Ask a Rehabber: What comes after a young bird leaves the nest?

Posted 7/8/20

People often mistake fledglings as injured birds. by Rebecca Michelin Early summer is baby bird season. At this time of year, the number of calls to the Wildlife Clinic about baby birds skyrockets, …

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Ask a Rehabber: What comes after a young bird leaves the nest?

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People often mistake fledglings as injured birds.

by Rebecca Michelin

Early summer is baby bird season. At this time of year, the number of calls to the Wildlife Clinic about baby birds skyrockets, and many of the calls we receive start along these lines: “I found a bird on the ground and it can’t fly…”

Most songbirds have a development stage called “fledging” when they leave their nest and are still being cared for by their parents but are not yet able to fly. This includes many of the common songbirds in our area such as sparrows, starlings, blue jays, cardinals, doves and robins. Fledging is an important time in the lives of these young birds for their parents to teach them to find food and shelter, how to avoid predators, and how to navigate their environment. If you see a bird on the ground, it can be challenging to distinguish between an injured animal that needs assistance, and a healthy young bird that should be left alone in the care of their parents. Here are some useful tips to help you determine if a bird on the ground needs human help.

Feathers: When they fledge birds are about the same overall body size as an adult bird, but their feathers haven’t finished growing in yet. Baby birds that have large patches of missing feathers and visible skin are not old enough to be out of the nest and need our help. In contrast, fledgling birds have most of their body feathers with no large bald patches. Take a look at the wings and tail feathers. You will see that they look short and may still be covered in a white protective sheath where they are growing. Fledgling birds will also often retain some baby bird “fuzz” -- fluffy feathers that stick out through their adult feathers like little tufts of hair.

Mobility: A fledgling bird can hop, walk, and perch. Birds that cannot fully stand, walk or grip with their feet may be injured or too young to be out of the nest and are in need of help.  Observe the way the bird is walking and standing. Is it using both legs, without limping? Is it able to stand and walk without falling over? Can it grip with its feet and perch on a stick or other surface? These are all signs of a normal, healthy fledgling.

Wings: Fledglings flutter their wings and may even fly a short distance but won’t be able to get very high off the ground. Look at the way the bird is holding its wings. When standing, the wings should be held neatly against the body and look the same on both sides. If one wing is drooping, is not flapping evenly or is held away from the body, that is an indication of an injury and that bird needs help.

These are only a few of the ways to distinguish between an injured bird and a healthy fledgling. Birds that have visible wounds or blood, have been caught by a cat, have flown into a window, or have been hit by a car should always be brought to a rehabilitator. If there is any question whether you should intervene, observe the animal from a distance and send us a clear photo of the bird so we can help you decide what actions need to be taken, if any.

When a bird is a healthy fledgling, the best action is to leave it alone and allow its parents to continue raising it. Cats, dogs, children, or vehicle traffic in the area are normal risks and are not reasons to kidnap a healthy baby from their family. Young birds that accidentally make their way into the road but are not hurt can be gently moved to a safe space nearby where the parents can find them. Keep pets leashed and supervised and children away from the area, and most fledglings will be fully flying in just a few short days!

Reach out to the Wildlife Clinic at 215-483-7300 option 2 for assistance with injured animals. For non-emergency wildlife questions, email us at wildlife@schuylkillcenter.org.

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