Ah, the first days of summer—the smell of cut grass, kids on vacation… and baby birds falling out of trees.
Every year, I see a new flock of people rescuing fallen birds, and then arguing on Twitter and Facebook about whether it’s OK to put them back in the nest.
Some are adamant that if you handle a baby bird, its mother will reject it. Others say it’s fine; just put the bird back.
A lot of people face this dilemma at the beginning of summer, when many baby birds are taking their first flight from the nest—in bird-nerd speak, they’re fledging. I was in Mississippi in early June, and it seemed like it was raining dead baby birds there. One fell from its nest onto my car, and another mysteriously turned up on the porch steps. It was too late for those birds, but what do you do when faced with a little peeper like this?
I just spent 20mins tryna get a baby bird back to his mom, then I found his sister on the road!! I hope they survive pic.twitter.com/prdQ5nrAQo
— ¥ (@YasmineChanel) June 23, 2015
First, you should ask yourself how cute the bird is.
Okay, that sounds cruel and judgmental. But it’s basically true. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives excellent advice: The first thing you need to know is whether the baby is a nestling or a fledgling. Most of the birds people find are fledglings. Fledglings have feathers, can hop, and are “generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail.”
“When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in—it will hop right back out. Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors.”
And if you’ve got an ugly little unfeathered friend?
“If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling.
If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans.”
So leave the cute ones alone, and put the little ratty-looking ones back in the nest.
And if you don’t stumble across any fledglings this year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a website where you can watch live video of baby birds on Birds Cams.
There are plenty of adorable Bird Cam moments, like this fledgling hawk returning to the nest and checking out the camera.
But it wasn’t all pretty. “This has been probably our toughest year on record,” says Charles Eldermire, who runs the Bird Cams program. The ospreys were hit by dime-sized hail a week before their eggs were to hatch, cracking all the eggs. A baby owl died, and the parents fed it to its siblings. Eldermire even had to put up warnings that viewers had to click on before watching particularly bad things happening.
“We started this project in part to help people learn about what happens in nature,” Eldermire says. “We’re aware that many have never had an unfiltered view of what happens in nature.”
The Bird Cam folks make a point of not interfering. “We can learn by letting it play out. Any intervention could have a negative impact; if we feed that baby owlet to save it, maybe it’s sick, or maybe the environment won’t support another barn owl.”
I love what Eldermire said next. Think about this as you watch the ospreys in the video above hunker over their eggs in a hailstorm: “The struggles that we go through as people in our own lives aren’t all that different from the animals on the screen.”
“The truth is we can’t control everything in our lives. One thing we can all learn from watching wild things and how they survive is that sense of resilience that is really at the core of any wild thing.”