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Do these baby birds need your help?
It’s part of the summer scene: parents and babies outdoors enjoying the weather. Human babies and small children need to be supervised at all times, but if you’re an animal such as a bird, a rabbit, a fox or a deer fawn, you have nature as your guide. It’s entirely natural for bird babies to fledge, i.e. to leave their nest once they are fully feathered, then learn to fly and survive in the big open world. What they don’t usually need is human intervention. This is sometimes difficult. You find a fledgling in the garden, hopping around and looking vulnerable. It’s tempting to interfere.
Native mammals in the countryside
The same applies to mammals such as baby deer and various cubs. Fawns are programmed to hide in long grass whilst their mother is away. Fox and badger cubs are safest hidden away quietly in their dens. If you come across a young deer you should leave it well alone.
But what happens next to the feathery folk who might end up hopping around your garden as they make their first foray outside the nest?
Vulnerable baby birds in their nest
Firstly, let’s dispel the myth that nests are safe places in which to live. Indeed, a sturdy nest box is generally secure, but many birds nest in crevices, on ledges and in trees or shrubs on open branches. As such, some of these are open to predation by birds; cats; other animals and insects including parasites. So it really is an advantage to leave the nest as soon as possible. Once out and about, the fledglings might not be able to fly very well and they will generally spend a few days on the ground. The parent bird will encourage them into different spots each night so that their chances of survival are greater.
Species such as swallows, house martins and swifts tend to stay up in their nests until they can join the adult birds in flight. These are not generally ground dwellers and they will fly to nearby high perches until they are strong enough to live on the wing.
The awkward teenagers
Few young birds look exactly like the adult version. Fledglings should have a full quota of feathers but they might also have a rather ‘unfinished’ appearance. Many have fluffy heads and short tail feathers. This is entirely normal and not a sign that they are below-par in any way. Initially these fledglings might not deserve a place in a ‘best dressed plumage’ competition. But within just a few days, they will develop into more respectable specimens en route to becoming clones of their parents.
Male baby robins, like the one above, for example, will not have a red breast but might have a coppery sheen. Pigeons won’t have a white patch on the neck and baby blackbirds will be brown. Baby blue tits will generally have a brighter yellow beak than their parents.
This point in a young bird’s life is perilous and the mortality rate is high, with more than half likely to die during their first day out of the nest. They face starvation if they don’t feed during the first 24 hours. Predation by cats is the most common cause of death. Birds of prey such as sparrowhawks and even magpies, crows and jays pick off many youngsters. Then there are weasels, dogs, people, cars, the weather and dozens more dangers that can put a halt to those little lives.
What to do when you find a fledgling
Firstly, always consider doing nothing as the best choice.
If your newly discovered fledgling is in a dangerous place and at a high risk of becoming easy prey or suffering death from a road, for example, it would be wise to move it to a safer place. A garden with plenty of cover provided by plants, shrubs and trees would be the best. Ensure that the new location is very close to the place in which you found it. Birds don’t have a good sense of smell but they are finely tuned to sound. The parents will be listening for their chicks and will find them provided they are within earshot.
With caring garden-folk on their side, young birds stand a chance of survival, just don’t kill them with kindness.