Common Scoter Melanitta nigra, female swimming with ducklings, Forsinard Flows RSPB reserve, Sutherland, Scotland

How do baby birds survive?

Although young birds in your garden being fed by attentive adults might look cute, life is far from easy for birds.

Hard as nails

Baby birds are undeniably cute. With their unkempt, fluffy feathers and insistent, squeaky begging calls, they look very appealing to human eyes as well as to those of their parents.

Though things might look idyllic when you see young birds in your garden being fed by attentive adults, life is far from easy for birds. 

If an egg is incubated to the hatching stage – having avoided being eaten, chilled or damaged – the chick’s first task is to break free of the shell. Inside the egg, the young bird develops an ‘egg tooth’ – a hard tip to the upper part of its beak which helps it emerge – but despite that, hatching is physically exhausting.

Birds have evolved different strategies to maximise the survival of their offspring. While songbirds emerge from their eggs in a blind, naked state, and are quite unable to do anything for themselves for several weeks, other species – primarily ducks, waders and gamebirds – are ready to go from hatching.

These ground-dwelling birds need to be able to fend and feed for themselves. Though their parents care for them, all hatch with a covering of down which keeps them warm and camouflages them among the vegetation where they feed. It’s crucial, as newly-hatched chicks are popular prey items for many predators, and time is of the essence - pheasant chicks are able to fly after only 12 days!

Fledging

Leaving the nest is a hazardous time for all young birds. As well as learning to fly, birds must also learn how to feed and develop predator awareness – the price for not learning quickly enough is high.

For some species, the act of leaving is especially dangerous in itself. Goldeneyes (diving ducks) lay their eggs in holes in trees (or in special nestboxes), rather like woodpeckers do. 

That works fine for the adult birds, which of course can fly in and out, but what happens when the ducklings hatch? Like all duck species, they need to get to water quickly to feed, so they are encouraged to literally ‘take the plunge’ by their mother and jump to the ground!

In most cases, the nest is a horrible, cramped, parasite-infested place – chicks must leave as soon as possible. Blue tits lay between 7-13 eggs so a nestbox crammed with competing siblings must be a very unpleasant environment.

Swallow Hirundo rustica, feeding four large young on tile roof, Gooderstone, Norfolk

Live fast, die young

The reason blue tits have large broods is that the mortality of the young is high. Those that do make it to fledging (that is, leaving the nest and learning to fly) have to learn the ropes in order to survive – and fast. Only 37 per cent make it through their first year of life.

Similarly, young sparrowhawks quickly have to learn to hunt, or they face starvation. Two-thirds of the young birds that reach fledging die before the next spring.

Many birds are in such a hurry to leave their nests that they can’t wait until they can fly properly. Young blackbirds regularly depart before being able to fly, though they are capable of hiding themselves from predators quite effectively. Tawny owlets do the same and can sometimes be found on the ground, apparently abandoned, but their sharp talons make them expert tree-climbers.

And, as if learning to fly and feed for yourself wasn’t enough, if you are a young moorhen, you could rapidly be pressed into service by your parents to help rear their next brood!

Sparrowhawk, Accipter nissus, in long grass, Cheshire

Baby birds in your garden?

It can be tempting to try to ‘rescue’ a baby bird apparently in trouble. Here are some things to remember:

  • The adult birds are much more skilled at looking after their offspring than humans will ever be!
  • It’s very likely that the bird’s parents are nearby, waiting for you to leave the area
  • If the bird is in a very vulnerable position (for example, in the middle of the pavement), it’s OK to move it somewhere safe nearby – perhaps from off the ground into a bush or tree where cats won’t see it
  • Watch from a safe distance to see what happens. If it really has been abandoned, contact our Wildlife Enquiries team for advice, but as the conservation organisation, the RSPB is not able to offer a rescue service.
    Tel: 01767 693690 between 9.00am - 5.15pm, Monday - Friday (not weekends or Bank Holidays).
  • Try to avoid interference wherever possible. It really is best to leave baby birds alone.
Baby Snipe