It can be common at this time of year to see young birds sitting on the ground without any sign of their parents. However, the RSPB is asking bird lovers across the nation to resist the urge to help ‘abandoned’ fledglings, no matter how helpless they look.
Each year, the RSPCA’s wildlife centres care for around a thousand fledgling birds, picked up by well-meaning people. Unfortunately, many of these birds are not orphans and in most cases would have been better off left where they were.
Fledglings have all or most of their feathers and leave the nest just before they can fly. The parents are usually nearby and feeding the baby bird, so the best thing to do is to leave fledglings alone and watch from a distance.
“Every year we get inundated with calls from people worried about an abandoned chick in their garden, desperately calling for its mum,” said RSPB wildlife advisor, Mey Duek.
“It has been amazing to hear how people have started to feel a deeper bond with the wildlife around them this year. Normal life as we know it has changed dramatically and this year we have seen even more people get in touch to ask what they can do to help a struggling fledgling.
“But it’s extremely unlikely they have been deserted and in many cases, there is a parent nearby keeping a beady eye on their chick’s progress or collecting food. Although it’s natural to want to protect fluffy and fragile creatures hopping around all alone, the most helpful thing you can do is keep your distance.
“Fledglings may appear dainty but they are tougher than they look and typically spend a day or two on the ground before they are ready to spread their wings and take flight for the first time. Mum and dad know tough love is the only way her young will learn to fend for themselves. It is vital the chicks are left alone.”
There are only a few situations when the public should lend a helping hand, advise the RSPB:
If the baby bird is found on a busy road or path, pick the bird up and move it a short distance to a safer place – ideally dense shrubbery and within hearing distance of where the fledgling was found. UK birds have a poor sense of smell and will not abandon their young because of human contact.
If an injured fledgling is discovered this should be reported immediately to the RSPCA on: 0300 1234 999. Sometimes local vets treat wild birds for free, but please check with them first.
If a baby bird is discovered on the ground that is either unfeathered or covered only in its fluffy nestling down, it has likely fallen out of its nest ahead of schedule. Very occasionally it is possible to put these babies back in their nest, but only if you are 100% positive of the nest it has fallen from and it’s safe to do so.
It is also important to remember that sometimes a parent bird will intentionally eject a chick from the nest if they sense it has an underlying health problem – a harsh truth, but sometimes nature needs to take its course.
Grounded young swifts
If you find a fallen swift gently put it a safe and calm environment such as a shoebox and keep it away from any disturbance. You can give it water by running a wet cotton bud around the edge of the beak, avoiding the nostrils. Caring for a swift yourself is difficult and time-consuming. The RSPB recommends you contact a swift carer from the list on this website.
Barn owl chicks
Unlike garden birds, it is not normal for young barn owls to be out of the nest before they can fly. In this case, the baby bird does need a helping hand as owlets on the ground will usually be ignored by their parents. Owlets should be gently placed back in their nest. Owls have very little sense of smell and won’t reject their young because they have been handled by humans. For more information about how to safely handle an owlet, check it is healthy and correctly locate its nest visit the Barn Owl Trust website.
Visit the RSPB website for a visual guide on what to do if you find a baby bird out of the nest.
Main image: Young house sparrows (Ray Kennedy)