Every year wildlife rescues get deluged with calls about fledgling birds. Folks see them hopping about on the ground unable to fly and worry that there’s something wrong or that they’re going to be caught by cats. Often they’re reported as having a broken wing since they can’t fly (in fact broken wings are usually quite obvious as they hang down low). In the vast majority of cases, the appropriate course of action is to leave them alone.
Please note that we are talking here about baby garden birds such as blackbirds, starling, tits, finches, crows (and other corvids), robins, thrushes, woodpigeons and collared doves etc. The advice for other types of birds (e.g. feral pigeons, gulls and waterfowl) is different.
What is a fledgling? #
A fledgling is not any baby bird. A fledgling is a specific stage of development where the baby is ready to leave the nest. It is important to know that what you’re concerned about is actually a fledgling as the advice will be different if the baby is younger or older.
A fledgling will be fully feathered, will have a bit of a tail (perhaps not as long as an adult bird but not missing or very short), and its wing feathers will be long enough that they reach the tail. The picture above is a fledgling blackbird who demonstrates this well. The magpie below doesn’t have the dramatic tail of an adult but they’re on the way – they’re ready to be out on their own.
Why do fledglings end up on the ground and unable to fly? #
The nests in which these birds are raised are small. Big nests take a lot of work to build and are more visible to predators, so parents build a nest which is just big enough for the babies to fit into. There is no spare room in the nest for flapping wings so, when the babies emerge, their wings are weak, and they have very little flight ability. So, the baby has to spend the first 1-5 days (depending on species – the larger the bird the longer this will take) out and about, exercising their wings to build the strength needed to fly. This is the point where rescues get lots of calls. The bird is seen on the ground and the concern is that there is something wrong or that the baby is vulnerable.
Should I rescue a non-flying fledgling? #
This is certainly a vulnerable stage in the bird’s development but this is nature’s way of ensuring the strongest, cleverest birds survive and go on to breed next year. Blue tits, for example, have broods of 8-12 babies only really expecting 2 to make it to adulthood to ‘replace’ the parents. Although it may seem like you are ‘saving’ the bird if you step in and take them to rescue, the bird will only be further disadvantaged by growing up in captivity rather than with their parents. It’s also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to take a bird from the wild unless it is sick or injured.
What should I do? #
Ideally, healthy babies like this starling fledgling should be left exactly where they are for the parents to continue to tend to them and so they can exercise and learn how to bird. The parents may only visit every few hours at this point as they encourage the baby to be independent and find their own food.
If the bird is in danger where they are, perhaps because of cats or other predators, you can pick the bird up and place them in a tree or bush so they’re off the ground and less visible. You don’t need to worry about the parents rejecting it – birds recognise their babies by the sound of their call rather than their scent so won’t reject babies which smell of humans. It also is not necessary to locate the nest or try and put the baby back into it. If you have cats, please consider keeping them inside for a few days to give the baby a fighting chance.
What if the bird is unwell or injured? #
The advice above only applies where the bird is healthy and uninjured. If the bird is caught by a cat, has any injuries, is excessively ‘sleepy’, or looks weak or unresponsive, help is needed.
The pictures below show some fledglings who DO need help. The little wren, although at the right development stage to be left alone to fledge, has their eyes closed and their head tucked down into their shoulders – they’re not well and need help. The crow is showing the classic dry, white feathers of a bird with a calcium deficiency. They also had weak, deformed legs. If you’re unsure, contact our helpdesk and send us a picture and we’ll advise on the best course of action.