EDIT 5/26/2016: If you found this post because you have a baby bird and are wondering what to do with it, please see this post instead; it will be more useful.
Being a fledgling—a chick that has left the nest—is awkward.
Junco fledgling MAII illustrates the awkwardness via interpretive dance.
Fledglings are at one of the most dangerous time in their lives, facing an average mortality rate of 42% over just a week or two. Most of that mortality happens early, just after the little guys have left the nest. New fledglings have almost no skills: they can’t feed themselves, can’t fly well (or, in many cases, at all) and can’t do anything to defend themselves if something terrifying like a weasel, snake, crow, or even chipmunk decides to eat them.
A few weeks ago, one of my officemates and I were discussing how dangerous it is to be a baby bird when he mentioned that among the creatures that will eat young birds—rodents, deer, ants, slugs—are Western Scrub Jays. “I’ve seen them hunt down and eat young fledglings,” he said. So when, this weekend, I saw a scrub jay pecking at something small and cheeping, I dropped my grocery bags and ran.
The victim was a young fledgling, probably no more than a day or two out of the nest. He cowered on the ground when I reached him. I looked around for his parents, but although there were many spectators peering down from the branches—European Starlings, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bushtits—none of them seemed upset. They were there to watch a show, not defend a baby. And although I wasn’t sure what species the fledgling was, I could tell he was too big to be a chickadee or a Bushtit, and he lacked the long-faced look of young starlings.
Scrub jays are smart birds, and I knew if I left the fledgling there, he would go right back on the menu. Too, from the way he huddled and didn’t move, I worried that he was injured. I took him home.
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.