Don’t Touch That Baby Bird!

Posted by Charlotte Wasylik, aka Prairie Birder

The other week, I had a question from one of my readers asking what to do with a baby American Robin his family had found and what to feed it. At once I thought, “Please put it back where you found it!”

A box full of Tree Swallows,


Many people would like to help wildlife, but most of the time that help is misguided, especially in the case of baby birds (nestlings). Some feel that if they don’t help the bird, it will die, but that’s generally not the case.

Unless one is trained in wildlife rehabilitation or works at a wildlife rescue centre, one really shouldn’t be taking care wildlife, and in many cases it’s illegal too without a license. Most people don’t know enough about nestlings to give them the proper care or food, and most nestlings that people try to help end up dying.

If the nestling is sparsely covered in feathers, it has probably left the nest prematurely and if you know where the nest is you can carefully, gently, put it back. If the nest has been destroyed or you can’t reach or find it, you can substitute a small container, such as a strawberry basket or box, lined with a cloth or tissue, and hang it carefully from a branch near where you believe the original nest was located. You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale that if you touch a nestling, the parents will abandoned it — not so! The parents don’t recognized their young by scent, so they won’t realized you’ve touch it.

If a nestling is all covered in feathers and is on the ground, it’s learning to fly and will rarely stay in the nest. Nest parasites, limited space, and the parents hurrying fledgings out of the nests before they can fly are many of the reasons why baby birds are often found on the ground. Even when a fledgling is out of the nest on the ground, the parents will still feed it and protect it as much as possible. One way you can help nestlings and fledging is by keeping cats and dogs indoors during the nesting season. The lives of many birds lives can be saved with this simple act.

According to the Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon),

Many species of birds such as robins, scrub jays, crows and owls leave the nest and spend as many as 2-5 days on the ground before they can fly. This is a normal and vital part of the young birds’ development. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying).

Taking these birds into captivity denies them the opportunity to learn skills they will need to survive in the wild. Unless a bird is injured, it is essential to leave them outside to learn from their parents.

Some questions/statements and answers from the Audubon Society of Portland:

Q. Why can’t I raise the baby bird myself or bring it to the Wildlife Care Center?

A. Raising wild birds in captivity is always a last resort and should only occur when a young bird is known to be injured or orphaned. Although it may seem “safer” to raise young birds in captivity, birds raised without the benefit of learning from their parents only have a minimal chance of survival when released.

Q. My neighborhood is full of cats, dogs, cars and other potential hazards.

A. These are very real hazards and do lead to mortalities; however, all young birds face hazards regardless of whether they live on urban, suburban or wild landscapes. The best thing you can do is to try to reduce hazards wherever possible. Bringing individual baby birds into captivity will not help either its siblings or the many other birds nesting in your neighborhood.

Q. I feel like I need to do something to help this bird.

A. As difficult as it may be, oftentimes the best thing you can do is leave a baby bird alone and try to reduce neighborhood hazards. A baby bird may seem helpless and vulnerable, but many do survive even in the most urban of locations. While it may feel safer, removing young birds from the wild usually reduces their chance for survival.

Q. So you want me to wait until the bird is injured to bring it to you?

A. Our hope is that you will be able to help reduce some of the hazards facing baby birds in your neighborhood. This is the best way to not only protect the bird you have found, but also all the wildlife in your neighborhood.

The Wildlife Care Center is a hospital, and bringing healthy baby birds to a rehabilitation facility to prevent them from being injured makes no more sense than raising healthy human children at a hospital to prevent them from becoming sick.

A fledged Barn Swallow wanting to be fed,


Unless you are absolutely positive that the baby bird is injured, orphaned, or in immediate danger of being killed, it is best left alone. It has the best chance of surviving, and thriving, if it can be raised by its parents.

Two fledgling Barn Swallows,


I found this very useful chart posted by the Ohio Ornithological Society on Facebook,


The following web pages and posts have more information:

Audubon Society of Portland: “What to Do If You Find a Baby Bird”

Toronto Wildlife Centre wildlife hotline

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird Sleuth: “I found a baby bird!”

Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds: “Orphaned” Baby Birds

FAQs from The Bird Rescue Center (Sonoma County, California)

Songbird Care Center (California): “Are You a Birdnapper?”

US Fish & Wildlife Service: “I Found This Baby Bird — What Should I Do?”

Nature Canada’s list of provincial wildlife rehabilitation centres


About Charlotte Wasylik

Charlotte Wasylik is a young birder who lives on a farm in northeastern Alberta. She was delighted to be selected for a monthlong Young Ornithologists’ Internship at the Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario in August-September, to help with fall migration monitoring. Charlotte’s blog is Prairie Birder, and you can also find her at the Facebook group she started last year, Alberta Birds, which welcomes all birders, bird lovers, and nature photographers.
This entry was posted in Bird Behaviour, Bird Canada, Bird Conservation Canada, Canadian Birds, Conservation, Grasslands Birds, Songbirds and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Don’t Touch That Baby Bird!

  1. Thank you for this story. I sincerely hope it will save the lives of many, many birds!

  2. Thank you for writing this! As the ceo of a wildlife rehab center I thank you. This is very useful and well written.

  3. Pingback: New Bird Canada Blog Post | Prairie Birder