NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 13, 2013

Often, it's best to leave baby birds alone

Words on Birds
Steve Grinley

---- — Reports of successful nestings and fledged birds are streaming in. Soon the calls will come from people attempting to “rescue” a baby bird.

So now is a good time to repeat my column advising what to do when encountering a baby bird. This is peak nesting season for many species of birds in our area and the sounds of baby birds are everywhere. I hear the sounds of nestlings from their nests, as parents come to feed. I hear different calls from young fledglings, those birds that have recently left the nest, calling to the parent or the parent calling back.

I have 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-inch tails and fluffy little titmice and chickadees, sitting on a branch fluttering their wings to be fed, are some of the young birds I have seen 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.

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 to possess or relocate birds, unless you are a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The only exceptions are non-native species: house sparrows, starlings and pigeons. That being said, it is human instinct to want to protect the baby 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 where it came and return it there. 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 would not learn the skills it needs to survive in the wild if it were raised by humans. If you don’t know where the nest is, or the bird is injured, 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 the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Web site at www.masswildlife.org.

If the bird is a fledgling, that is it has feathers and it is just flightless, and it is not visibly injured, it is best to leave it alone. Its 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 30 percent of all hatched birds survive their first year.

Cats are certainly a major danger, but that is a 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, I twice saw crows with hatchlings in their beaks as they were being pursued by scolding parent birds. It is nature’s way of controlling the populations to levels the environment can sustain. And although it isn’t always what we like, it is the way it is.

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Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher’s Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.