Can you imagine living in a tiny twig nest lined with soft feathers and grass and perched high in a city tree? Nearly featherless and vulnerable, nestlings peep and open their tiny beaks wide when their parents flutter into their nests to deliver fat worms or protein-filled bugs to eat.
“You can draw some really good connections between human infancy and the infancy of a nestling, where all of [its] needs are taken care of by the parents,” says Paula Goldberg, who runs City Wildlife, a rehabilitation center for wild animals in Northwest Washington.
Mother and father birds don’t change diapers, Goldberg says, but they do keep the nest clean. They also protect it and keep their nestlings warm and fed. But sometimes things go wrong — things such as strong wind or rain that knocks a nest out of a tree, leaving babies vulnerable on the ground.
This spring, baby birds (starting with starlings and sparrows and then songbirds such as robins, blue jays, cardinals and mockingbirds) will hatch. What’s the best way to help if you find one on its own? National Wildlife Federation naturalist David Mizejewski says the most important thing — and sometimes the only thing — to do is to call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
“It is super important to first determine if the animal needs help,” he says.
For a baby bird, the kind of help it might need depends on its stage of life. A nestling might simply need to be placed back in its nest with help from an adult human. But if the baby bird is slightly older (a fledgling that has left the nest but is still under parental care), it may be best to leave it alone.
Fledglings are “like kids when they first start walking,” Mizejewski says. “They don’t do it very well, even though they are fully feathered.” In the Washington area, fledgling robins and cardinals hide on the ground near their nest while they learn to fly. Their parents keep an eye on them and feed them.
Goldberg says baby birds are sometimes “kidnapped” by humans who have good intentions but perhaps not the right plan.
Mizejewksi learned this lesson the hard way as a kid.
“I found a baby bird on the sidewalk,” he says. “It was tweeting, and I thought it must be injured or orphaned. Being an animal lover, I wanted to help.”
After taking the bird to a pet store for help, he fed it formula. The baby bird died not long after.
His first mistake, he says, was not realizing that the baby bird did not necessarily need his help.
“We love and care about wildlife,” he says. “So it makes sense that people want to help. But in most cases . . . trying to intervene only makes its chances of survival go down.”
Some things kids can do to help birds this spring? Talk to your parents about setting up a bird bath in your yard, creating a wildlife habitat garden and keeping dogs on leashes and pet cats indoors.
One of the best things kids can do to help all backyard wildlife is to think like a naturalist. A naturalist, Mizejewksi says, is anybody who loves the natural world and spends time studying it. The idea, he says, is to inspire others to want to learn about and protect wildlife.
“Anybody, even a kid, can be a naturalist,” he says. “Just by sharing their passion and their knowledge, they can change how other people feel about wildlife.”
The most important thing to do if you find any wild animal in need is to immediately call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for help. You can also contact a local animal shelter, humane society, animal control agency, nature center, state wildlife agency or veterinarian for advice. Get help from an adult, and don’t touch a wild animal. Try these resources:
City Wildlife: 202-882-1000, citywildlife.org.
Second Chance Wildlife Center: 301-926-9453, scwc.org.
Wildlife Rescue League: 703-440-0800, wildliferescueleague.org.
Wildlife Center of Virginia: 540-942-9453, wildlifecenter.org.