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Should You Put a Baby Bird Back in the Nest? Depends If It’s Cute

Ah, the first days of summer—the smell of cut grass, kids on vacation… and baby birds falling out of trees.

Every year, I see a new flock of people rescuing fallen birds, and then arguing on Twitter and Facebook about whether it’s OK to put them back in the nest.

Some are adamant that if you handle a baby bird, its mother will reject it. Others say it’s fine; just put the bird back.

A lot of people face this dilemma at the beginning of summer, when many baby birds are taking their first flight from the nest—in bird-nerd speak, they’re fledging. I was in Mississippi in early June, and it seemed like it was raining dead baby birds there. One fell from its nest onto my car, and another mysteriously turned up on the porch steps. It was too late for those birds, but what do you do when faced with a little peeper like this?

First, you should ask yourself how cute the bird is.

Okay, that sounds cruel and judgmental. But it’s basically true. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives excellent advice: The first thing you need to know is whether the baby is a nestling or a fledgling. Most of the birds people find are fledglings. Fledglings have feathers, can hop, and are “generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail.”

“When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in—it will hop right back out. Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors.”

And if you’ve got an ugly little unfeathered friend?

“If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling.

If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans.”

So leave the cute ones alone, and put the little ratty-looking ones back in the nest.

And if you don’t stumble across any fledglings this year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a website where you can watch live video of baby birds on Birds Cams.

There are plenty of adorable Bird Cam moments, like this fledgling hawk returning to the nest and checking out the camera.

But it wasn’t all pretty. “This has been probably our toughest year on record,” says Charles Eldermire, who runs the Bird Cams program. The ospreys were hit by dime-sized hail a week before their eggs were to hatch, cracking all the eggs. A baby owl died, and the parents fed it to its siblings. Eldermire even had to put up warnings that viewers had to click on before watching particularly bad things happening.

“We started this project in part to help people learn about what happens in nature,” Eldermire says. “We’re aware that many have never had an unfiltered view of what happens in nature.”

The Bird Cam folks make a point of not interfering. “We can learn by letting it play out. Any intervention could have a negative impact; if we feed that baby owlet to save it, maybe it’s sick, or maybe the environment won’t support another barn owl.”

I love what Eldermire said next. Think about this as you watch the ospreys in the video above hunker over their eggs in a hailstorm: “The struggles that we go through as people in our own lives aren’t all that different from the animals on the screen.”

“The truth is we can’t control everything in our lives. One thing we can all learn from watching wild things and how they survive is that sense of resilience that is really at the core of any wild thing.”

15 thoughts on “Should You Put a Baby Bird Back in the Nest? Depends If It’s Cute

  1. Yes of course! I did once and the baby bird survived and grow. But it was easy because I know which bird and from which nest it was. When their are to smalls and other big birds take them from a high tree nest is impossible to save them.

  2. It is a myth.

    Here in Benevides – PA -Brazil, there are a bird called papa-arroz. Sometimes, a baby falls from the nest.
    I simply put some grass in a box, and put the baby there, near the roof.

    Well, the mother cares both nests. The original one and the box.

  3. And what when you find nestlings and take them home,feed them and take care of them? They adjust on you and your home. How to return them to nature when they domesticated?

    1. If you are caring for a wild bird, it’s a good idea to call a wildlife rehabilitator. However, you have little to worry about in terms of releasing a bird to the wild. Caring for a bird will not domesticate it in the sense that a dog is domesticated; it is still a wild animal and will generally return readily to the wild.

  4. i found a fledgling hawk once,put it in a carton as crows were attacking it,finally handed it to Sunetro Ghosal,a bird rescuer,the baby grew and flew away,would return every day at a particular time when Sunetro whistled.

    1. If you are certain the parents are not nearby, your best bet is to call a wildlife rehabilitator. You can find one at wildliferehabinfo.org

  5. This helpful information. Thank you for the post.

    I have the pleasure of listening to a fledgling Broad Winged Hawk and its parents this week. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be watching the nestlings of a pair of Eastern Phoebes grow into fledglings.

  6. What a lovely video and timely article, thank you sharing both. I spotted a nestling last week and I was so dismayed as I had never seen a dead bird this young before. I took a photo and I haven’t dared to show anyone because they may become upset by it, but I wasn’t sure what to do. I did at first check to see if he/she was still alive. The nestling didn’t appear injured which was strange because he/she was lying on the cement. I figured this bird must have fallen from a nest located high on a building’s metal seemingly decorative metal rail. This article has been very informative and helpful, thank you!

  7. Thankfully, there is a bird rescue not far from me; unfortunately I have one cat that has normally damaged the bird by the time it is brought inside. But for years I have kept a “bird box” with holes and a soft cloth inside to put the bird into and take it up to rescue. If nothing else, the rescue gets $20 from me with every bird so that is a positive!

  8. About 12 years ago I rescued a sparrow nestling and figured it wouldn’t last the night despite “intensive care”. Well, the darned thing lived for almost 7 years before dying of really old age…they only live about 2 years in the wild. It must must have injured a wing in its fall from the nest, because it could never fly well (always flew in tight left-turning circles). We never gave it a proper name, always called it “Baby Bird” its whole life. What a bird!

  9. Erika, your comment that “you have little to worry about in terms of releasing a bird to the wild … it is still a wild animal and will generally return readily to the wild” is false and will result in the eventual death of the bird. People who are not rehabbers and raise a single bird have no idea how to teach it to find food. You cannot raise a “wild” bird as a pet then giving it the boot and expect it to know how to fend for itself. People, DO NOT raise birds yourselves – get them to a rehabber. And Diane, giving a hardworking rehabber $20 for yet another bird your cat has shredded is NOT a positive. If my dog went into your backyard and ripped your cat apart and I tossed you a $20 bill, would you be happy? Especially if the dog does it again and again? Have a tiny bit of compassion and keep your cat inside. I am a licensed bird rehabber, BTW.

  10. For an up to date place to find a wildlife rehabber go to http://www.animalhelpnow.org and put in your zip code. Erika the page you reference to find a wildlife rehabber is defunct. It has not been updated since 2012 and is no longer accurate or monitored. You might want to let people know that raising a bird without the proper permit could get them into trouble. Also if they really care about the bird surviving taking it to a bird rehabber IS the best chance for its survival. The information on what to feed a baby bird that they find on the internet is Misinformation and will do the bird harm. Feather quality and metabolic bone disease is not something the average person knows about and will occur if the bird is not fed properly by a permitted rehabber that works with birds.

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