What to Do If You Find a Baby Bird on the Ground

With a little knowledge of bird biology, you’ll be prepared if you encounter a wild bird egg or baby bird this spring.

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by Connie Black
Baby birds require specialist care to ensure they’re receiving the appropriate diet. Pictured: A healthy goldfinch.

Wondering what to do if you find a baby bird on the ground? Read this article, and you’ll be prepared to evaluate the situation and know if you have to call a wildlife rehabilitator for an injured bird rescue.

Print This article is also in audio form for your listening enjoyment. Scroll down just a bit to find the recording.

Finding a baby bird or wild bird egg seems to bring out the parental instincts in many people. People often use anthropomorphism to understand the natural world. Anthropomorphism is the human tendency to project human characteristics and thinking onto animals or other nonhuman beings. In other words, when people see a lone baby bird in the wild, they may think of it as just as helpless and abandoned as a human infant would be in that situation, and thus feel an overwhelming urge to “save” it.

Wild Birds and the Law

Most wild birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. This means no one should be in possession of wild birds, including their eggs, feathers, skins, bones, and nests, unless they’re bringing an orphaned or injured bird to a wildlife rehabilitator for care. This doesn’t include hunters, who must comply with other laws and permits for possessing certain animals, dead or alive.

If the animal lives in the wild, it’s generally considered wildlife, regardless of whether it’s invasive or native. If a bird isn’t protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act  — for example, invasive species, such as house sparrows, mute swans, and starlings — then the bird and anything related to it aren’t restricted from handling or possessing unless that state has laws regarding a particular species. Some states may have a generalized law that “no one shall be in possession of any wildlife,” which usually includes eggs, feathers, skins, bones, and nests. Each state may have different laws and interpretations.

Avian Life Stages

To understand a lot of what’s occurring in the bird world around us, it helps to know basic avian biology. At hatching, there are two types of birds: precocial and altricial.

When precocial birds are hatched, they’re up and walking around within a very short period, often 24 hours. They’ll start pecking at the ground for food and they’ll be fully covered with down. These birds tend to nest on or close to the ground. Examples of precocial birds include wild turkeys, ducks, geese, quail, and killdeer.

Precocial birds are sometimes found alone, because of separation from their parents or flock. These birds can find food and feed themselves, but they haven’t yet fully learned the art of predator avoidance. Separation from the flock or parents often happens at road crossings or when a predator chases the birds. The birds scatter but then don’t always manage to find each other once the threat has passed. In many cases, the flock or parents are nearby, so give the orphan bird a chance to reunite with them. These young tend to remain quiet when a human is nearby, but if given space, it’ll call loudly in hopes of being found by its parents or flock.

Conversely, altricial birds hatch helpless, usually naked, and are dependent on their parents for survival. These species usually nest a few to several feet above the ground so most land predators can’t get to them. Some of the more commonly seen altricial birds in the U.S. are the American robin, the black-capped chickadee, and several sparrow and finch species.

Altricial birds go through a series of growth stages, starting with the “hatchling” stage, which immediately follows the hatch and may last 1 to 3 days. During this time, the parents may not feed their young, since the chicks are still receiving nutrition from the yolk sac inside them. This gives the hatchlings time to build up strength to be able to sit up and beg for food. Once the hatchlings begin to be fed by the parents, it’s known as a “nestling.” This stage can last for a few to several days, depending on the species.

Knowing when a bird has moved from the nestling stage to the fledgling stage is a bit more complicated. Not all birds in a nest will fledge at the same time, nor is it clear if they belong in the nest or on the ground. When they fledge from the nest, which can be as simple as merely jumping out of the nest onto the ground, they’re still dependent on their parents for food and protection. They’re usually not ready to fly but are quite adept at hopping and jumping. Some species may be able to flap their wings and jump into a low bush, but the parents are always nearby, keeping watch. At this stage, the parents may be looking out for 4 to 6 fledglings, each of which has gone in a different direction. The parents rotate between each of their offspring and are aware of where each fledgling is.

This is often the time when observers find the bird and feel the need to “rescue” it. The observer doesn’t see the parent fly away; they just see that the bird doesn’t have adult plumage and, most of all, that there’s no parent nearby. Rather than picking the bird up, step a good distance away, around 40 to 50 feet from the area, and give the parents enough time and space to come down and feed the fledgling.

Audio Article

The Risks of Misinformation

The nestlings are extremely difficult to tell apart, so if the rescuer makes an identification, it may be the wrong one, leading to incorrect care and food. Many altricial bird parents feed their young carefully chosen insects, even though the adult diet may be much more diverse. Some avian species feed predigested and regurgitated seeds to their young. Adult birds may have completely different diets than their young, and feeding those adult foods to a young bird would likely mean disaster.

