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What to Do When You Find a Baby Bird Outside Its Nest

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Step 1: Check to See if the Bird is in Poor Health. Signs Include:

  • Injuries, including bleeding or abrasions. Examine its wings to see if they are dangling.
  • Wet feathers even though there is no precipitation.
  • Heavy breathing
  • Cold to the touch (a bird’s body temperature is about five to 10 degrees above humans’).
  • A wrinkled or sunken abdomen, which indicates dehydration.
  • Surrounded by flies or ants, which indicates an open wound.

If you notice any of these signs, bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator immediately (see below on how to transport an injured bird and where to find a wildlife rehabilitator).

baby bird in nest

Step 2: If the Bird is Not Injured, Determine Its Age

  • Hatchlings are less than two weeks old. Their eyes have not opened, and they have few feathers, if any. Therefore, they can quickly lose body heat. See below on how to renest a hatchling.
  • Nestlings’ eyes are open, but they are not fully feathered. They cannot hop, but they may use their wings to move around on the ground. See below on how to renest a nestling.
  • Fledglings are fully feathered. They aren’t able to fly but can hop. The fledgling is likely being cared for by its parents outside the nest. If it is near low-hanging branches, the fledgling may be able to hop back into the nest. See below on what to do if you find an uninjured fledgling. If the fledgling cannot hop, take it to a wildlife rehabilitator.
  • Juveniles are fully feathered and adept at flying but slightly smaller than adults. If you are able to catch a juvenile, this is a sign of poor health; juveniles are very active and difficult to catch. You should immediately take it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If it is in good health, leave it be.

If a Hatchling or Nestling Can Be Renested:

  • The baby likely came from less than 30 feet away. You can often find its nest by watching for parents returning to a nest with food every 20 to 40 minutes.
  • Once you find the nest, determine if there is enough room for the baby. Also, check to see if the nest is damaged. If the nest is fine, you can put the baby back in. You do not need to worry about the parents smelling your scent on the baby and rejecting it; birds have a very limited sense of smell.
  • If nest space or structure is insufficient, or if you cannot locate the nest, construct a makeshift nest with a small hanging basket or similar structure. Line the inside with dry grass and press down to make a bowl shape.
  • Try to put the new nest as close as possible to the original, preferably in the same tree, so that the parents can find the baby. Do not relocate the nest more than 20 feet from the original. The makeshift nest should be hung six to eight feet off the ground and under overhanging branches.
  • After you place the baby in the new nest, observe it from a distance. The parents should find it within an hour. If not, take it to a wildlife rehabilitator. 
baby bird on ground

If You Find an Uninjured Fledgling:

  • Like nestlings, a fledgling likely came from less than 30 feet away. Its parents may even be caring for it outside the nest. The parents are often able to locate the fledgling when they hear its distress call.
  • Fledglings cannot fly yet, but they can hop. Even if the parents do not immediately locate it, leave the fledgling where you found it unless it is exposed to predators. If this is the case, choose a location less than 30 feet away with coverage from predators, such as a bush. If coverage is not available in the immediate area, you may make a brush pile against a tree. Do not be alarmed if the fledgling hops out of its nest or coverage; fledglings are very active.

If You Have Determined from These Steps that the Bird Needs to Be Taken to a Wildlife Rehabilitator:

  • Call your local wildlife rehabilitator to ensure they have the resources to care for an injured bird.
  • Line a covered, ventilated box with a towel and place the bird inside. Handle the bird as little as possible, and wear disposable gloves when you do (you do not need to worry about the bird smelling like humans, but gloves will keep you from coming into contact with open wounds, blood, or illnesses). Keep the box in a dark, quiet spot indoors away from pets. Follow these steps if you are unable to immediately transport the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator:
    • If the bird is not fully feathered, you may provide supplemental heat. Place the box on top of a hot water bottle or a heating pad on a low to medium setting. Frequently check on the bird to make sure it is not overheating (keep in mind that birds’ body temperature is higher than humans’).

Avoid giving the bird food or water. Because birds’ anatomy is so small, it is easy to improperly feed the bird. This can result in food getting trapped in their lungs. When placed in a dark box, the bird’s metabolism will actually slow down.

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