It's OK To Handle A Baby Bird, But Many Don't Need Help

Has anyone ever told you never to touch a baby bird if you find one on the ground? It’s commonly said that humans shouldn’t touch baby birds because their mothers will abandon them. This simply isn't true.

Newly hatched robins in their nest. (Photo via Shutterstock)

According to the myth, birds will abandon their babies if they can smell that a human has touched them. In reality, a mother bird will not even know her baby has been handled by a human. In fact, most birds have a poor sense of smell. They wouldn’t even be able to smell the human touch on their offspring. Instead, birds recognize their offspring the same way humans do, by their appearance and sound.


Birds also will not abandon their nests if humans touch the eggs. Some birds may build a new nest if the original was disturbed or damaged by a predator, but human touch is not enough to drive a mother bird away.


Although picking up a baby bird won't cause its mother to reject it, most baby birds found on the ground don’t need human assistance. Young birds found on the ground are usually fledglings. These are young birds that have left the nest. Less often, people find nestlings on the ground. Nestlings are very young birds that aren't ready to leave the nest, and their nest is probably in a nearby tree or bush.


How can you tell the difference between a fledgling and a nestling? Feathers are the most obvious sign. Fledglings have feathers, while nestlings do not. Fledglings are also able to hop and may flap their wings or look like they are trying to fly, because they are learning. They can grip your finger with their toes. Nestlings, on the other hand, don't move well and may look like they are dragging themselves on the ground. They also can’t grip your finger.


Most birds people find on the ground are fledglings and don't need human intervention. These birds have left the nest, but they are still under the care — and watchful eye — of their parents. Fledglings don't usually return to their nest once they leave. If you pick it up and put it back where you think it belongs, it may just hop right back out again. Nestlings, on the other hand, haven't left the nest and aren't yet ready to.


If you find a fledgling on the ground, it's best to leave it. Its parents are watching closely, and this time away from them and the nest is part of its growth and development. Nestlings, on the other hand, will not survive if not returned to their nests.


If you find a nestling, it's important to return it to the nest as soon as possible. You can gently scoop it up and place it in its nest. Remember, the parents will not smell the human touch and will continue to care for it.


If the nest has been destroyed, you can make one from nearby nesting materials. Place the baby inside, and keep an eye out to see if the parents return to care for it.


If you find a young bird on the ground, ask your parents for help. They can help you decide if you should return it to its nest. If you know that both the baby bird's parents are dead, or if it is injured, do not return it to the nest. Ask your parents to contact a local wildlife rehabilitation center to see if it can care for the bird. In the suburban Chicago area, the Willowbrook Wildlife Center and the Fox Valley Wildlife Center accept injured wildlife, including birds. The state's online wildlife resource, Wildlife Illinois, also includes a list of certified wildlife rehabilitators.

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