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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  • This is exactly my experience. The local feed store had some on sale so I thought I'd try some. Actually I was shocked at how it is avoided, and I've been feeding birds for more than 40 years. I suppose I've never had it out as the ONLY food source, but when I put it out along with the blackoil, peanuts, cracked corn and suet cakes, absolutely nothing would touch it. Even when I dumped some on the ground the rabbits wouldn't eat it, nor would the squirrels. Eventually some turkeys and deer ate some--when they could find nothing else underneath the other feeders. But even they left plenty on the ground which they NEVER do with cracked corn, sunflower, etc.Every person should try some if they're inclined and decide for themselves since every situation may be a bit different, but for me/my species, safflower is a big no.
    by Colin Croft, Sun, 03 Mar 2019
  • I have questions about the Zick Dough? It says not to use in cold weather. It is still in the 40s here. Too soon? How long should I expect a supply to last? And, use a tray feeder? Thanks.
    by martindf, Sun, 25 Nov 2018
  • Glad I found this. I'm a snowbird and was worried about all the birds that come to feed at my birdfeeder. I have Cardinals, sparrows, doves, Blue Jays, chickadees. I hope they'll find food elsewhere while I'm gone.
    by Donna, Sat, 03 Nov 2018
  • I had a pair nesting for the first time this year at our farmstead in South Dakota. Boxes put out for Bluebirds which didn't come, but these were a very pleasant consolation.
    by fluffypeanutcat, Tue, 25 Sep 2018
  • This is a good point. While cleaning mine, I kinda got the impression the cheep cheeps were waiting on me since they started chirping as soon as I brought it outside again. I swear they are so smart. Within five minutes of filling the feeder up, they are there to feast.cheers Cheep cheeps!
    by Kimber timbers, Fri, 20 Jul 2018