What to do if you find an "orphan" baby bird

Every spring Lort Smith Animal Hospital treats “orphaned” baby birds brought in by  concerned members of the public. The vast majority of the time these birds have not been abandoned or orphaned and the parents are in fact close by keeping a close eye it. Many of these birds are in fact fledglings that have recently left the nest and are unable to fly properly spending anything from a few days up to a few weeks hopping along the ground learning to fly and being fed and protected by their parents.

It is important that wherever possible these birds are returned to where they were found ASAP.

Is it a nestling or a fledgling?

If the bird has all its body covered in feathers and can perch on your finger or a branch then it is a fledgling.

If the bird seems unable to cling well to your finger or to branches, is bald or has only down feathers or mainly growing “pin” feathers then it is a nestling.

Is the bird injured?

If the bird is injured then it needs appropriate therapy and will likely have to go into care. When we are contacted by the general public we will always check the animal to make sure it is not injured but it’s important people know that if the bird is healthy it should be returned where it was found.

Returning the “orphan” to its parents

A fledgling should be placed in a safe position away from any pets, kids, cars or people. Ideally place them in a tree or shrub off the ground. The majority of the time the parents are close by and watching from a safe distance. Leave the bird alone and monitor from a distance, preferably indoors. If the parents don’t return to an undisturbed nestling in two hours something may be wrong. The parents may have been killed by predators or hit by a car, in this case the bird should be transferred to a registered carer.

A nestling bird ideally should be returned to the original nest. Look around in nearby shrubbery or trees for the nest the bird came from. It will probably be well hidden. If you do find the nest, simply put the young bird back in it. If you can’t find it, you can provide a substitute nest by tying a basket or small box in a tree. Line it with some tissues or other soft material, put the baby bird inside, and leave it alone. Once again monitor from a distance and transfer to a carer if not reunited with the parents after 2 hours.

This is usually all the help a baby bird needs. As soon as you leave, the parents—which have probably been watching you the entire time—will return and continue feeding their youngster, don’t worry if you see only one parent—a single parent can raise its young alone.

FAQs and misconceptions

If I handle a baby bird, its parents will pick up my scent and abandon it.

It’s a myth that parent birds will abandon young that have been touched by humans—most birds have a poor sense of smell and are probably unable to detect the scent of humans on their eggs or nests.

If I don’t pick the baby bird up my cat or dog will kill it.

The best thing to do is to keep your pet inside until the bird is gone. This helpless stage is temporary, and if the young bird can be reunited with its parents, it will become stronger and be gone in a couple of days. Try to keep your pets under control during that period.

Why do birds come out of the nest so early if they can’t fly?

It’s to young birds’ advantage to leave the nest as soon as they can. People tend to think of birds’ nests as safe, cosy little homes. But actually a nest is rather a dangerous place because, by concentrating all the vulnerable young in one location, an entire family may be eaten by a marauding predator in a single visit. Parent birds work to raise their young and get them out of the nest as quickly as possible. Then they can spread the youngsters out and move them around to a different spot every night, enhancing each one’s chances of survival.

Can I raise the bird myself?

No. Firstly it is illegal in Victoria. Any bird requiring rehabilitation must be transferred to a registered carer. Secondly, raising birds is a very intensive and difficult task requiring specialist feeding and housing and thus best left to the experts.

Header image credit: ABC News.