You’ve gone to peek at a nest. For a moment, all the little feathered heads regard you with large, dark eyes—and then in a flurry and a tumble they are out of the nest, running every which way along the ground, and their parents are scolding you and swooping among their babies in apparent panic. Oh no! Will the babies be okay?
This is possibly the question I am asked most frequently. Sometimes the inquirer has managed to catch a few of the babies and replace them in the nest, only for the babies to promptly hop back out. Other times the babies have swiftly vanished, and the inquirer—often someone who has watched the nest over the course of weeks, growing attached to their fluffy neighbors—is left, quite suddenly, with silence and absence and a gnawing guilt.
I got my start in ornithology studying the love lives of House Wrens. House Wrens pair up to raise their babies in a manner compellingly analogous to the human “nuclear family;” but, like most birds, both partners also often “cheat” on each other (i.e., copulate with other birds). This means that the male wren may have chicks in other nests besides his own, and he may end up caring for chicks that are not biologically related to him. (Note: edited. The original version of this sentence had a mistake.)
This sets up a number of interesting questions, such as: why cheat on your partner? Are the chicks sired by outside birds somehow better? Do males know when they are caring for chicks who aren’t their own? The answer to the latter question seems pretty clear (no, the males do not know), but the former two are more challenging.
In the spring of 2015, a male House Wren and his mate built their nest inside a nestbox near a honeysuckle. His mate laid her eggs and dutifully incubated them. Then, one morning— cheep! cheep! High-pitched calls and gaping red mouths cried hungry, daddy! and the male wren was off in a paternal tizzy, collecting bugs and delivering them to his new offspring.
It was, maybe, odd that his new offspring weren’t in the nest that he had built. It was, maybe, odd that other, larger birds were also feeding his babies. It might even have been called odd that his mate was still sitting in their nest, atop whole and silent eggs. But— cheep! No time for that! The chicks were hungry!
What this male House Wren was doing, no doubt to the profound irritation of his mate, was feeding the offspring of a pair of Northern Cardinals who had nested in the honeysuckle near his nestbox.
Something is not quite right here. What is it?
The baby bird says “FEED ME!!” but it doesn’t know that you’re not this momma Cliff Swallow.
One of the veterinarians at the animal rehabiliation hospital recently lamented to me that so many animals she sees are “killed with kindness.” The most common problem by far is that of feeding baby birds. Well-meaning rescuers find a baby bird in need; they search the internet and find statements like “Baby birds must be fed every hour or they will die.” Terrified that the bird will starve before they can get it to the animal hospital—maybe the hospital is closed for the night; maybe it’s a 40-minute drive away—they feed the bird. It makes intuitive sense that babies need to eat, after all. What is not intuitive to us is how easy it is to fatally injure a baby bird by feeding it incorrectly.
“Nowhere on the internet says ‘It’s okay to not feed baby birds for a while, they won’t starve,'” the vet said. “And then they come in fed on milk or something, because the internet said that was a good idea, and they die.”
So: It is okay to not feed baby birds for a while. They will not starve in the several hours it takes to get them to the animal hospital. They will not starve overnight if you find them at 6pm and the animal hospital doesn’t open until 9am the next morning. Baby birds expect to fast the night: their parents sleep, after all. The risk to the bird of starvation is much smaller than the risk of a human trying to feed it without the necessary expertise.
The egret chicks at the nesting colony are growing. They’re doing some neat stuff as they grow, like practicing walking very carefully along branches.
But they are also getting up to a lot of nonsense.
Siblings! No fighting, no biting!
Egrets are beautiful, especially in their breeding plumage, when they sport long curved plumes and dramatically colored faces.
Great Egret displaying breeding plumes and a green face.
Snowy Egret with similar plumes and a red face.
Those breeding plumes are so beautiful that demand for them—for decorating women’s hats—almost drove egrets to extinction, and concern for the heavily persecuted egrets is what gave rise to the bird conservation movement in the early 20th century.
Egrets earn those luscious plumes. Before they get to be adults in breeding plumage, egrets must survive a cutthroat childhood in considerably less impressive dress.
Yikes, THAT’S what our chicks look like??
While my previous post, grumpy as it was, is true, I left out some important things. If you find yourself in the possession of a baby bird, the best thing you can do is to get it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. There are a few cases, however, where this may not be possible. Some rehabbers don’t accept invasive species (pigeons, Common Starlings, House Sparrows) or domestic species (e.g. domestic ducks). Some places don’t have a wildlife rehabber anywhere nearby (although do check—you might be surprised!).
If you’re in this situation, the internet is your friend. You can find recipes for nestling bird diets and instructions on care posted by people who care for those invasive species. Don’t just try to go with your gut: your intuition is mammal-based, and will mislead you. Search for reputable-seeming internet sources, and ideally find ones where you can contact the people to get detailed advice. There is a community of starling-keepers out there who may be able to help (especially if you’ve found a starling; unfortunately, bird species do differ in the care of their babies).
The most important thing is do not try to force-feed your bird water. Birds have an opening in their throat that leads to their lungs, and it is incredibly easy to drown them. Put the bird somewhere dark and warm and do your internet research before trying to do anything else with the bird.
Also, if you do an internet search on my name, you will find my email address. I am not a licensed rehabber and am definitely not the best person you could contact, but I’d certainly prefer to be asked how to keep the bird alive, rather than asked why it died.
Please, please, please do not “rescue” baby birds if they are covered in feathers. They are fine: they are hiding, and being fed by their parents, and growing, and soon they will be able to fly even if they can’t yet. If you find a naked pink baby bird, and can’t see the nest it fell out of and put it back, then please use the internet to find a local wildlife rehabilitator and bring the animal to them. They know how to keep baby birds alive. It is difficult. If you try to raise a baby bird yourself, without specialized knowledge, it will probably die. I volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and our care of baby birds is complicated, from determining the diet to the amount to the best way to house and eventually release them. We are constantly advised by trained veterinarians. This is not something you should be trying to do at home unless, for some reason, there is absolutely no way to get the animal to a rehabilitator (maybe you live on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean?), and even then, you should contact a rehabilitator and ask for advice. Don’t just try to guess. You will guess wrong.
I know you want to help. I know you mean well. But good intentions will not prevent you from killing a baby bird. And then you comment on this blog to ask me why it died, and I get so many of these comments, so many stories of people accidentally-but-avoidably killing birds, and it makes me dread checking the comments on this blog in case there is another one of these stories. The baby bird died because you are not a bird and not a trained wildlife rehabilitator. Let the birds raise their babies.
I covered this is in this older post, including ways that you can help birds.
This wildlife rehabilitator has a good article on how to tell if an animal needs your help.
I’ve seen a lot of junco nests in my four years of field work. Rarely, I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon the nest of something other than a junco. I don’t find enough of these other nests to study them, so they don’t help me in my research—but boy, is it fun to find them!
Quick review: this is a junco nest.
This is not a junco nest:
Some major differences: the junco’s is a ground nest, while this one is a cup nest, suspended above the ground in the branches of a bush. The chicks are covered in light greyish fuzz instead of the junco chicks’ dark fuzz, and are maybe a bit stockier than the junco chicks.