Leave Me Alone

October 25th, 2022 by georgann

“I found a baby bird on the ground and want to know what to do with it.”

“What can I feed a baby bird that fell out of its nest?”

“My brother took a baby bird out of a nest.  What do I do with it?”

“The mother bird kicked her baby out.  What do I feed it?”

Springtime arrives and the inevitable happens.  The baby bird syndrome besieges nearly every nature center, veterinarian and ornithologist in town.  Who can resist the hungry cry of a “lost” baby American Robin or Northern Mockingbird when they leave their nest barely covered with feathers and scarcely able to fly?  Well-meaning people scoop up and protect seemingly helpless fledglings from streets, yards, shrubbery and, sometimes, directly from the nest.  It’s difficult to watch these appealing fledglings flutter helplessly, appearing alone in a threatening world of cats, dogs and cars, and not run after them to place them in a protective box.  Once in hand, the real dilemma begins–the inevitable question, “What do I do with it?”

A resounding “Put it back” is the best reply. A young bird has a much better chance of surviving if left alone.  Very few fledglings are evicted from their nest or abandoned by their parents.  So unless it is injured or a cat is ready to pounce, leave it alone.

Only about 60% of songbird nestlings survive to leave the nest.  Some die as embryos, never to hatch, are frail from birth, or fail to get enough food, warmth or protection during their first few weeks. Those that have successfully survived their nestling period must make the transition to the outer world, beyond the nest.

Clinging tightly to the nest’s rim, eager nestlings stretch and strengthen their wings, exercising them to prepare for flight.  The nestling may hover a few inches above the nest, only to return quickly to its siblings.  One by one, the soon-to-be-fledglings teeter on the edge of the nest, test their wings and pop out.  The actual act of leaving the nest is often quite fast.  One moment the nest is filled with small, squirming bodies, and the next moment it is empty. 

Most songbird fledglings, upon leaving the nest for the first time, will end their first flight on branches or twigs of nearby trees.  They will not return to their nest, so placing them back in it is frustrating and useless as they keep bouncing out again and again.

Once out of the nest, the juveniles maintain a close bond with their parents.  They are rarely left alone for very long; each parent is within a short distance alert to any dangers.  The ability to sit motionless or “freeze” contributes to the success of a fledgling’s first few days away from the nest.  It is during this short time that baby birds are picked up and “saved” by tenderhearted people.  This is tantamount to kidnapping and leaves very distraught parent birds wondering where their youngsters vanished to.

Young birds need little instruction in learning what to eat.  The foraging of young Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Blue Jays and Carolina Wrens involves learning how to peck at the food, what to peck at and what to avoid.  They may, at first, peck indiscriminately at flowers, sticks or inedible objects.  Being close to their parents, however, they will learn quickly what to eat.  It is believed that a young bird has an innate ability to obtain food in its species’ correct manner and needs only to be fed that food or be led to an appropriate habitat in order to learn what to eat.  For example, Purple Martins and swallows have an innate predisposition to catch flying insects.  They perfect this foraging behavior by associating with their parents or other swallows, being fed insects, and being led to open places best suited to soaring, diving and grabbing insects in the air.  One will often see a family of Barn Swallows perching on a telephone wire, while the parents bring food to them.  Occasionally, a juvenile flies out, meets an incoming parent, grabs a mouthful of food and returns to the wire.  This behavior undoubtedly helps the young swallows to learn the flight movements required of them.

As difficult as it may appear, rescuing baby birds from imagined dangers is quite unnecessary.  Those tiny bodies really are supposed to be out of the nest, hiding, finding food, and hopping around, appearing totally helpless.

It is nature’s way of making sure that only the best hiders, finders, and hoppers survive.

Birding Adventures, Inc.

Georgann Schmalz



[email protected]