We are at the time of year where finding a young bird on the ground is not unusual, and many well-meaning people assume that if a bird can’t fly, it has been abandoned by its parents. While some of these birds may be young that have fallen out of their nest, the fledglings of many species spend as many as two to five days on the ground before they can fly any distance. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying). To deprive such a fledgling of this developmental stage by removing it from its parents is to lessen its chances of survival, so it’s behooves us to be able to tell whether or not a young bird belongs out of the nest or not.
If the young bird is nearly naked or covered with down, not quill feathers, or its eyes haven’t opened, it is obviously a nestling. If you can’t find its nest, a berry basket in the vicinity of where you found it, suspended from a branch, is a good facsimile. Birds have a poor sense of smell and very strong parental instincts and more often than not continue to care for their young after a disturbance, although it may be a few hours before they do so. If, after several hours, there is no sign of a parent, a local museum or nature center should be able to direct you to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator.
Fledgling birds, birds that have voluntarily left their nest, are usually fully feathered and have a very short (one inch or so) tail. They are able to walk, hop and flap, and they may attempt short flights. You may not see them, but a parent or two is nearby, keeping an eye on them, feeding them and teaching them how to survive on their own (see insert). These are the birds that humans often mistakenly “rescue.” If you find a fledgling, it should be left alone or, at the most, placed in a nearby shrub. If possible, keep people and pets away so the parents will continue to care for it until it can fly. (Photos: fledgling and attending adult Common Grackle)