For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Bird Week I

Original Air Date: May 20, 1996

Laura Erickson has declared this National Baby Bird Week. All week she’ll be providing information about what to do when you find a baby bird. 4:16

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April showers bring May flowers, May flowers bring June bugs, and June bugs feed baby birds. People, especially children, find baby birds just about everywhere in spring and summer, and thanks to human nature, whenever almost any of us encounters a baby bird, we feel a deep, inexplicable obligation to help it. But help can become hindrance in the case of avian foundlings. Humans are simply not as suited to baby bird care as real parent birds.

Of course, the best ways we can help large numbers of baby birds don’ t require handling them. To ensure the survival of your neighborhood baby birds, keep cats indoors, tie up or fence inquisitive dogs, and don’t use lawn pesticides during baby bird season. Most registered pesticides have never undergone specific tests for effects on wild birds. Registered chemicals are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and chemical companies demand a higher level of proof to establish the “guilt” of a pesticide than even O.J.’s jury expected. I’ve cared for baby robins and blue jays after exposure to treated lawns. In every case they eventually died, and the death was always prolonged and probably painful—a heavy price to pay for a dandelion-free lawn.

Even following these rules, sometimes we find baby birds in trouble. It’s against state and federal laws to possess any wild, native bird, even to help it, without a permit, but the D.N.R. and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service won’t prosecute if you’re really keeping the bird as brief a time as possible in order to bring it to a licensed rehabber. Raising a baby bird sounds fun and seems an important rite of childhood, but it’s unconscionably cruel to inflict well-meaning but misguided and inappropriate care on an innocent creature.

Most adults were taught that if human hands touch a wild foundling, the parents will reject it. This may be true of bunnies and squirrels, who recognize their young by smell, but birds recognize their young the way we humans do, by sight and sound. If a nestling falls from its nest during high winds or when a parent alights or takes off abruptly, gently put it back and the parents will readily accept it. If it feels cool to the touch, cup it in your hands or set it on clean dry towel several inches from a light bulb to warm it for a few minutes before returning it.

What if you put a baby songbird back in the nest and it hops right back out? Then it’s not a nestling at all–it’s a “fledgling,” the avian equivalent of a toddler. Just as a human two-year-old learns to climb out of a crib, a fledgling learns to jump out of the nest to explore the bright big world. For several days, parent birds are frantically busy keeping track of four or five babies all exploring different corners of their world–imagine setting five toddlers free in the toy department of Target and you can understand how parent birds may temporarily lose track of one of theirs. In the case of songbirds, unless both parents were killed, one or the other will eventually find the lost one as long as you leave it close to where you found it. If cats, dogs, or other predators are about, set a fledgling in a thick shrub or on a tree branch near the place you originally found it so the parents can hear its tiny calls.

If the nest has been destroyed or is out of reach, or if you simply can’t find it, the probability of nestling survival is dangerously low except with an experienced rehabber. That’s where all genuinely orphaned baby birds belong, but you need to know how to keep them alive until you get them to a rehabber. Next time I’ll explain what to do with a baby song bird in trouble.