For the Birds: Baby birds: Sometimes the best way to help is to do nothing

Photo by Chris Bosak Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel in this June 2012 file photo.
Photo by Chris Bosak, Young Barn Swallows beg for food as a parent returns to the nest with a morsel.

Here’s a follow-up to a recent column I did about helping birds in the summer. It seems that I missed a few important tips.

I received a text message from a friend last week after she found two baby birds on her deck. They had recently fallen out of a birdhouse she has hanging near the house. What to do with the babies? It’s a question I get fairly often in late spring and early summer.

If you come across baby birds that have fallen out of the nest, the best thing to do is put them back in the nest. That is assuming you know where the nest is, of course. In my friend’s case, she did know and she placed the baby birds back into the house. The mother returned shortly thereafter and all seems to be good.

That advice may surprise some people because the old adage was that you should never touch a baby bird because the mother will reject any baby that has been touched by a human. Birds do not have a great sense of smell (well, most birds anyway) so they will not abandon a baby that was touched. Besides, a mother or father bird has no way of getting the baby back into the next.

I was leaving church one day years ago when a small crowd had gathered near a tree by the parking lot. A baby robin had fallen out of its nest and a small debate was going on about what to do with it. Some said leave it alone, some said construct a make-shift nest and some said put it back into the nest. The nest was clearly visible directly above from where the baby struggled on the ground.

A few people in the crowd knew me as the bird man, so they trusted my opinion about what to do. I was even elected to be the one to pick up the bird and put it back into the nest. The nest was a few feet out of my reach, so a few bystanders lifted me up just enough to get the bird back into its space.

If you do now know where the nest it, or if the nest is out of reach, then you can make a new nest with a cardboard box and some dry materials inside. If possible, try to affix the nest to the house or a tree out of reach of ground predators, or at least place the new nest off the ground. The mother bird will hopefully come feed it and tend to it. Unless you really know what you are doing, and I do not count myself in that category, you shouldn’t try to feed the baby yourself. Leave that to the mother bird.

If you are certain the mother is dead and the baby or babies will perish, you can collect them into a box with a lid on it and bring the birds to a certified wildlife rehabilitation center. Make sure there are holes punched into the box.

Everything I’ve written so far pertains to baby birds, as in no or only a few fuzzy feathers and basically helpless blobs. Fledglings are a different matter. Fledglings are bigger and have most of their feathers. They can hop and maybe even fly short distances.

The usual course of action for finding a fledgling that looks to be struggling is to leave it alone. it is likely learning to fly and the mother and/or father are probably close by watching. These birds are young and awkward-looking, but they are not helpless.

If you are certain the bird has been abandoned or if it is injured, then you can put it in a box and bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator.

The website has a great flow diagram about helping baby and fledgling birds. Click on the “Bird Rescue” tab to find the diagram.

The same is true for young mammals, such as deer, that are found alone. Unless you are certain the mother has been killed, the best thing to do is leave the baby or babies alone. The mother will return to care for the babies.

It goes against our nature as human beings, but sometimes the best thing to do when you find something that is seemingly helpless is to leave it alone.

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