How to Help a Baby Bird: 4 Simple Steps

Learn how to help a baby bird. It starts with finding out if it even needs help – most do not. Follow these 4 simple steps and you can be confident you’re helping not harming them.

If you’re a backyard birder or an avid bird watcher, at some point you’re likely to come across a baby bird. It may have fallen out of its nest, is practicing its flying technique, or is in urgent need of professional help. 

In order to help a baby bird, it’s crucial to determine if it truly needs your help. Otherwise, you may just be bird napping it. 

The Atlanta Audubon Society states that roughly 80% of baby birds that are “rescued” were birdnapped. 

Birdnap – To remove a wild bird from its natural environment. Perpetrators usually have good intentions but the result can be detrimental to the bird. – Tammy Poppie

In this article, I’ll outline the steps you should take before approaching and trying to help a baby bird so you don’t inadvertently cause trauma and stress to an otherwise healthy bird.

Let’s start at the beginning – you found a baby bird.

You Found a Baby Bird

If you encounter a baby bird, your first instinct might be to pick it up. However, that could cause more harm than good. Leave the baby bird where you found it until you’ve determined if it needs help.

If he’s in imminent danger from a predator (such as a hawk or cat is ready to pounce) pick up the baby while you figure out what to do.  

Under no circumstance should you take the bird home. It’s illegal.

Step 1: Determine if the baby Bird is Hurt or sick?

The first step is to determine if the baby bird is hurt or sick. If he is, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Search the Wildlife Rescue Directory for a nearby wildlife rehabilitator.

Signs of injury and illness include but are not limited to:

  • Bleeding
  • Broken limb
  • Lethargic
  • Shivering
  • Eyes crusted
  • Flies buzzing

The wildlife professional will advise you on the best course of action. To give you an idea, they’ll likely ask you to bring the baby to them or they’ll pick it up. In the meantime, they may ask you to place the baby in a small box punctured with air holes until they’ve reached the destination.

Since nestlings lack sufficient feathers, a cold nestling will need help staying warm since their parents aren’t there to help. 

The wildlife rehabilitator may ask you to keep the baby bird warm. Here’s a quick way to accomplish that: 

  • Take a clean sock and fill it with dry, uncooked rice. 
  • Heat the rice-filled sock for about one minute in the microwave in 15-second bursts. The goal is to create warmth, not heat.
  • Leave it near the bird for warmth

Again, always follow the specific advice of the wildlife rehabilitator you’re in contact with.

If A cat has captured or attacked the baby bird

sweet looking cat

If you’re aware that the baby bird fell victim to a cat contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately – even if there are no visible signs of injury.  Cats carry a deadly bacteria in their mouths called Pasteurella multicida. A scratch or bite on the bird will spread the bacteria quickly and result in death quickly, if not treated immediately.

If the baby bird is not injured, continue to step 2.

Step 2: Determine if the Baby is a Nestling or fledgling?

At this point, you’ve determined the baby bird is not injured. The next step is to estimate its relative age or development stage – nestling or fledgling.

How to Identify a Nestling vs a Fledgling

Nestlings are generally less than 2 weeks old and too young to be on their own. Fledglings are 2 weeks or older, have left the nest (at least once), and are usually perfectly fine on their own. Let’s take a look at what a nestling and fledgling look like.

Nestling

Nestling baby bird

Nestlings younger than a few days old are naked & pink with a few tufts of feathers, bulging eyes that are still closed, and are unable to move other than lift their heads and open mouths for food.

Nestlings that are a few days to a couple of weeks old have more feathers that lay flat, their eyes are open but not clear, and they’re mobile – stretching & moving their wings.  


More examples of nestlings

Baby bluebird nestlings

Bluebird nestlings

Cardinal nestlings in a nest

Cardinal nestlings

Fledgling

fledgling baby bird

Fledglings are fluffy round balls of feathers with large beaks and they have bright, clear eyes. Many people have described fledglings as “grumpy” looking.

They’re able to stand, flutter, and hop around.

