Every year wildlife rescues get deluged with calls about fledgling birds. Folks see them hopping about on the ground unable to fly and worry that there’s something wrong or that they’re going to be caught by cats. Often they’re reported as having a broken wing since they can’t fly (in fact broken wings are usually quite obvious as they hang down low). In the vast majority of cases, the appropriate course of action is to leave them alone. We’ll explain why but first, let’s clarify what we mean by a fledgling.
A fledgling is not any baby bird. A fledgling is a specific stage of development where the baby is ready to leave the nest. It is important to know that what you’re concerned about is actually a fledgling as the advice will be different if the baby is younger or older. Please also note that we are talking here about baby passerines, or garden birds such as blackbirds, starling, tits, crows (and other corvids), robins, thrushes etc. The advice for other types of birds (eg pigeons, doves, gulls, waterfowl) is different.
A fledgling will be fully feathered, will have a bit of a tail (perhaps not as long as an adult bird but not missing or very short), and its wing feathers will be long enough that they reach the tail. Above is a fledgling blackbird who demonstrates this well. The magpie below doesn't have the dramatic tail of an adult but it's on its way - he's ready to be out on his own.
The nests in which these birds are raised are small. Big nests take a lot of work to build and are more visible to predators, so parents build a nest which is just big enough for the babies to fit into. There is no spare room in the nest for flapping wings so, when the babies emerge, their wings are weak, and they have very little flight ability. So, the baby has to spend the first 1-4 days (depending on species – the larger the bird the longer this will take) out and about, exercising its wings to build the strength needed to fly. This is the point where rescues get lots of calls. The bird is seen on the ground and the concern is that there is something wrong or that the baby is vulnerable.
Sadly, yes, the baby is vulnerable at this point. This is nature’s way of ensuring the strongest, cleverest birds survive and go on to breed next year. Blue tits, for example, have broods of 8-12 babies only expecting 2 to make it to adulthood to ‘replace’ the parents. Although it may seem like you are ‘saving’ the bird if you step in and take it to rescue, the bird will only be further disadvantaged by growing up in captivity rather than with its parents. It’s also an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to take a bird from the wild unless it is sick or injured.
Ideally, babies like the starling fledgling on the left should be left exactly where they are for the parents to continue to tend to it and so it can exercise and learn how to bird. The parents may only visit every few hours at this point as they encourage the baby to be independent and find its own food. If the bird is in danger where it is, perhaps because of cats or other predators, you can pick the bird up and place it in a tree or bush so it’s off the ground and less visible. You don’t need to worry about the parents rejecting it – birds recognise their babies by the sound of their call rather than their scent so won’t reject babies which smell of humans. It also is not necessary to locate the nest or try and put the baby back into it. If you have cats, please consider keeping them inside for a few days to give the baby a fighting chance.