How to care for baby birds – the ultimate guide

When finding a young and helpless bird, most people are uncertain about what to do. In this article, we want to give you a guide on how to care for a baby bird. You will also learn when the best decision is to do nothing but wait for the birds’ parents to take over again.

Nestling or fledgling

Determining the age of the young bird is crucial when you want to offer the best help. There are several characteristics that exist in different stages of growth.

How to identify a nestling

Nestlings are very young birds. They are nearly featherless and have pink skin. When a nestling is on the ground, it can poorly move along. The bird can’t use its feet and drags on the ground by its wings. Depending on the species and age some nestlings have their eyes closed. Not surprisingly the best place for these young birds is their nest.

How to identify a fledgling

Fledglings look young but are clearly older than a nestling. They have feathers, can hop and use their legs and feet. In this stage, they have outgrown their nest, but flying skills can still be poor. They spend several days on the ground while learning to search for food. Take off skills improve fast and soon they will be able to fly like a mature bird.

How to care for a nestling

When you find a nestling on the ground, there are mainly two options the perfect care is depending on. When handling the bird you need not be afraid of touching the bird. His parents won’t reject him only because of the contact with you. Birds have a very poor sense of smell.

If the nest is still there

Nestlings in their nest in a tree

The first thing you have do to when you find a nestling is to search for its nest. Often you can be successful by looking in the trees nearby. Such a young bird shouldn’t be able to move far.

In some cases, you won’t find only a nestling on the ground but its entire nest. In other cases, you find the nestling and then the nest – or at least parts of it – in the surrounding. If this happens to you, you only have to put the little bird into its nest. Then place it as high as possible in the nearest tree you can find. If necessary you can place the nest with the bird in a small container and nail it to the tree. If your container is opaque, don’t forget to make some holes for the rainwater.

If you can’t find the nest

When there is no nest, you have to surrogate one yourself. Don’t worry, it’s probably easier than you think. Just take a container (plastic, wood, or something else) and put some dry materials in it.

Materials you can use for the surrogate nest:

  • Margarine container
  • Lint
  • Dried grass (fresh grass is too cold and can cause illness)

The ground of the nest should not be slippy, otherwise, legs could become deformed.

Wait and observe

After you placed the nest in a tree, you have to observe it carefully. During the course of an hour, the parents should come and begin to feed the nestling again. The act of feeding can be very fast and often happens in just a few seconds.

When the parents don’t appear

If the parents aren’t appearing after one hour, the bird might be orphaned. Now it’s more important than ever, that the little bird gets proper help. So you should call a licensed rehabilitator. Rehabilitators are trained to help wild animals like the bird you just found. They know what to feed depending on the species. Although they have the appropriate set of instruments. Additionally, a rehabilitator can teach the bird how to search for food, fly and get away from predators.

It can be that a rehabber or rescue shelter isn’t willing to take on birds that belong to an invasive species. That leads to the surprising fact that it’s legal to care for and keep starlings and sparrows.

Should I feed a nestling?

Most people feel a strong desire to feed the young bird. Especially when it craves for food with its mouth wide open. Usually, feeding causes more harm than good. The requirements for nutrition are very different between the species. Worms and bugs can be toxic for some nestlings the same holds true for birds seeds. Giving water can also be very critical. If the bird swallows it up, lung inflammation and death can be the consequence.

How to care for a fledgling

Bird feeds his fledgling on a limb

No matter, if you found a blue jay or some other species, as a general rule fledglings don’t need any help. All you need to do is keeping pets and kids away. Often fledglings are kidnapped by worried humans that want to care. But in most cases, there is no reason. Even if a fledgling is demanding for food, your best choice is to let it be where it is and not to feed it. The chance is high, that the parents are nearby and come to serve the perfect dish soon.

You don’t have to put him in a nest either. The young bird has outgrown its nest and even if you find it and put him back, the bird will jump out of it instantly. With the jump comes the risk of injuries. Only when you find him far away from bushes or trees you can take him near to the next brushwood.

Are the parents around?

The time of the parents is limited and often they have to care for a group of fledglings in different places. If you are unsure nonetheless, watch the fledgling closely. If no parent appears within an hour you should call a licensed rehabber.

Should I feed a fledgling

Like a nestling, you shouldn’t feed a fledgling too. I know it can be heartbreaking when the little bird cries for food. But doing nothing and waiting for the parents to feed him or call a rehabber is the best choice you can make.

What if the bird is injured?

Sometimes the bird can be injured or ill. In these cases he really needs your help there are a few things you can do.

Signs for an unhealthy bird:

  • Blood
  • Wet feathers
  • One leg not bearing weight
  • Drooping wings
  • Feathers looking ruffled
  • Shivering or feels cold
  • Tilting to one side

If you observe one or more of these points, you should call a rehabber or a veterinarian.

Before help arrives

It can take some time before proper help arrives and in some cases, you have to organize the transport to a veterinarian on your own. Therefore you can use a shoebox or something similar.

Keeping the bird warm and dark is good for reducing the stress level. Just make sure that the bird is getting some fresh air. If it is cold, you can fill a bottle with warm water and use it as a heater.

What should I feed?

As a rule of thumb, you should not feed anything. But if you find an orphaned bird and can’t reach a rehabber it can be necessary. Remind, that the nutrition for young birds can vary between species. Another fact is, that young birds demand other food than mature ones.

As worms, bugs and although seeds can be toxic for young birds, dog kibble can be a good alternative. Just soak it in water before feeding and make sure, that it is not too wet. Depending on the size of the bird you have to cut it into smaller pieces.


The best care depends on the stage of growth and the species of the bird. Even if the topic is very complex there is one best thing you can do immediately: Reuniting the baby bird with its parents. If that is not possible call a licensed rehabber, he is able to fulfill the demand on nutrition and can raise the bird properly.