Warmer weather has arrived, and with it comes all the joys of spring. Animals are emerging from their winter naps, returning from their southern homes, or just reveling in the sunshine and budding green…it’s baby season in the wild!
Often baby birds are a particular source of concern for humans. We place nest boxes in our yards and encourage birds to nest in our landscape. It can be very distressing if we think the babies we’ve encouraged are struggling. But don’t assume that every young bird you encounter is at risk. Birds often learn to fly from the ground, and some species even have adapted special skills that allow them to get back into their nests. Some birds hatch from their shells as nearly independent tiny fluffy versions of their parents!
Stages of Development
The transition from newly hatched baby to independent adult bird may last weeks or even months and has defined stages. Each stage requires a varying level of parental care and presence. Knowing the various stages of bird development helps to inform people about when - or if - to get involved. Always remember that your best resource is a local licensed wildlife rehabilitation specialist, so when in doubt, give them a shout!
When first emerging from their shell, birds are known as hatchlings. Some birds hatch with many intact skills, like wild turkeys or ducklings. They have good control of their bodies, and can walk and even forage as soon as they are dry. These are called “precocial” birds. Other birds like our songbirds and raptors hatch as “altricial” babies. After hatching, altricial birds look nothing like their parents - they often resemble fluffy baby dinosaurs. With eyes usually closed and mouths wide open, they lack control of their bodies, and many have bodies with little to no feathering at all.
Altricial hatchling birds need to be in the nest and under the care of their parents at all times. Don’t despair if the parents leave the nest - wide open mouths need to be filled, which often requires both parents to hunt. If you find a hatchling bird on the ground, locate the nest from which it came and do your best to replace the hatchling immediately. It is not true that the smell of your hands will cause the parents to abandon the baby bird. If the nest has been downed, try to find a container about the same size and shape as the original nest - for songbirds this may be as simple as an empty margarine tub with a few drainage holes and twigs and leaf litter in the bottom, or an old easter basket - attach that basket or tub as close to the original nest location as possible, place the babies in it, and move away quickly and quietly. Mom will return as long as that new nest is within about 100 yards of the original location - but the closer to the original nest site, the better. Parents will begin feeding those gaping mouths as soon as they feel safe to do so. For larger birds use laundry-sized baskets that approximate the size of the original nest, always being sure to provide drainage holes.
Nestling birds, the next stage of development, is when most feathers have grown in on the body, the baby bird’s eyes will be open, and they will have better body control. Still, they lack the wing and tail feathers needed for flying. If an uninjured nestling bird is on the ground, follow the steps above for re-nesting that baby whenever possible, or contact your local licensed wildlife rehabilitation specialist for assistance and direction. If the nestling bird is a raptor or appears injured, reach out to your rehabber before intervening. Remember, raptors parents and babies possess long sharp talons for catching prey - and those are the very same talons that might end up in you! Although your motives and intentions are pure those wild animals don’t know that, and they will defend themselves as they see fit.
The next stage of bird development is the fledgling stage. This the time when birds begin to leave the nest. Humans often misinterpret the new independence of fledglings for distress. Although it’s hard, allow the young bird to develop the skills they need with only parental support. At this stage human intervention usually does more harm than good - we cannot teach a young bird how to fly, hunt, or which predators to avoid, but parent birds can! During this time the baby birds look more like adults, although they may still be a bit unpolished. They may engage in branching behaviors, moving among branches next to the nest area, or they may find themselves on the ground where attentive parents feed them while teaching them to fly and alerting them to dangers. This is a time when young birds are especially vulnerable to domestic pets and human intervention, so if you have baby birds in your yard it is important during this time to keep your distance, and keep pets leashed or inside and well away from fledglings.
The final two phases of avian development, juvenile and sub-adult, are marked by increasing independence and usually do not require any intervention from humans. During these stages, final color changes to feathers occur - this is when our Red-Tailed hawks gain their trademark tail, or Bald Eagles molt into that snowy white head. Birds becomes sexually mature at the end of they sub-adult stage, and are ready to find mates and start the cycle of life all over again.
Sometimes humans encounter baby mammals during hikes, walks, or even in our own backyards. It is important to know how to support wildlife without harming the animals. Most animal parents are very dedicated, and although their parenting styles do not always meet human standards (for example, successful rabbit mothers may leave their unattended bunnies for hours) you can rest assured that in most cases animal parents know exactly what their babies need to become healthy, thriving adults.
Should you encounter a young mammal injured or clearly in distress, contact your local wildlife rehabilitation expert or state wildlife agency for guidance. The Humane Society of the United States has excellent online resources for when and how to help commonly found baby animals, and provides links to licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities in each state. The National Wildlife Federation also has some excellent advice and resources for the public to follow.
If you absolutely must pick up an injured or struggling animal there are some general guidelines to follow. Always wear sturdy utility gloves to protect yourself from teeth, claws, talons or beaks. Be very aware of those sharp animal parts, and avoid them. Place a towel over the animal, including over the head, as you gently place the animal in a dark but well-ventilated box. Set the box in a dark, quiet area away from foot traffic - this way you will decrease the amount of stress on the animal which increases their chances for survival. Contact local licensed rehabilitation folks as soon as possible and transfer the animal into their specialized care.
In a Nutshell...
Seek professional help and advice from a licensed rehabilitation, vet or wildlife expert.
Wait and watch from a generous distance for at least 24 hours, unless the baby is a nestling or hatchling bird.
Keep domestic pets away from ALL wildlife, but especially away from baby wildlife.
Feed any baby animal, bird or mammal.
Rush in to rescue a healthy-looking animal.
Bring any wild animal or bird into your home as a pet.
Helping is one of the things that humans do best, when we are at our best. Learning more about when and how to help - and when to NOT help - our native species is one of the ways that we can participate in the protection of our native wildlife.