It is not always easy to tell when wild animals need our help, and when it is best to leave them alone. This blog post and the included flowcharts are thought to be a rough guide for situations where no expert advice and help is at hand immediately. If you have found an orphaned, injured or poorly bird, then please read the guidance provided here in this blog post together with the FLOWCHARTS No1 and No2 and follow the instructions given there.
It is important to note that specific features of hatchlings, nestlings, fledglings and juvenile birds can vary significantly among different species. Each bird species has its own unique characteristics and growth patterns. So, if you are trying to identify a specific bird, it is helpful to consult field guides, online resources or seek expert advice to accurately identify the species based on its distinctive features.
A word of caution
Being captured and handled is a very stressful experience for an injured bird. Catching an injured bird is often difficult and handling must be firm but gentle to avoid further injury. An orphaned, injured or poorly bird can only be helped if it can be caught. A bird with minor injuries will often be able to fly to get away, so it is often difficult or impossible to catch such a bird. On the other hand, there is often only one chance to get hold of an injured animal. If you are not experienced or unsure what to do, then please get in touch immediately with an experienced rescue or rehabilitator to get expert advice or help.
To establish who needs help, it is important to consider two main factors. The first factor to establish is the health status of the bird. The second factor is the approximate age group the bird belongs in to. The latter will serve as an approximate indicator for the maturity of the bird and its degree of dependance from its parents. To assess maturity one has to take in account whether the bird belongs to an altricial or precocial animal species.
Altricial and precocial Birds
Altricial and precocial are two different ways animal species develop. Animals belonging to the altricial group are born helpless, whilst precocial animals are born relatively mature and mobile. So called altricial birds include herons, hawks, woodpeckers, owls, cuckoos and most song birds. Examples of precocial birds include many species of ducks and geese, waders and rails. This guide applies mainly to altricial bird species, which hatch with their eyes closed and with little or no down feathers. These birds require therefore parental care until they fledge. Precocial species are those in which the young are relatively mature and mobile from the moment of hatching. However, hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings of altricial bird species and young birds of precocial species will both require some degree of parental care and guidance until they have developed their juvenile plumage, are able to fly and have been taught how to forage and to survive independently.
Are you or the bird in immediate danger?
When assessing the situation, and before starting any rescue attempt, it is crucial to make sure that you as the rescuer are safe and that it is safe to proceed. The second step is to find out whether the bird is in immediate danger. It is also important to understand that some bird species are capable of causing severe injuries, when not handled safely and correctly (e.g. birds of prey, gannets, egrets and herons). Do not capture or handle potentially dangerous animals if you do not have the experience and the required equipment. Please see FLOWCHART No1.
Hatchling, nestling, fledgling, juvenile or adult?
When the situation is safe, and the animal is not in immediate danger, then try to establish the approximate age group of the bird concerned. This is crucial, as the course of action depends on it. Hatchlings and nestlings cannot survive without parental care. This means that they need to be taken immediately into expert care, if they cannot be reunited with their parents. They have to be also kept warm during transport in a well ventilated and softly padded transport container.
Fledglings will require a different approach, as it is normal for them to be on the ground. In this context it is also helpful to identify the species you are dealing with. If in doubt please get expert advice, as some species might be in trouble when found on the ground (e.g. rooks, barn owls). Please continue to read for more detailed information about the different characteristics of hatchlings, nestlings, fledglings and juvenile birds.
Hatchling birds are called birds shortly after hatching from their eggs. They have a compact body shape with a large head in proportion to their body. Hatchlings are usually born without feathers or have only a sparse covering of downy feathers. Feathers begin to develop gradually as the bird grows. Hatchlings have a relatively large and often brightly coloured beak, which can vary in shape and size depending on the species. Their mouths are wide and gape for feeding.
The eyes are relatively large and prominent. However, their eyelids may still be closed or only partially open, depending on the species and age. While hatchlings have underdeveloped legs and feet, one can observe the beginnings of leg structures. The legs are usually thin and may lack the strength for sustained walking or perching. Hatchlings are generally immobile and unable to move around on their own. They rely on the care and protection of their parents in the nest.
Nestling birds are slightly older than hatchlings and have progressed in their development. They have more developed feathers compared to hatchlings. While fledglings may still have some downy feathers, they often have a greater coverage of feathers, which may be growing in different stages of development. Feathers can range from soft and fluffy to emerging flight feathers. Some of the feathers may still be covered by their shiny feather sheaths. Nestlings begin to develop their wing structures, and one may notice the emergence of primary and secondary feathers. The wings are still relatively short and underdeveloped, restricting their ability to fly. The beak of a nestling bird continues to grow, and its shape may be more distinct, resembling the adult beak of the species. The mouth is still wide and gapes for feeding, as nestlings are dependent on their parents for food.
