Northwoods Wildlife Rescue: Baby birds hop before they fly
Julie Dickie, a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator, explains the difference between a nestling and a fledgling, plus offers tips on what to do if you find a baby bird on the ground.
Bird babies hop and flap before they fly. It’s the time of year when baby birds are venturing out of their nests.
Usually, this means a quick trip to the ground with no ability to get back up to the nest. Mom and Dad don’t mind. They will find their babies wherever they wander and will continue to feed them while the babies learn to use their wings.
If you see young birds hopping around and they seem unable to fly, they are likely fledglings. Fledging is that time in a bird’s development when they need more room. They have feathers and they want to flap their wings and attempt flight. They jump out of the nest, but are not yet able to fly.
This stage can vary between species, but generally only lasts about a week. If you put them back into the nest, they will likely jump out again.
Fledging outside the nest is generally safer than remaining in the nest, as the birds are more vocal and active, which draws predators to the nest. When they disperse on the ground, they are able to hide in the vegetation.
If you have cats or dogs, you can help these little ones survive by restraining your pets for the brief time it will take for the birds to learn to fly.
If you are concerned about the baby being in a bad spot on the ground. or there does not seem to be enough cover, gently pick up the bird and place it on a lower branch. Mom and Dad will find it and continue to feed it.
A nestling is a baby bird that is still dependent on the nest for survival. Nestlings generally do not have their feathers yet and may not even have their eyes open.
They are usually found when the nest is disturbed, damaged or has been blown out of the tree. The best action is to try and put the nest back into the tree it fell from or another tree close to the same area. It does not need to be in the same location – just try to get as close as practical.
Different types of birds build nests in different places. Some find the most inconvenient or awkward places. If these nests are disturbed, the same principle applies. Try to put the nest back in the general area it came from. Gently put the nestlings back into the nest.
Sometimes the nest is poorly constructed or badly damaged. If this happens, it is easy to make a new nest for them. Simply take a small basket or small container (like a whipping cream or butter container) and put what remains of the old nest, add some leaves and maybe a little shredded tissue and they have a perfect nest. Any container that will hold water needs to have plenty of drain holes in the bottom or they will fill with water. Place the container or basket as high in the tree or back near the location of the old nest. We have found that we can tack the plastic containers to the tree with a screw or nail and it will hold well.
It is easy to understand the desire to raise the bird yourself. No one can raise baby birds as well as its own parents. Same species parents can sometimes be persuaded to raise the additional babies if it becomes necessary.
Birds need to be raised with other birds of the same type or they can imprint on the wrong species which generally means it will not thrive or even survive when released.
Because an eagle nestling was fed often by people it has not learned to hunt for its own food. The parents would have taught it this and other survival skills, but when people intervene the parents often are not able to interact with their baby.
This eagle, while very healthy, has many challenges and much learning before a decision on release can be made.
Once a wild animal (bird or mammal) is habituated to people, they are often forced to live in an educational facility or zoo. If no facility can take the animal, they are humanely euthanized as they generally can never be released since they would not survive back in the wild.
We are hoping to pair this particular eagle with another fledgling about the same age in hopes they will learn to be wild eagles together, and then in time, they can be released together.
If you cannot put the birds back or you know that Mom and Dad can’t return to the nest, they need to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Nestlings eat about every 15 minutes. Changes in feeding and diet can be fatal very quickly. Please do not give them food or water without talking to a rehabilitator to ensure that the right action is taken for that specific bird type.
It’s such a wonderful time to bird watch and to witness the grandeur of nature. We are so fortunate to have abundant wildlife in the area. Working together with nature we can help get them from hopping and flapping to flying free.
Julie Dickie is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator in northern Minnesota. Her nonprofit organization, Northwoods Wildlife Rescue, captures and releases all manner of wounded creatures. Julie and her husband, Jeff, are unpaid volunteers.