Parents are often nearby and may call them if you approach.


More examples of fledglings

Eastern bluebird fledglings on a shepherd hook

Bluebird fledglings

Cardinal fledgling nestled in a tree

Cardinal fledglings

Step 3: How to Help a nestling Baby Bird

Nestling baby bird

Nestlings are completely dependent on their parents for food and protection so if you’ve found a healthy nestling it needs your help to be renested.

If the parents are known to be dead, the baby needs help so you should contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

If at least one of the parents is still alive the best approach is to return it to its nest. It’s likely the nest is nearby so look around – up in nearby trees or shrubs. Birds make it a point to hide their nests so you may need to search a bit to find them. 

If you find a nest with other similar-looking nestlings, place the baby back in its nest and walk away to give the parents space to return. Don’t worry about touching the baby bird; its mother doesn’t care if it smells like a human and won’t abandon it.

Watch for the parents. If you don’t see at least one of them within an hour, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

What if There’s no Nest

If the question has changed to what to do if you find a baby bird with no nest? or if the nest has fallen, it’s safe to put them in a nest substitute. 

Try using a container a small basket or a berry carton – no higher than 4”. Line the container with soft, dry grass and secure it to a tree branch or shrub (wire works great). Place the baby bird in the makeshift nest and wait.

berry basket to be used for a substitute baby bird nest
Create a substitute nest out of a berry basket. Photo by Farsai Chaikulngamdee on Unsplash

Watch for the parents. If you don’t see at least one of them within an hour, contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

Step 4: How to Help a Fledgling Baby Bird

fledgling baby bird

Leaving a healthy fledgling alone is the best option for everyone because it has everything it needs to survive. It’s probably just a baby bird growing and exploring on its own, and it isn’t able to fly perfectly yet. 

One or both parents are likely nearby watching over them. They don’t need our help; they just need practice.

If danger is lurking, such as a hawk or cat is ready to pounce, hide the baby in a bush to get it out of harm’s way. 

If You Think The Baby Bird Is Abandoned

It’s difficult to know if a baby bird has been abandoned or just if its parents are giving them space. The fact is, the best thing is still to do nothing.

If its parents haven’t returned in several hours, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for guidance.

HOW TO HELP A BABY BIRD Desktop by OnTheFeeder.com

The Legalities of Helping a Baby Bird

Birds are protected by federal laws under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 as well as by many state laws. Unless you’re a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, it’s illegal to keep wild birds in your possession.

What does this mean? Don’t try to go rogue and treat the bird yourself. Also, don’t think you’ll take the cute fluffball home for your pet. It’s wrong, it’s illegal, and unlikely to end well.

Never Give Food or Water to a Baby Bird 

Baby birds, especially nestlings, may look helpless and seem starved or dehydrated, but it’s best to leave the feeding to the parents or wildlife professionals.  The babies can actually survive 24 hours without food or water.

Numerous videos online address the question “what can I feed a wild baby bird I found?” but the truth is, you should avoid feeding them anything.

The risk of injuring the baby bird by feeding or giving it water is far greater than the risk of starvation.

toughlittlebirds.com

Well-meaning people have fed baby birds only to be the direct cause that killed them! In some cases, the very food they fed them ended up in their lungs leading to the baby’s death. The risk of injuring the baby bird by feeding or giving it water is far greater than the risk of starvation.

The best thing you can do for a nestling bird is to renest it. Please don’t feed them anything.

Summary

Despite your best intentions, what is best for a baby bird is often to be left alone. If it appears injured, sick or a nestling that’s been abandoned, you will want to contact a rehabilitation center.

Wild birds are not meant to be raised indoors (plus it’s illegal) and will best recover under the care of trained wildlife rehabilitators. 

Let’s do our best to protect nature and our beloved wild birds by doing what’s best for them.

More than 25 years ago, Tammy put her first bird feeder outside her kitchen window. Since then she learned how to attract wild birds to her backyard. Studying the meaning & symbolism of wild birds is also a passion of hers.