Nestling bird eyes are usually fully open, and the eyes appear relatively large in proportion to their head. Nestlings exhibit more developed leg and foot structures compared to hatchlings. Their legs are stronger and can support more weight. The feet are beginning to take on the shape and characteristics of adult feet. Nestlings are still relatively immobile but may have more strength in their legs and wings, allowing them to move around within the nest or perch on the nest edges. However, they are not yet capable of sustained flight.
Fledgling birds are at an advanced stage of development where they have left the nest and are beginning to explore the world on their own. Fledglings have a more complete feather coverage compared to nestlings. Their feathers are well-developed and may closely resemble the adult plumage. However, they may still lack the vibrant colours or patterns of adult birds. Fledglings have wings that are more fully formed and capable of sustained flight. However, their flight skills may still be inexperienced, and they may have a somewhat awkward or unsteady flight pattern. The beak of a fledgling bird is fully developed and resembles that of the adult bird of its species. The mouth is no longer wide and gaping like in hatchlings or nestlings.
Fledgling bird eyes are fully open and show a mature appearance. The eyes are proportionate to the size of their head and exhibit a clear and alert expression. Fledglings have well-developed legs and feet that are strong enough to support their body weight. They are able to move around confidently on the ground or perch on branches. Fledglings are often found hopping or walking on the ground, exploring their surroundings and practicing their flying skills. This learning and exercise process will take a couple of days. They may still rely on their parents for occasional feeding or protection, but they are gradually becoming more independent.
Juveniles and adults
Juvenile birds are young birds that have gone through the fledgling stage but have not yet attained their full adult plumage or characteristics. The plumage of juvenile birds is often different from the adults of their species. Their feathers may be duller, less vibrant, or have different patterns. Juvenile plumage often provides camouflage or protection during their early stages of life. These birds may have slightly different proportions compared to adults. They may appear smaller or have different body shapes. These differences can vary depending on the species and the rate of growth. Beaks are often not fully developed or differ in colouration compared to adult birds. The shape and size of the beak may also change as the bird matures.
Facial features such as eye colour or eye ring patterns may differ from adult birds. Juvenile birds may display different behaviours and vocalisations compared to adults. They are still learning and developing their skills, so their behaviour may be more tentative or less refined than that of adults. Juvenile birds have to go through a moulting process to replace their feathers and develop adult plumage. Moulting can occur gradually over time, and during the transition, they may exhibit a mix of adult and juvenile feathers. In some bird species males and females have different appearances. This is called sexual dimorphism. Juvenile birds of both sexes may resemble each other and lack the distinct characteristics of adult males or females. It can make it challenging to determine the sex of juvenile birds without genetic or other specific identification methods.
The age group has been determined
Now please continue according to the instructions given in FLOWCHART No2 to decide the required course of action for the orphaned, injured or poorly bird in need of help. If you are still unsure about what to do, then please stay with the bird. Contact your local wildlife rescue or an experienced bird rehabilitator to get specific expert advice and support. You may want to check out the links to databases of wildlife rescues and rehabilitators provided below.
We have also compiled some useful information if the need arises to provide first aid to an orphaned, injured or poorly bird. This resource is thought to be a tool aimed at increasing the chances of survival in cases where expert help and advice is not immediately available.
More detailed information to specific types of injuries or diseases is available on our Corvid Care page. This page provides not only corvid specific but also general information applicable to any bird species.
In any case we would advise to seek expert help and advice as soon as possible. Wild animals need expert care to give them the best chance of survival, and we can all play an important part. Where it is safe to do so, transporting the animal yourself will get them the help they need and deserve in the quickest possible time. Time is always of an essence.
Wildlife rescues and rehabilitators
Please check out the links below, which will take you to third party databases of rescues and rehabbers in the UK. The provision of these links is for your convenience only and does not imply any endorsement of, or responsibility for, these organisations or the facilities or services they provide.
Please note that not all bird rescues and rehabbers are able to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation facilities for all native bird species including corvids, and might not be able to provide long term care facilities required in some cases. Prior to the hand over of any rescue animal, it is recommended to check the relevant policies of the rescue or veterinary surgeon concerned, which includes respective euthanasia policies.