Not every ‘baby’ bird found needs to be rescued. A large number of fledglings are scooped up by well meaning people and brought to wildlife rescues and veterinary surgeries, who do not need to be rescued at all. The difficulty is to decide, who does need help, and who doesn’t. This blog post tries to address some of the common scenarios one is likely to encounter. If in doubt, and the bird is not in immediate danger, then please stay with the bird and contact your local wildlife rescue to get expert advice. It is important to remember that the natural parents are always the best parents. Even the best wildlife rescue with the most experienced rehabbers will not be able to match the knowledge and expertise of natural bird parents.
Altricial and Precocial Young Birds
Precocial or nidifugous birds are those that are born with open eyes, a well developed down cover and leave the nest within a day or two after hatching. Precocial chicks are able to walk, run and swim after a few hours of hatching. They can find their own food, but they are usually helped and protected by their parents. This means, if precocial birds become separated from their parents, that they will usually not be able to survive and will need to be taken into human care. Precocial birds include ducks, geese, shorebirds, coots, quails and others.
Altricial birds, also known as nidicolous birds, remain in the nest and depend on their parents for food, heat and protection. Altricial chicks are born with closed eyes, naked, with patches of down and are unable to move away from the nest. Altricial birds include passerine birds, swifts, swallows, woodpeckers, among others. Birds of prey, owls and some seabirds are an exception. They are altricial too, but hatch with a well developed down cover.
The most important rule to consider is that birds, who are not fully feathered are always in need of help. These birds are called hatchlings or nestlings, and are naked, or at least incompletely covered with feathers. They show patches of naked skin and their feathers are still in their sheaths. Hatchlings or nestlings will not be able to stand for longer on their feet and will rest on their hock joints.
A nestling on the ground needs urgent help, as he or she will not be kept warm or fed by their parents when being on the ground. It is not impossible, but very unusual, that a healthy nestling falls out of the nest without any interference. It is more likely that the nest has been raided by a predator, or that the nestling is diseased and the parents have given up hope and had to interfere to protect the remainder of the brood. Natural disasters like storms, or human interference like hedge cutting, are other common reasons, which can lead to abandonment or destruction of a nest. The often heard advice to put the fallen nestling back into the nest is controversial at the very least, and will most likely prolong suffering and can potentially lead to the death of the bird concerned. It should only be attempted when the nest is amenable to be observed for a prolonged period of time after the nestling has been put back to ensure that the parents return and that they feed all of the nest inhabitants, including the fallen chick. If this is not possible, and this is rather commonly the case, then this should not be done.
If this approach is being seriously considered, then this should only be attempted when the nestling is still warm, healthy and uninjured, and only when the nest location is known with absolute certainty. A cold bird cannot digest food, and even when successfully reunited and fed by the parents, will most likely die. Also, the correct species identification is crucial, as there may be birds of a different or the same species nesting close to each other, which can make it difficult to find the original nest. One has to also bear in mind that putting a nestling back into its nest could theoretically be considered as a disturbance of nesting birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Taking all these factors in consideration, it is more likely that an orphaned hatchling or nestling has to be taken into human care. It is crucial that the bird is being kept warm during transport by using a heat pad or warm water bottle wrapped into a towel. No food or water should be offered. Hatchling and nestling birds need specialist care and equipment, like appropriate feeding tools or tubes, a species specific diet and a suitable incubator. They may need antibiotic and anti-fungal treatment when diseased or injured. With the right expertise, setup and experience, hatchlings and nestlings can be successfully raised and subsequently soft released.
Healthy and Uninjured Fledglings
Fully feathered and healthy looking birds are called fledglings. These are birds who can perch, stand and hop by themselves. They are also already able to fly short distances. These birds don’t usually need our help, as their parents are most likely nearby waiting for us to move away to get a chance to feed their hungry youngsters.
Fledglings of many bird species leave the nest at this stage, and for a good reason. If they would remain in the nest, predators could have a very easy meal, killing the whole brood at once. Leaving their nest and hiding scattered in the underground or in bushes, even when not fully developed and not being able to fly properly, is the best way to increase survival chances. It gives fledglings also the time and required exercise to improve their flying skills, which often takes less than a week of daily practice, after they have left the nest.
