Jun 19, 2013 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, August 2013

Orphaned Birds: What To Do?

A fledgling American robin bathes in a backyard bird bath.
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If I find a young bird that has fallen from the nest, what should I do?

Try to place the nestling back in its nest if at all possible. This will be the young bird's best chance for survival. If you can't find the nest or a place to put the nestling out of harm's way, you will need to get the bird to a licensed rehabilitator as soon as possible. Baby birds are unable to thermoregulate (regulate their body temperature), so they must be kept in a protected area with a heat source. A soft nest made of tissues inside a small cardboard box placed on a heating pad set on "low" is a good temporary home. A moist sponge placed in the box will add a touch of desired humidity.

Your state or provincial fish and wildlife officers are responsible for licensing and regulating the activities of rehabilitators and have listings for all rehabbers in your state.

If a fledgling is found hopping around on the ground, it should be left alone if it's in a safe area. It can be placed up on a tree branch or in a shrub if in a dangerous situation but must remain in the same area so its parents can find it. Birds have an underdeveloped sense of smell, so handling the baby bird won't cause the parents to abandon it. Young birds often leave the nest before they are capable of flight. They spend a few pre-flight days hopping on the ground and flapping their wings. Its parents are keeping an eye on it and feeding it when necessary. During this time the fledgling is learning valuable survival lessons from its parents.

Emergency food for nestlings

If you find an orphaned nestling songbird and there's no licensed rehabilitator immediately available to receive the youngster, here is a recipe for basic baby bird care.

Grind up dry dog food into a powder. Add warm water to make a yogurt-like slurry. Offer it to the bird through a baby medicine syringe, gently prying the bill open. Keep the bird warm in a tissue nest inside a box. If necessary, use a warm water bottle or heating pad on "low" placed nearby. As soon as possible get the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator.

This article is excerpted from our popular booklet The Backyard Bird Watcher's Answer Guide by Bill Thompson, III. Browse other BWD titles designed to help you learn more about backyard birds. »

About Bill Thompson, III

Bill Thompson III is the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest by day. He's also a keen birder, the author of many books, a dad, a field trip leader, an ecotourism consultant, a guitar player, and blogger.

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  • Fascinating, how insightful both the humans and cheep cheeps are... Thanks for sharing.
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 27 Apr 2018
  • #18 in the Gallery is misidentified as a Tree Sparrow, instead of Tree Swallow.
    by Ron, Mon, 23 Apr 2018
  • yep i do the microwave too....they don't break down in our compost so the birds get them!
    by ecumam2, Wed, 18 Apr 2018
  • As you probably know, sunflower seed hulls have a bio-chemical in them, (allelopathic), which keeps any other seeds from sprouting, in the same area. I have used this fact, to a purpose. With a large build up, each year (& yes, it is a bare spot!), I rake up the "bounty" & spread them on areas of bulbs & perennials to keep the annual weeds down. It's also helpful near blue squill bulbs, which drop seeds through the fence that divides a perennial garden, from the lawn , where they are welcome to naturalize. The garden can be over run with them, so sunflower hulls can keep the sprouting down.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018
  • I do this in a small garden, near our road, where winter road sand can build up & bury the small, low-growing plants that live there. In spring I just pick up the burlap & shake it back onto the road, before the road crew comes by with the street sweeper, in spring.
    by Plntlady, Tue, 17 Apr 2018