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.
Growing up, I used to watch the Mallards breeding in the local pond every summer. The female would start out with many tiny, adorable ducklings; then, day by day, their number would shrink. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t take a few of the little fluffballs home and have them for myself. (Well, aside from the fact that a city apartment is perhaps not the optimal environment in which to keep ducks.) When so many died anyway, would they be missed? And wouldn’t I really be saving them by taking them?
I’ve been seeing similar sentiments on the internet lately: people who have found out how dangerous it is to be a baby bird asking whether it wouldn’t be best to preemptively “save” the chicks from their probable fate. They are babies in danger, after all—shouldn’t any good person help babies in danger?
Shouldn’t I just keep little YAMM for myself?
The simplest answer is that one should not steal away baby birds because it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that isn’t an answer likely to ease the consciences of animal lovers. So I’d like to talk about what it means to help wild animals, and when “helping” can be a really, really bad thing.
It’s fledgling season, and not just for juncos. The other week we ran into this guy:
Fledgling Brown Creeper
In fact we nearly stepped on him. We picked him up to put him in a nearby bush, where he might be safer, but he had other plans: he hopped right back to the ground.
He then fluttered and scrambled his way over sticks and even a fallen log to the base of a tree, which he crept up like the Brown Creeper he was—although much more slowly than an adult. Still, it was an impressive thing to watch from such a young bird.
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.
[Wrote this back in August and forgot to post it—oops.]
ROYA weighs just 16.1 grams, and her right eye is bloodshot and kept mostly closed.
That’s bad, but ROYA is one tough little bird. You would never know that she is one-eyed from watching her: she flies, she forages, and she feeds her chick—who is in his young-fledgling, über-needy stage—nonstop. If she can keep it up for another week, he’ll be able to fend for himself, and she will have successfully raised a brand new junco.
ROYA’s young fledgling
I really wanted to band her fledgling, but while he seemed dopy (he cheeped nonstop, letting us know exactly where he was, and let us get maddeningly almost within arms’ reach of him), he knew when to fly, and he never flew into the net either. ROYA is doing a good job.
Anyone who has read Anna Karenina knows the famous line: all happy families are alike; unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way.
For birds, this is not true. Family conflict in birds is generalizable.
On our last trip, finally, we managed to catch some fledglings. We had been seeing them around for weeks, but as they didn’t seem to respond to playback, and they never flew the right direction when we tried to chase them into the net, we’d caught none.
On this last trip something had changed. No longer were all of the fledglings attended by their parents; instead, they formed foraging flocks of parents, attended fledglings, and apparently-independent fledglings. Attended fledglings are hard to catch because their parents lead them away from danger. Independent fledglings, it turns out, aren’t so careful. We set up the net where we observed the flock foraging, and within ten minutes the juncos drifted back into the area and resumed foraging.
BOAR was the first fledgling we caught.
Although the last month has brought nests, chicks, and all the excitement they entail, it has also seen increasingly frustrating field work. In the beginning of the field season, we caught between two and five juncos every day; now we’re down to two, one, or none.
Some of them simply don’t respond to our playback at all. Locations that we know have juncos—because we’ve seen them, darnit, we’ve banded them—appear junco-less, our Radio Shack speaker spewing junco calls with no response. Other juncos respond half-heartedly, distractedly. They sing for a minute, then resume foraging. Or, as I watched GAEL do recently, they sing back softly while preening their feathers.
GAEL ignoring us. Photo by M. LaBarbera.
We spend a lot less time handling birds now, and a lot more time muttering, “Jerk juncos.”