When a healthy fledgling is found in a dangerous location like a road, then it is safe to move the nestling back onto a lower tree branch or bush, but not further away than 20 meters from the place where the bird has been originally found. Most birds have a poor sense of smell and will continue to feed their youngsters. However, it is crucial to move away from the fledgling and monitor the situation from a safe distance, to make sure that parents return and continue to feed the bird. If there are no trees, suitable bushes or reachable tree branches nearby, then you may wish to create a safe place. A wooden crate or wicker basket can be attached to the tree trunk with a strap and the bird placed inside. If one takes this course of action, then one has to bear in mind that the bird needs to be able to climb out and needs to be heard and seen by his or her parents. One should obviously avoid deep and smooth-sided containers such as buckets.
There are a few exceptions from this rule. Rook fledglings found on the ground will usually not be fed by their parents. On the contrary, carrion crows will continue to feed their offspring on the ground. A rook fledgling needs to be put back onto a high tree branch and closely monitored to make sure that the parents return. Species identification is important and usually not a problem, as long as the nest location is known. Otherwise, it can be a real challenge to distinguish between rook and crow fledglings at this age. Rooks nest in rookeries, whilst crows are territorial birds and have solitary nesting sites, which they will defend fiercely. Timing is always crucial, as parents will usually not accept their own youngsters back when being separated from them for longer than 24 hours. Any reunification attempt has to be closely monitored, as there is the potential risk that even the own offspring could be regarded as an intruder, and might be attacked or killed. Other exceptions, such as swifts, swallows, martins and owls, will be discussed later.
Tawny and Barn Owlets
When a young owl is found on the ground, it is very important to identify the species. The correct course of action to take depends entirely on which species of owl has been found. A simple rule of thumb is that Tawny owls have vivid pink eyelids, and Barn owls have dark eyes and eyelids.
In almost all cases, by far the best thing is to leave a Tawny owlet where it was found, or to take it back there, unless it is obviously poorly or injured. It is very important to remember or find out exactly where the owlet was picked up. It is perfectly natural for part-grown Tawny owls to be out of the nest before they can fly. Tawny owlets go through a phase which is called ‘branching’, when they walk, climb, jump and flutter around in the trees at night. Adult Tawny owls will feed their young wherever they are, even on the ground.
However, it is not normal for young Barn owls to be out of the nest before they can fly. Leaving them well alone is usually not the best course of action, as they will not be able to climb back into the nest or nest box when found on the ground. Adult Barn owls will normally only feed their nestlings in the nest. Owlets on the ground will usually be ignored and will almost certainly die. Healthy, well nourished and uninjured Barn owlets, that are too young to fly, must be placed back in the nest or nest box. However, it is known, when food is scarce, that the weakest owlet will be thrown out of the nest, which increases the survival chances of the remaining birds. This means, if the bird appears weak and poorly, it will need to be taken into human care to give him or her a second chance.
Swifts, Swallows and Martins
Juvenile swifts as well as all age groups of swallows and martins found on the ground will always need human help. Healthy adult swifts are usually able to take off from the ground, if they have a sufficient long and obstacle free run way. Therefore, any adult swift found on the ground is likely to be in need of help as well. At the very least, any grounded adult swift should be assessed by a dedicated swift carer. Generally speaking, all swifts, and similarly swallows and martins, should be brought to a dedicated or specialised carer, as most rescues are not experienced enough or appropriately equipped to deal with the special needs of these bird species. Never attempt to test the flight ability of a grounded swift by yourself, as occasionally recommended by some rescues or other institutions. And more importantly, never throw any bird into the air, which is another dangerous practice occasionally seen by even renowned wildlife rescues or rehabbers. If a bird is on the ground, then it is very likely for a reason. Any test flight at this stage will most likely result into more severe if not fatal injuries, or at the very least, the poorly bird might come down again later in time, but this time unnoticed, and will never be found.
If an injured fledgling has been found, then this bird needs to be recovered and taken into human care. Chances of survival are very slim, when these birds are not rescued. Leaving them in the wild would be cruel and would condemn them to prolonged suffering. All cat caught animals, regardless whether injuries have been found or not, need to be brought to a wildlife rescue or veterinary surgery, as they need to be thoroughly assessed and have to receive a course of suitable antibiotics. Some bird species will also require a combined treatment course of antibiotics and anti-fungal drugs.
Finding Wild Surrogate Parents
This option can be considered, when a healthy orphaned bird has been found. However, the success rate is commonly uncertain, as it is often difficult to monitor a nest and its inhabitants. This approach works only for a few species, mostly for bird species with a high number of offspring, like swallows or tits. Other species, with lower offspring numbers, will quickly notice the ‘intruder’ and most likely kill him or her, and throw the bird out of the nest. Surrogate parents can be successful used in a rescue environment, where it is easier to control and monitor the adoption process. It is regularly undertaken with pigeons and doves, but also with ducks and geese.