It's that time of year again. Time when wildlife rehabilitation centers everywhere are flooded with "rescued" baby birds. Unfortunately many of those birds didn't need to be rescued at all. So what do you do if you find a baby bird on the ground?
The best thing for any baby animal is to try to reunite it with its parents. They can always take care of that baby much better than any human can.
A lot of times when people find a baby animal, they're actually completely fine. Their parents are out foraging and they're just waiting for them to come back. A lot of mammals like deer and rabbits do this. As long as the baby isn't in immediate danger, like near a road, or where cats or dogs can get it, it's best to leave them alone.
A baby bird found on the ground might need some help, though. The youngest baby birds are called "nestlings", and they definitely shouldn't be on the ground. These are birds that haven't gotten their adult feathers yet, so they may be covered only in down, or even naked. Once they start to get their adult feathers in they are called "fledglings", and start to take some practice flights out of the nest. They're still not good fliers at this point, and it's very common to find them on the ground after they've been practicing flying.
If you find a nestling on the ground, it has probably fallen out of its nest. If you can find and get to the nest, you can just put it back. Don't worry about the parents rejecting it because it has human smell on it. That's an old wive's tale. Birds don't have a good sense of smell anyway, but even mammals won't reject their babies like that.
If you can't get the baby back in the nest, you can try making it a new nest. Secure something like a small cardboard box or basket up in the tree, as high up as you can get it. Put the baby in there. The parents will be able to find it and take care of it from there, and at least it won't be on the ground.
Fledglings usually can be left alone, unless they're in immediate danger of being eaten by a cat or something. Then you can try the same thing: put it back in the tree, where it will be out of reach of predators.
Take the bird to a wildlife rehabilitation center as a last resort. Like I said, during spring, they are inundated with perfectly healthy fledglings that have been bird-napped by well-meaning humans thinking they needed help. (And even if the bird is not healthy, there's not a lot they can do besides give it food and water and a cage safe from predators and see if it recovers. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't.)
Whatever you do, NEVER EVER try to raise the baby yourself. The wildlife rehabilitation center I used to volunteer at had a few birds there that were permanent residents because people tried that with them. They ended up imprinted on humans, and with bone deformities caused by being fed the wrong foods and getting nutrient deficiencies. Most baby birds that people try to raise themselves just die from improper care.
Yesterday was a very windy day, and that evening when my husband got home, he was holding a baby white-winged dove our cat had found in the yard. Doves build very flimsy nests that often get blown out of trees. The baby was just getting adult feathers in, but still fuzzy on its belly and head. It seemed strong and healthy, so we decided to get all the cats in, and put it under some bushes near where it was found.
This morning, it was still there running around on the ground where it was still vulnerable to cats. Time for Plan B, making it a new nest. My husband got out the ladder and strapped a plastic bucket lid to the highest branch he could get to. He filled it with leaves for padding, and put the baby in there. It seemed much more happy and relaxed when it saw it was back up in a tree. It perched on the edge of it's "nest" and went to sleep. I'm sure the poor little guy got hardly any sleep last night.
About an hour later I went to check on him, and there was an adult dove in the "nest" with him. Mom was back! The baby looked so happy to be reunited with Mom after his scary ordeal. Mom has been going back and forth ever since taking care of the baby.
Update: Well, I'm sorry to report that the little guy didn't make it after all. We had been watching the "nest" with the binoculars, and today (Sunday) we hadn't seen him peek out all day, even though the parents are still hanging around. My husband got out the ladder to check, and he had passed away. Baby birds have a very high mortality rate so I shouldn't be too surprised, but I'm still sad this one didn't beat the odds.
Looking back, maybe we should have built the "nest" immediately instead of leaving him out there in the bushes another night, so next time this happens (and there will be a next time), we'll do that. But other than that I think we did the right thing to give him a chance at survival.