American Robin mother protecting her babies in their nest. If her babies fell out, she will be happy if you put them back! Human touch or 'smell' does not come between a mama bird and her babies!

Rescuing Baby Birds

Knowing When (and How) to Rescue Baby Birds and When to Tiptoe Away

At The Backyard Naturalist, we get a lot of questions about baby birds. Each time, we try to give the best advice possible. However, your situation may vary in a way that could affect the answer.

Our first recommendation is that you call (not email) your local wildlife rehabilitator and get the most specific expert advice on making a plan to intervene.

In the DC Metro Area, see our Contact list at the top of the sidebar.
Out of the Washington, DC Metro area, see The Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory (wildliferehabinfo.org) to find a licensed wildlife rehabilitator near you.

For this resource page, The Backyard Naturalist has gathered all the best advice and sources we share whenever we’re asked about rescuing baby birds. But this page is not intended to replace advice your local wildlife rehabilitators will give you when you call them for help! Call them.

Most licensed wildlife rehabilitators are volunteers, so please thank them kindly and be understanding if their time or resources are limited. Note that a veterinary license does not legally permit a veterinarian to rehabilitate wildlife. Find out more about wildlife rehabilitation licensing here.

KEY   Before You Attempt to Rescue a Baby Bird

Two actions you should take before you try to rescue a baby bird:

  • First, observe very carefully and make sure you understand the situation!
    If you judge too hastily, even your best of intentions can turn into bad interventions.

  • Second, unless it’s an emergency, always get expert advice before you intervene. We can’t emphasize this enough.
    See our contact list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in the sidebar on the right.

QUICK LINKS   Key Topics with Links to Further Info

Urgent Situations

  • Call an Expert for Advice ASAP

    You may need to remove the bird from danger quickly, but please call your nearest expert wildlife rehabilitator ASAP.

Baby Bird Injured

Baby Bird Under Threat

Baby Bird Orphaned

Healthy Baby Birds

Handling Baby Birds, Giving Temporary Care & Transporting Safely to Rehab

  • If Expert Help is Delayed

    How to offer temporary shelter to a baby bird while waiting for a rehabilitator to respond. DO NOT TRY TO FEED OR GIVE WATER to a baby bird unless directed by an expert.

  • Moving Baby Birds Birds

    How to handle baby birds safely and transport them to wildlife rehabilitators.

  • Why You Shouldn’t Try to Raise a Baby Bird Yourself

    Bad for you because it’s illegal, both state and federal. Bad for the bird because it will never learn to survive in the wild. There are many more reasons, too.

Three Other Ways You Can Help Baby Birds

Step One Assess the Situation Before Doing Anything

Checklist: If Any Bird Appears to be Injured or Sick

If you observe any of the below, call an expert before you do anything.

  • Visible injuries and/or bleeding.
  • Unable to use legs or wings
  • Has not moved in several hours
  • Was attacked by another animal, especially a cat.
  • Has been hit by a car, lawnmower or construction equipment.
  • Is swarming with insects.
  • Is caught in a trap, net or tangled in fishing line, etc.
  • A bird who is still stunned or unable to fly within one hour after crashing into a window.

KEY   Does the baby bird truly need help?

Observe carefully before you intervene.

Have you found an otherwise healthy baby bird out of its nest? Don’t remove the baby bird from the area until you’re sure of its situation.

Parenting methods vary! Although at quick glance it appears abandoned, it may not be. After more careful observation, you may find it doesn’t need help, other than being reunited with its mom.

What to observe:

  • Maturity It may be old enough to be out of the nest, but still be under parental supervision. How to tell? Check to see if the baby bird has feathers.
    • The baby has feathers.
      It’s a fledgling

      Healthy fledglings don’t need your help.
      Fledglings can leave the nest before learning to fly but are still being fed and supervised by their parents. Watch from a distance to see if the parents are near. They are likely supervising their fledgling as it learns to fly! The parents are still feeding a fledgling while it learns to take care of itself.

      But if you see that a healthy fledgling is in potential danger, like from a roaming cat, rambunctious kids or a lawn mower, hide it up out of harm’s way. Simply, put it up in the nearest bush.

