If you find a baby bird …

Healthy baby birds have the best chance of survival in the wild with their parents.

A fledgling robin sits on the ground, surrounded by young plants

It’s common for humans to encounter baby birds in the spring and summer. Depending on the species, baby birds can spend days to weeks in the nest, where they are cared for by their parents. As the babies develop, they grow flight feathers and get ready for the next stage of development: fledging, and learning how to fly. As baby birds take their first flights, many species stay close to the original nest, where their parents continue to care for them.

If you find a baby bird, assess the situation to determine what kind of intervention – if any – is needed. If you are having difficulty confirming the bird’s life stage, potential injuries, or have other questions, please call the Wildlife Center at 540.942.9453.

Please give baby birds the best possible chance for survival and leave them in the wild where they belong! Never attempt to treat or raise a baby bird on your own. Despite your best efforts, most hand-raised birds will die.

Is the bird injured (bleeding, broken bones, puncture wounds, been in a cat's mouth, open wounds, etc.)?

Is the bird fully feathered, and/or able to hop away from you?

  • If YES, a fully feathered baby bird found on the ground seemingly unable to fly is likely just fledging—a natural state of development in the bird's life. It is normal for fledgling birds to be on the ground! Birds need several days—up to four weeks, depending on their species—to learn how to fly and forage for food. One or more parent continues to feed them during this period. Leave the area, and keep pets and children away from the bird. The parent(s) will not feed the youngster while people are around.
  • If NO, attempt to find the nest. An uninjured nestling bird found on the ground with few or no feathers needs to be returned to the nest. Look in nearby trees and bushes to see if you can locate the nest. Correct species identification of the nestling or the parents will help locate the nest (e.g., bluebirds are box or cavity nesters, Mourning Doves build basket nests on horizontal branches or in a tree fork). Cornell's All About Birds website has excellent information on nest type and placement. 
Multiple baby birds in a nest. Two beaks are clearly visible.
Nestling Bluebirds 
Two fledgling Bluebirds perch on a stick.
Fledgling Bluebirds

Can you find/reach the nest?

  • If YES, simply put the bird back, after first making sure the bird is warm to the touch. If the baby is not warm, you can simply warm the bird in your hands before returning it to the nest. Returning a young, cold bird to the nest will encourage the parent to push the baby out of the nest, as the parent is trying to remove a cold object to protect other warm young and/or eggs.
  • If NO, you can't locate the nest, are unable to reach it (even with a ladder), or if the original nest is destroyed, consider making a substitute nest. In these cases, it’s best to consult with a wildlife rehabilitator first, as age and feather development play a factor in whether this is successful. 
Constructing a Substitute Nest 

Substitute nests can be viable options if a bird’s original nest is completely destroyed, or if a lone baby bird (of an appropriate age) can’t be returned to its original nest with its siblings. These substitutes can be created from a variety of containers, including small berry containers, margarine tubs, baskets, or hanging flower pots. Choose a substitute nest that is similar in size and shape to the original nest. The new nest should be large enough to contain the growing baby birds, but small enough so that each bird sits snugly as it grows.

A small stuffed robin puppet sits in a wicker basket attached to a tree trunk

If you are using a solid container, punch holes in the bottom of the new nest for drainage. Line the nest with material, such as small twigs or dried grass. If the original nest has been destroyed, you can use part of it in your substitute nest if no obvious mites are present. Remember, the nest will be exposed to rain and dew; choose nesting material that will dry quickly.

Attach the substitute nest securely to the tree limb or bush where you are placing the nest. Remember, the parent birds will be perching on the edge of the nest as they continue to feed their young, so the nest needs to be very secure! Make sure the new nest is as close as possible to the original nest location, and make sure it is naturally sheltered from the sun, rain, and predators.

A small stuffed robin puppet sits in a tupperware container at eye level, surrounded by green foliage

Consult with a wildlife rehabilitator before attempting to create a substitute nest for a lone baby bird where the original nest is still active. As long as the young bird is at least partially feathered, a secondary substitute nest can be a viable option, but in some cases, nestling birds are too small to be alone in a nest, particularly if they still need to be brooded by a parent. Because parent birds can only effectively brood one nest location at a time, very young lone nestlings, even if healthy, may need to be taken to a permitted wildlife rehabilitator.

Contrary to popular belief, bird parents are not frightened off by your scent and will return to feed their baby if it calls for food. When checking to see if the parent(s) return to feed the baby, watch the nest from a safe distance, preferably indoors. Many wild birds will not return to the nest if you are visible and/or in the immediate area. If a parent does not visit the new nest for more than half a day, contact a permitted songbird rehabilitator for advice.

The best baby bird rehabilitation is prevention. Educate your friends, family, neighbors, and yourselves about the fledging process. Know where nesting sites are located, and keep cats and dogs indoors around the time you think the birds will fledge to avoid predation. Ask neighbors to take responsibility for their pets too – it’s a community effort!

A robin sits on the ground with the text "don't be a bird-napper" over it.

Each animal's nutritional, housing, and handling requirements are very specific and must be met if they have any chance of survival. Inappropriate food or feeding techniques can lead to sickness or death. Raising a wild bird in captivity is illegal unless you have both state and federal permits. For information on how you can become a permitted wildlife rehabilitator, visit our Wildlife Care Academy and contact the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources or your state's wildlife agency.