Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Leave Baby Bird Care to Their Parents
June 19, 2010
By Steve Grinley
The phone calls about “abandoned” baby birds are coming in daily, so now is a good time to repeat a past column with my plea of minimizing your interference with nature:
This is peak nesting season for many species of birds in our area. As I do my breeding bird survey work for the Breeding Bird Atlas, the sounds of baby birds are everywhere. I hear the sounds of nestlings from their nests, as parents come to feed. I’ve heard different calls from young fledglings, those birds who have recently left the nest, calling to the parent, or the parent calling back. I’ve also encountered a few fledglings on the ground, hopping about, waiting to still be fed by the parents. Young robins with speckled breasts, little gray catbirds with only 1″ tails, and fluffy little titmice or chickadees, sitting on a branch, fluttering their wings to be fed, are some of the young birds that I have found recently.
All of these birds have had their parents nearby and, though at first glance one may think they are on their own, the parent soon comes, once it is “safe,” to feed the young ones. Young birds often leave the nest before they can fly or fend for themselves. This is part of the “training” process for surviving on their own. The parent birds are almost always in the area, watching after and defending their young, as well as feeding the fledglings until they learn to feed themselves.
This is the time of year when phone calls come in from well-meaning folks who find an “abandoned” bird and the best advice I can give is to, in most cases, leave these birds alone. First, all birds are protected by state and federal laws, and it is illegal possess or relocate birds, unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The only exceptions are nonnative species: house sparrows, starlings, and pigeons. That being said, it is human instinct to want to protect the bird.
If the bird is a hatchling, that is – it does not have feathers, or looks totally helpless, you can look for the nest from whence it came and return it to the nest. The next best thing is to secure a basket in a bush or tree and place the bird in the basket with the hope, albeit slim, that the parent will find it and care for it. Most birds do not have a keen sense of smell, so handling a baby bird will in no way deter a parent from caring for it. Remember, even if you had 15 hours a day to feed and care for the bird, it will not learn the skills it needs to survive in the wild if it is raised by humans. If you don’t know where the nest is, keep the bird warm and safe until you make arrangements with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for its continued care. Do not attempt to feed it or give it water unless instructed to do so by a rehabilitator. A list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators can be obtained from Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife website at masswildlife.org.
If the bird is a fledgling, that is – it has feathers and is just flightless, and it is not visibly injured, it is best to leave it alone. Parents are likely nearby and often are very sneaky about feeding the offspring when they won’t be detected. If there is imminent danger, such as a cat, try to remove the danger, not the bird. Put the cat inside where it belongs or if it belongs to a neighbor, ask the neighbor to remove the cat. Or try to shoo the cat away with water. Place the bird on a branch up out of the way if that will improve its chances. Again, an injured bird requires the skills of a licensed rehabilitator.
The sad statistics are that less than thirty percent of all hatched birds survive their first year. Cats are certainly a major danger, but that is subject for a whole other column. Grackles and jays are notorious for raiding nests, and I watched many a robin and catbird chase blue jays from their nest areas the past few weeks. Last week, twice I saw crows with hatchlings in their beaks as they were being pursued by scolding parent birds. Most birds have natural predators and it is nature’s way of controlling the populations to levels that the environment can sustain. And although it isn’t always what WE like, it is the way it is, and it is often best to let nature take its course.
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