For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Birds

Original Air Date: July 8, 1988

Laura gives some tips for if you find a baby songbird.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Blue Jay)

It’s that time of the year again—people are finding baby birds everywhere. And a lot of them seem to need help. What do you do when you find a helpless baby bird?

If you find a baby songbird, like a robin or sparrow, the first thing to do is to decide whether it is a nestling or a fledgling. A nestling is completely helpless–it’ll have a lot of naked patches of skin, and it’s wings will be unformed. A fledgling is more feathered out, and can usually walk or hop and even flutter its wings.

A nestling should be returned to its nest if at all possible. It isn’t true at all that parents will reject it if it smells of human hands—songbirds just don’t have a sense of smell.

If the nest has been knocked out of the tree, you can try to set the baby birds back in it and set it on some support. There’s at least a chance that the parents will return to it. But if you know for a fact that the parents are dead or have abandoned a nestling, you can try to take care of it yourself. Get permission from the state DNR or the US Fish and Wildlife Service, though—it’s illegal to take any native American bird out of the wild, even temporarily, without a permit. And be prepared for disappointment—it’s very hard to successfully raise any baby bird.

You’ll need some moist dog food, crushed hard-boiled egg yolk, applesauce, cottage cheese, and oatmeal for the basic diet. Mash all these together into a wet paste, but don’t make it too runny—nestlings have trouble swallowing liquids without aspirating them. And make sure to add bird vitamins. Birds need a version of vitamin D with a slightly different chemical structure than the vitamin D mammals need, so you have to be sure to buy vitamins specifically for birds. Wad up a plop of food about the size of a pea on your index finger, and drip it in the bird’s open beak. It’s also a good idea to feed it several meal worms a day. Never force feed—when the bird is first learning to beg from you, you might have to tease its bill open with a toothpick or gently rub the yellow gaping patch on its beak to encourage it to beg properly, but after it’s had a mouthful or two, it will beg like a pro.

Nestlings grow incredibly fast, so they need food as often as their digestive system can empty their gullet. Be prepared to feed yours every fifteen or twenty minutes during daylight hours- –that is, from about five a.m. until about nine p.m. You have to be a workaholic or truly dedicated to feed it often enough without overfeeding it. And you have to keep the baby clean, dry, and warm—its body temperature should be maintained at about 105 degrees. Remember—the best chance for the baby bird to survive and for you to maintain your sanity is to return it to its natural nest.

If you find a fledgling already feathered out and hopping around, chances are the parents are close by. If the baby seems too vulnerable on the ground, set it on a branch and leave it to its parents—they have as much trouble herding their babies as human parents have keeping their toddlers together in the toy department at Target. But parent birds seldom lose track of their young.

All in all, it’s illegal to take baby birds from the wild for a good reason, but if it’s absolutely necessary, patience, common sense, and a lot of hard work can help an avian orphan.

(Recording of a Blue Jay) This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”