Image Credit: Ben Andrew

It’s the time of year when young birds are beginning to leave their nests. These birds are called fledgelings. It’s one of the highlights of the year, and it’s only right that people enjoy these birds as they get used to the big wide world. Whilst it is important to look out for nature, intervening too soon or too much can have severe consequences for these fledgelings. So, we have put together some Frequently Asked Questions (interspersed with some fluffy fledgeling photos, of course) to help you know when and how a bird needs help. We will go into quite a lot of detail with these, so here are the headline messages:

  1. It’s normal for fledgelings to not be able to fly when they first leave the nest
  2. It’s normal for fledgelings to be on their own; the adults will come and check on them periodically
  3. Only intervene if the bird is too young to leave the nest (details below), injured or in a dangerous location (i.e. near a busy road)
  4. If you do need to intervene, do so in the most minimal way possible
  5. Only call the local vets or wildlife rescue as a last resort
  6. Don’t cut or trim hedges, bushes or trees during the spring and summer.

‘There’s a fledgeling and it can’t fly’

You can often tell fledgelings apart from adult birds by looking at their beak. Fledgelings still often have the ‘gape’ of a baby bird and will call more frequently than a lot of adult birds will (to let the parent birds know where it is). Image Credit: Ben Andrew, RSPB Images

Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal! Many bird species leave the nest before they can fly. This is because leaving the nest as soon as possible boosts the probability of survival for each fledgeling; they become harder for predators to find than if they are all gathered in one place. It’s also easier for the fledgeling to find shelter, and it’s in this stage of their life that they start to learn how to find food for themselves. All this is much better to learn before you fly away from your parents.

So, next time you see a young bird hopping or walking around, just leave it alone to learn how to gain its independence.

‘I can’t see any parents near to the fledgeling’

Again, this is perfectly normal. Parent birds usually raise more than one chick (for example, blue tits lay up to ten eggs). When the chicks fledge, they spread out and the parent(s) must spend their time feeding and checking up on each fledgeling in turn. This means each fledgeling will spend large tracts of time with no adult bird around.

But how do you know if/when to intervene?

Sit and wait! The adult will return eventually. If it does, then you don’t need to do anything else.

If you know that the parent birds are dead (i.e. you see a predator take them, or see the dead birds), then ring either your local vets or your local wildlife rescue. If you think the fledgeling has been abandoned (the parents have not been seen for at least two hours and the chick hasn’t moved), ring your local wildlife rescue for advice. If you think the fledgeling has been abandoned, do not attempt to catch it until you have spoken to an expert.

‘How can I tell if a bird has left the nest too early?’

Chicks have three stages before they become adult birds. These stages are hatchling, nestling and fledgeling. You can tell what stage a chick is at- therefore whether it should have left the nest or not- by looking it its eyes and feathers.

This is a HATCHLING. It is too young to leave the nest. Image Credit: Thespruce.com

Hatchlings are chicks that have hatched over the last few days. They have not opened their eyes yet and have fine wisps of down over their bodies rather than feathers. Some do not have any down or feathers at all. These birds need to stay in the nest. If you see one on the ground, place it back in the nest gently. Can’t find the nest or the nest has been predated? Now it’s time to ring either your local vets (most of whom will treat wild animals for free) or your local wildlife rescue organisation.

This is a NESTLING. It is too young to leave the nest. Image Credit: Christen Gougen

Nestlings are chicks that are just starting to form feathers. Their eyes are open, and their feathers will look like tubes. This is because the feathers are yet to break through their protective sheaths. These birds need to stay in the nest. So, if you see one on the ground place it gently back in the nest or, if you can’t find the nest, ring your local vets/wildlife rescue organisation.

This is a FLEDGELING. It is the right age to leave the nest. Image Credit: Verity Hill, RSPB Images

Fledgelings have all their feathers (although the wing and tail feathers may appear very short). They might not be able to fly, but they can flutter and hop around. These birds are absolutely fine. The best thing you can do is leave them alone, sit back and enjoy watching them explore the great outdoors!

