenever I was ushered in with a cardboard box. He was the one who operated on Kamal Crow too. Dr. Sasha from Serbia. He used to give me “free gifts!” of antiseptic spray and bandages. 😉

      • What a kind veterinarian. Dr Sasha must have enjoyed your love of animals. You already had the interest in health science as a little girl!

        My kitty Pushkin came to me at five days old. Thank goodness for Kitten Milk Replacement (KMR) and my vet, who taught me how to give subcutaneous fluids when he was weeks older and struggling with a terrible coccidia infection. It was a four months long struggle to keep him alive before he was out of the woods. Unfortunately, I got a reputation for being good with days old kittens after that. It’s so touch and go. Over the past decade I’ve come to see what a miracle Push is. Now he’s a big 15 lb boy, a meter long from nose to tail tip, when fully stretched out!

        • Wow! That is a wonderful story! So glad Pushkin made it and has grown so well. 🙂 And yeah, I totally know about the development of reputations… that’s how Kamal Crow came to us. The neighborhood kids came to get me when they found him on the ground, because who else would they go get? 😉 I’m so glad they did.

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