by Georgann Schmalz, Birding Adventures, Inc.
"I found a baby bird on the ground and want to know what to do with it."
"What can I feed a baby bird that is sitting on a branch near its nest?"
"The mother bird kicked her baby out. What do I feed it?"
Springtime arrives, and the inevitable happens. The baby bird syndrome besieges nearly every nature center, veterinarian, and ornithologist in town. Atlanta Audubon receives many calls as well. Who can resist the hungry cry of a "lost" baby American Robin or Northern Mockingbird when it leaves its nest and is barely able to fly? Well-meaning people scoop up and protect seemingly helpless fledglings from streets, yards, shrubbery, and sidewalks. It's difficult to watch these appealing fledglings flutter helplessly, appearing alone in a threatening world of cats, dogs and cars, and not run after them to place them in a protective box. Once in hand, the real dilemma begins—the inevitable question, "What do I do with it?"
A resounding "Put it back" is the best reply. A young bird has a much better chance of surviving if left alone. Very few fledglings are evicted from their nest or abandoned by their parents. So, unless it is injured or a cat or car is ready to pounce, leave it alone.
Only about 60% of songbird nestlings survive to leave the nest. Some die as embryos, never to hatch, some are frail from birth, and some fail to get enough food, warmth, and protection after hatching.
Those that have successfully survived their nestling period are ready to make the transition to the outer world. They have been stretching and strengthening their wings and legs for days. Clinging tightly to the nest's rim, they practice flapping wings to prepare them for flight. They may even hover a few inches above the nest, only to return quickly to its siblings. The actual act of leaving the nest is often quite fast. One moment the nest is filled with small, squirming bodies, and the next moment it is empty. One by one, the imminent fledglings teeter on the edge of the nest, test their wings one more time, and jump. Most songbird fledglings, upon leaving the nest for the first time, will end their first flight on branches or twigs of nearby shrubs or trees. They will not return to their nest, so placing them back in it is useless, as they will keep bouncing out again and again.
Once out of the nest, the fledglings maintain a close bond with their parents. They are rarely left alone for very long; each parent is within a short distance, alert to any dangers. The ability to sit motionless contributes to the success of a fledgling's first few days away from the nest. It is during this short time that baby birds are picked up and "saved" by tender-hearted people. This is tantamount to kidnapping and leaves very distraught parent birds wondering where their youngsters vanished to.
Young birds need only a little instruction in learning what to eat. At first, they may peck indiscriminately at flowers, sticks, or inedible objects. The foraging of young songbirds involves learning how to peck at the food, what to peck at, and what to avoid. It is believed that a young bird has an innate ability to obtain food in its species' correct manner and needs only to be fed that food or be led to an appropriate habitat. For example, Purple Martins and swallows have an innate predisposition to catch flying insects. They perfect this foraging behavior by associating with their parents or other swallows, being fed insects, and being led to open places best suited to soaring, diving, and grabbing insects in the air. One will often see a family of Barn Swallows perching on a telephone wire while the parents bring food to them. Occasionally, a juvenile flies out, meets an incoming parent, grabs a mouthful of food, and returns to the wire. This behavior undoubtedly helps the young swallows to learn the flight movements required of them.
(In a few cases, after watching for a while and you are totally convinced that the parents are not coming around, carefully pick the fledgling up, put it in a warm quiet place, and contact a local rehab center such as AWARE Wildlife Center. Atlanta Audubon has a list of additional wildlife rehabilitation resources on our website.
As difficult as it may be, rescuing baby birds from imagined dangers is usually unnecessary. Those tiny bodies really are supposed to be out of the nest, hiding, finding food, and hopping around, appearing totally helpless. It is nature's way of making sure that only the best hiders, finders, and hoppers survive.
Additional Questions? Email Georgann.