Baby Songbirds - to rescue or not to rescue?
PHOTO: Barn Swallow hatchling - the only survivor after a homeowner (illegally) knocked the mud nest from a carport
That is an excellent question!
It’s Spring and our feathered neighbors are busy building nests and raising families. Wild birds live among us in our gardens and parks, natural and urban areas. Some birds nest high up in trees, others nest low to the ground, some use nest boxes and others share our human dwellings. Baby songbirds are vulnerable and sometimes they are genuinely in need of human assistance, but how can you tell?
Baby birds go through many stages of growth and development before they become independent and no longer require the care of their parents. Their behavior and need for parental care varies at each stage of development. If you encounter a baby bird that you suspect may need to be rescued, some knowledge of their natural development is helpful.
Hatchling songbirds are naked, featherless, and helpless; their eyes are closed during the first few days of life. At this stage, they are in the nest, not on the ground. Without the constant care of their parents, they will quickly die of hypothermia and starvation.
Nestling songbirds are still nest-bound and very dependent on their parents for care, but their eyes are open and they are vocal at this stage. Their bodies will be covered in pin feathers (feathers which are just developing and still covered in a keratin sheath). Older nestlings will have mostly feathered bodies, but their tail and wing feathers are still growing in.
PHOTO: These nestling Bushtits nest was destroyed by a curoius cat. Two of the babies did not survive the attack, but these all made it and were released back to the wild. Photo by volunteer Bobbi Lance of Yuzu Studios.
The length of the nestling stage for songbirds varies from species to species, but is usually 10-14 days from the time they hatch. Swallows and swifts are an exception as they remain in the nest until they are approximately 21 days of age. Nature’s plan for baby songbirds is for them to grow quickly so they can leave their nest quickly. As prey species, the longer they’re in the nest, the more vulnerable they are to predators.
Fledgling is the stage of development that we receive the most calls about at The Songbird Hospital during the breeding season. It is important to know that most songbirds leave the nest BEFORE they’re able to fly. In much the same way human toddlers crawl before they can run, baby songbirds hop and walk around on the ground before they’re able to fly. The only exceptions to this are SWALLOWS and SWIFTS – these species are flight capable when they fledge the nest.
The majority of fledgling songbirds are well feathered on their body with short wing and tail feathers. They’re able to stand, walk and hop and they may be able to make short flights from branch to branch or from the ground up to low branches. They are vocal and mobile, but still dependent on their parents for care. During this stage they are commonly observed on the ground, out in the open, on branches, in bushes – they’re all over the place!
Although the parents may not be with their fledgling every minute of the day, they remain in vocal contact. The location where you observe the baby is the parent’s territory, so mom and dad are usually nearby. It will take a few days to a full week before young songbirds can fly well enough to attempt to keep up with their parents and evade danger. They are vulnerable and naïve at this age. If you have outdoor cats, the kindest thing you can do for the birds is keep your cats indoors.
So, what do you do if you find a baby bird? Now that you know a little about their normal development, here are some steps to follow that will help you determine when a baby bird may need your help.
If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, please bring the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator ASAP.
For more details about when and how to rescue a baby songbird, please visit The Songbird Hospital website at www.songbirdhospital.org. And please remember that all native birds are federally protected and can only be cared for by a professional wildlife rehabilitator that is licensed by the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The Songbird Hospital: (707) 484-6502
PHOTO: Northen Mockingbird Fledgling