Misinformation online about appropriate food for young birds runs the gamut from milk-soaked bread to applesauce, cat and dog food, and everything in between. No young bird will survive to live a healthy life with these diets, even if only fed that way for a day or two.

In most cases, the damage isn’t reversible, and the bird will quickly die or will be euthanized because of deformities caused by the inappropriate diet. While an adult black-capped chickadee might be able to eat sunflower seeds, that doesn’t mean those seeds will provide adequate nutrition for their young.

Finding Wild Bird Eggs

Nest with wild bird eggs

Imagine someone has found an egg on the ground and no nest is visible in the area. The three most important features of making a correct identification of an egg are the egg’s physical details (size, color, and shape); which materials the nest is made of; and where the nest is located. If the egg isn’t in or near the nest, then two of the three features used to identify the egg aren’t there. Eggs from smaller species of birds are often quite similar, which can make correctly identifying them extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Hatching the egg is against the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. If the egg wasn’t viable to start, the parents may have discarded it to conserve resources. Some rehabilitators or wildlife centers may choose to incubate wild bird eggs, but the hatch rate for songbird eggs can be quite low, and the rehabilitator’s resources are few. Furthermore, caring for the tiny hatchlings is difficult at best. As a result, many rehabilitators don’t accept wild bird eggs.

Tragic outcomes occur when people illegally incubate and hatch wild bird eggs. Imprinting occurs during the first 24 hours after a bird emerges from its egg. Imprinting is how the newly hatched bird learns to identify what it is as a species. This is different from habituating, which is generally food-related and develops when animals become accustomed to humans providing food. In far too many cases, habituated animals end up being tormented or killed because they approach a human looking for food and their behavior is interpreted as aggressive and dangerous.

Imprinting is just as deadly, since the hatchlings that imprint on people have a mental image of a human as their identity and as what they’ll look for when joining a flock and selecting a mate. Once imprinting takes place, it can’t be undone, whereas a habituated animal can sometimes be “wilded up,” which takes a long time and isn’t easy to do.

What to Do If You find a Baby Bird on the Ground

No matter how well-intentioned, untrained people won’t be able to give a rescued bird the species-appropriate care it needs. Please don’t attempt it: It’s illegal and most likely to end in tragedy. Instead, contact a licensed rehabilitator who works with the species you’ve rescued. A general category of songbird, waterfowl, or raptor will be sufficient for your initial inquiry. Not sure if a bird needs rescue? Before you pick it up, take some pictures and contact a licensed rehabilitator to find out if it really does. Each state will usually have a webpage with contact information for specially trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitators.

Caring for wild birds is much more complicated than many realize. Wildlife rehabilitators must be licensed in their state, and if they work with migratory birds, they must also have a rehabilitation permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These dedicated volunteers are required to study for many hours and sometimes years before they can become licensed to care for our wildlife.

Dangerous Stress Bars

Untrained rescuers fed an inappropriate diet to a rock dove, causing stress bars to develop on its wings and tail. Birds grow quickly, and feathers become a diary of what’s happened in a young bird’s life. The tips of this bird’s feathers show that initially, the bird was receiving proper nutrition from its parents in the wild and its feathers were forming normally. The stress bars appeared after it was fed an inadequate diet, probably for a handful of days. After that, more normal growth is seen from when the bird was brought to licensed rehabilitators, who fed it an appropriate diet. The stress bars appear as deformities across the feather shafts, and they’ll likely cause the feathers to break off, rendering the bird mostly flightless and susceptible to predator attacks. This bird won’t be able to grow new feathers until all the damaged feathers are molted out, a process that can take several months.

Note the smooth and well-formed feathers of this leucistic (anomaly) acorn woodpecker below. The well-groomed and precisely aligned feathers allow this bird to perform many of the aerial feats necessary for survival. Such feathers are the result of an appropriate diet.

leucistic woodpecker in flight

Resources for Finding Wildlife Rehabilitators

Animal Help Now

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association

Linda Bowen is a wildlife rehabilitator licensed by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, specializing in bats. She’s also licensed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rehabilitate migratory birds, specializing in waterfowl, particularly wood ducklings and other difficult-to-care-for species. She has published articles in state and national rehabilitation journals and has lectured at wildlife conferences across North America.

Originally published as “How to Help Wild Baby Birds” in the April/May 2023 issue of Mother Earth News and regularly vetted for accuracy.

  • Updated on Mar 13, 2023
  • Originally Published on Mar 4, 2023
Tagged with: audio, Linda Bowen, wild bird eggs, wild birds, wildlife rescue
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