For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Bird Week III

Original Air Date: May 24, 1996

Baby ducks and Killdeer need a completely different kind of care than baby songbirds. Today Laura Erickson brings National Baby Bird Week to a close with some hints about what to do if you find one of these fluffy chicks. 3:21

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Baby ducks, killdeer, and other chicks that hatch out covered with fluffy down and leave the nest within hours of hatching are neither nestlings nor fledglings. These “precocial” babies are seldom fed directly by their parents; rather, the adult leads the babies to food and shows them what to peck at. My best friend’s son once found a baby killdeer. The family tried to raise it, but it wouldn’t eat anything at all. For three days it seemed happy and healthy to their unpracticed eyes, and didn’t seem particularly hungry, but suddenly it became pitifully weak and died. Its thick downy feathers hid its starved body until it was much too late, and the whole family was heartbroken. A duckling or killdeer chick is one of the most appealing of all creatures, and feeling responsible for its death is a terrible burden.

In order to survive in the wild, precocial chicks memorize their mother’s voice and features minutes or hours after hatching–once they leave the nest, they recognize her calls instantly and never mistake another creature for her. This “imprinting” system works just about perfectly, but once in a while a chick gets separated from its mother. After it imprints, accepting a substitute parent goes against its nature. If a precocial chick hatches after the rest of its family has left the nest, it may imprint on an inappropriate foster parent, such as a human, but will live an unnatural life, ultimately being attracted to the wrong species for a mate when it reaches adulthood.

Some professional rehabbers successfully raise precocial chicks using surrogate mothers or puppets, but this is tricky. If you find a precocial baby bird, especially a Killdeer, withstand the temptation to pick it up–chances are the parents are tending to other babies and will soon return. If you are certain that both parents are dead (an unlikely scenario), the best thing to do is to release the chick by another killdeer family in hopes that the baby joins them. Only once has someone brought me a baby killdeer, and she fortunately knew exactly where her son had found it. First thing the next morning I took it there, listened for an adult killdeer’s calls, and set the baby down within view of its mother. ft crouched low on the ground for a moment and then suddenly scurried to her, safe and sound.

Ducklings get separated from their parents fairly frequently, and some are pretty smart about joining another family. If you find a baby duck that had already imprinted on its mother, it may have a better chance of survival with other ducks. When faced with a baby bird, the maxim “Let nature take its course” may sound like a cruel cop-out, but sometimes it really is the kindest, most humane way.