‘I'm worried that predators will take the fledgeling’

Image Credit: Andy Hay, RSPB Images

Just because a fledgeling can’t fly doesn’t mean it’s helpless. They can still run, hop and flutter away from danger. They also hunker down and hide under bushes and ledges. Furthermore, the parent bird is often not too far away, and can distract any predators or even attack them to prevent them eating the fledgeling.

If the fledgeling is in a very dangerous place (i.e. a busy road or by a cat flap), you can pick them up gently and move them to a safer area. HOWEVER you MUST make sure this isn’t too far away- within hearing distance, and if possible in direct eyeline of, the place where you found them. This is because the parent birds will not be able to find the fledgeling if you move it too far from where it originally was.

What can I do to minimise the risk of disturbing breeding or young birds?

Image Credit: Verity Hill, RSPB Images

With nesting birds and fledgelings, prevention is better than cure. To avoid disturbance to nests and chicks, do not cut or trim bushes/hedges/trees between the months of March and August (the main breeding season). If possible, leave trimming until even later in the year just to be on the safe side. For more information, click this link.

If you see a fledgeling in your garden, try not to get too close to it. Your presence could prevent the parent birds from feeding the fledgeling. But feel free to enjoy watching it from a distance.

If you own a cat, maybe put a bell on their collar. This makes it harder for cats to sneak up on fledgelings and their parents. If they do catch a bird, take the bird off them and don’t give them any praise for catching it. This can make them less likely to catch birds in the future if they don’t get recognition for it.

If you are walking your dog and come across a fledgeling, put your dog on a lead until you are past it. This is particularly important in areas where there are lots of fledgelings (particularly on beaches with seabird breeding colonies).

‘Should I pick up the bird and keep it safe until I can ring a local wildlife rescue?’

In most cases, no.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if a fledgeling needs help or not. Please ring your local vets or wildlife rescue for advice BEFORE approaching the fledgeling. They will advise you on whether the situation requires the fledgeling to be rescued or whether intervention is not necessary. Remember, if you take the fledgeling out of its environment you could cause the parent birds to abandon it and therefore drastically lower its chances of survival. This risk increases the longer the fledgeling is out of sight and earshot of the parent birds.

Only pick up a baby bird before contacting a local vets/wildlife rescue if you are absolutely sure it is:

  1. Injured (look for bleeding, shivering, gasping or misshapen limbs)
  2. Orphaned (you can see the dead parents or saw the parent birds being taken by predators)

If either of these is the case, place the fledgeling in a dark, quiet place (a cardboard box is perfect) with some water and some newspaper/towels to keep it warm. Ring the local vets/wildlife rescue straight away.

Want more information?

We have put together some additional resources for you if you want more information about anything mentioned in this blog. You can find these resources in the ‘References and Additional Reading’ section below.

Image Credit: Reddit

Thank you for caring about wildlife!

References and Additional Reading

All About Birds (2014). I found a baby bird. What do I do? [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/i-found-a-baby-bird-what-do-i-do/ [last accessed 17/06/2022].

Melissa Mayntz (2019). Baby Bird Glossary: Common Words about Baby Birds [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.thespruce.com/baby-bird-glossary-386931 [last accessed 18/06/2022].

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2022). Blue Tit [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/blue-tit/ [last accessed 18/06/2022].

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2022). Found a baby bird? Here’s what to do [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/injured-and-baby-birds/baby-birds/ [last accessed 17/06/2022].

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2022). Hedge Cutting & Bird Nesting Season Laws [webpage]. Accessed through https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/gardening-for-wildlife/plants-for-wildlife/garden-hedges/hedge-law [last accessed 17/06/2022].

Trustees of Boston University WBUR (2017). When to help a baby bird, and when to leave it alone [webpage]. Accessed through http://archives.wbur.org/thewildlife/2014/06/24/when-to-help-a-baby-bird-and-when-to-leave-it-alone/ [last accessed 17/06/2022].

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