Recently I’ve noticed that people are being referred to Tough Little Birds by searching things like “what to do when junco chicks fall out of the nest”—and, of course, finding this blog totally unhelpful. Whoops! I’m fixing that now.
First, you probably don’t need to do anything, because most baby birds on the ground are fledglings: that is, they’ve left the nest voluntarily. Often fledglings look a bit scraggly and aren’t good fliers yet. That’s okay: the parents feed them, the fledglings hop and flutter about and mostly hide in brush while they grow the rest of their feathers, and all is as it should be.
If the bird has wing feathers, even if they’re quite short, it’s probably a fledgling. Fledglings often don’t have tails yet so that’s fine. Often fledglings call piteously, and that’s okay too: they’re telling their parents to bring them more food. Calling is a good sign! If you hide somewhere nearby and wait, you might be able to see the parents bring the chick food.
The only times you need to worry about a fledgling are 1) if, in its youthful cluelessness, it has wandered into some location that is dangerous, like the middle of the road, or directly in front of a cat; or 2) if you have reason to believe that the parents have abandoned it. In the case of #1, just pick it up and move it, or chase it, somewhere nearby but safe. The parents will find it by its calls. For #2, be absolutely certain that the parents have left—e.g. know that they have not visited the chick at all in 24 hours. Parents may leave the chick for several hours sometimes, but still be feeding it. If you’re sure the fledgling is abandoned, and too young to survive on its own (i.e., not feeding itself), follow instructions for contacting a wildlife rehabilitator, at the end of this post.
On our last trip to the field, the family camping next to us found a fledgling Steller’s Jay on the ground in their campsite. They rescued her from their curious dogs and held her while she recovered from her shock.
After a few minutes she looked around, fluttered onto the ground, pecked at it a bit in case it was edible, and then began calling. While she called she hopped uphill until she found a tree, then climbed that tree by hopping from branch to branch until she was at the very top, where she was safe and her parents could find her. Fledglings are clumsy but they can usually take care of themselves.
Sometimes chicks do fall out of their nests too early. Chicks that shouldn’t be out of the nest yet will be unfeathered, with maybe just a little bit of fluff. They will look very little like actual birds.
If you find a young, naked chick, your best option is to put it back in the nest. The parents will find it there and care for it as if it never fell out, and everyone’s happy. (Don’t worry about getting your smell on the chick. That popular factoid is a myth: birds will not reject chicks that have human smell on them.)
If you don’t see the nest or can’t reach it, bring the chick to a wildlife rehabilitator. (Advice on finding one near you here.) There are lots of licensed rehabbers, and they can raise the chick and release it. They can also care for injured adult birds you might find. They are trained in caring for wildlife and can evaluate the animal’s injuries; even if you think the bird will have to be put down, you should still bring it to a rehabber to get their opinion (and let them do it humanely, if necessary). Some bird “injuries” aren’t bad at all—birds can lose their entire tails, and often do, and are fine! Even broken legs or wings are sometimes mendable. Birds are tough.
Update: see also this post.