Fledgling birds are tougher than they look

By Jenna Hutber

Monday 15 June 2020

Lockdown has seen a surge in the number of people desperate to help ‘abandoned’ fledglings – but the RSPB is urging bird lovers to resist the urge to intervene during this vital stage in their development.

After months of finding solace in nature during the global health crisis, many people are feeling a stronger connection to their wild neighbours than ever before.

The plaintive cries of tiny fledglings leaving the nest for the first time can feel almost impossible to resist. But wildlife charity the RSPB says it is crucial fledglings are left alone as they totter towards independence and it is normal for them to be flightless at first.  

RSPB Wildlife advisor Mey Duek said: “Every year we get inundated with calls from people worried about an abandoned chick in their garden, desperately calling for its mum.

“It has been amazing to hear how people have started to feel a deeper bond with the wildlife around them this year. Normal life as we know it has changed dramatically and this year we have seen even more people get in touch to ask what they can do to help a struggling fledgling.  

“But it’s extremely unlikely they have been deserted and in many cases there is a parent nearby keeping a beady eye on their chick’s progress or collecting food.

“Although it’s natural to want to protect fluffy and fragile creatures hopping around all alone, the most helpful thing you can do is keep your distance.

“Fledglings may appear dainty but they are tougher than they look and typically spend a day or two on the ground before they are ready to spread their wings and take flight for the first time.

“Mum and dad know tough love is the only way her young will learn to fend for themselves.

 “It is vital the chicks are left alone.”

Removing a young bird from the wild significantly reduces its chances of long-term survival. 

An RSPCA spokesperson said: “Each year, the RSPCA’s wildlife centres care for around a thousand fledgling birds, picked up by well-meaning people. However, unfortunately many of these birds are not orphans and in most cases would have been better off if they had been left in the wild.

“Fledglings have all or most of their feathers and leave the nest just before they can fly. The parents are usually nearby and feeding the baby bird. So the best thing to do is to leave fledglings alone and watch from a distance.

“In comparison, nestlings are baby birds that have little or no feathers, and will not survive long outside the nest. Over the last four years (2016-2019) the RSPCA wildlife centres have cared for around 1,400 nestlings each year. If you find a nestling out of the nest you should ask for advice from your nearest wildlife rehabilitator.”

A visual guide on what to do if you’ve found a baby bird out of the nest is available on the RSPB website.

There are only a few of situations when the public should lend a friendly helping hand:

Immediate Danger

If the baby bird is found on a busy road or path, it would then be advised to pick the bird up and move it a short distance to a safer place (dense shrubbery) - this must be within hearing distance of where the fledgling was found. UK birds have a poor sense of smell and will not abandon their young because of human contact. Similarly, if you discover your cat or dog eyeing up a fledgling in your garden we recommend that you endeavour to keep your domestic pet indoors for a couple of days – or at least around dawn and dusk.

Injury

If an injured fledgling is discovered this should be reported immediately to the RSPCA on: 0300 1234 999.  Sometimes local vets treat wild birds for free, but please check with them first.

Nestlings

If a baby bird is discovered on the ground that is either unfeathered or covered only in its fluffy nestling down, it has likely fallen out of its cosy nest ahead of schedule. Very occasionally it is possible to put these babies back in their nest, but only if you are 100% positive of the nest it has fallen from and it’s safe to do so.

It is also important to remember that sometimes a parent bird will intentionally eject a chick from the nest if they sense it has an underlying health problem or is dying. It’s a harsh truth to stomach, but sometimes we need to allow the law of nature to run its full circle.

Grounded young swifts

If you find a fallen swift gently put it a safe and calm environment such as a shoebox and keep it away from any disturbance. You can give it water by running a wet cotton bud around the edge of the beak, avoiding the nostrils. Caring for a swift yourself is difficult and time consuming. The RSPB recommends you contact a swift carer from the list on this website.

Barn owl chicks

Unlike garden birds it is not normal for young barn owls to be out of the nest before they can fly. In this case the baby bird does need a helping hand as owlets on the ground will usually be ignored by their parents. Owlets should be gently placed back in their nest. Owls have very little sense of smell and won’t reject their young because they have been handled by humans. For more information about how to safely handle an owlet, check it is healthy and correctly locate its nest visit the Barn Owl Trust website.

The RSPB is asking nature lovers to channel their good intentions and help provide a place for wildlife in their gardens – whether it by planting pollen-rich plants to attract bees and butterflies, putting up a nestbox for a house sparrow, or creating a pond that will support a number of different species.

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