    • The baby bird doesn’t have any feathers yet.
      It’s a nestling.

      Good news! Nestlings are re-nestable!
      Please reunite them with their parents ASAP. Yes, please just put those babies right back in that nest! Your touch and ‘human scent’ does not affect its relationship with its parents!!! That’s a myth! A worried mama bird does not care how smelly you are! She only wants her babies back safely.

  • Behavior Is the baby bird hopping along the ground? It may be learning or practicing new skills that take a little work, like how to fly up from the ground, evade predators, or forage for insects.
  • Parents Proximity The parents may be teaching, while supervising from a distance.
  • Nest Locate the nest and see if it is intact. Are the baby bird’s siblings there?

KEY   If you can’t find the nest, it’s too high to reach, or it’s damaged.

Repair the nest or make a new one.

If getting the baby back to the nest is impossible, put the baby in a shoebox or berry basket lined with a paper towel. Hang the box or basket up in the same tree, or if need be, the closest bush. The parents will hear their baby’s call, even from a distance.

The worst case scenario is that a predator has destroyed the nest and you find the baby’s mother has been killed. Please call for advice and make a rescue plan for the babies with a licensed rehabber. Do not try to go it alone, or raise the babies yourself.

KEY   Offering Temporary Shelter & Transporting Safely to Rehab

You may be in a situation when you will need to move the bird and shelter it temporarily while seeking advice or making arrangements for rehab. If so, please take care and never put your own safety at risk.

  • Only adults should ever rescue wild birds.
  • Don’t put yourself in danger trying to reach or recover a bird.
  • Prepare for a reaction. Wild birds will not understand that you’re trying to help and will likely defend themselves as they would when attacked.

How to safely move a wild bird.

CRITICAL: Do your absolute best to minimize stress. Handle the bird only as much as is necessary and keep its surroundings as quiet as possible.
  • Have a safe container ready. Small songbirds can be placed in a paper bag while larger birds may need a cardboard box (with a lid). Line the container with a clean soft cloth that has no strings or loops. Make sure the bag or box is well-ventilated with air holes.
  • Wear gloves.The bird may be injured, but it will still try to protect itself using beak and talons. You’ll also be protecting yourself from diseases and parasites like lice, fleas or ticks. All are commonly carried by wild birds.
  • Cover the bird with a light sheet or towel.
  • Gently place the bird in the container.
  • If the bird is chilled |||– advice varies here— need to edit|||you can warm the bird by putting one end (only!) on a heating pad set on Low. Or, fill a leak-proof, plastic bottle with hot water, wrap it in a cloth, then carefully put it next to the bird. Make sure there are no leaks. Keep the bird dry.
  • Wash your hands.To protect yourself and your family from disease or parasites, wash clothing, towels&emdash;anything else that came in contact with the bird.
  • Once placed, do not bother the bird. Keep the container in a warm, dark, quiet place away from pets, children and household noise.
  • Do not feed the bird or place food in the container.unless the wildlife rehabilitator tells you otherwise.
  • Transport to a wildlife rehabilitator ASAP.

KEY   Leave it to Experts. Reasons You Shouldn’t Try to Raise Wild Birds

CRITICAL: It’s illegal. Federal and State. Before you attempt to keep and raise the baby bird you found, consider the following: The best chance of survival for a baby bird, is being raised by its parents in the wild. It’s against the law to raise wild birds in captivity! Even if you plan to release them later. Federal and state laws protect wild birds, making it illegal to raise or rehabilitate wild birds if you do not have a license and permits. Rehabilitate, but remain wild. Due to all the challenges of readying a wild bird to survive, licensed wildlife rehabilitators and wildlife veterinarians are required to complete special training to care for them.

Good intentions are not enough

By raising a wild baby bird yourself, even with your best care and the best of intentions, it will not learn how to:
  • Forage for natural foods
  • Avoid predators
  • Communicate with other members of its species
  • Acquire territory
  • Judge direction during migration
  • Attract a mate, breed and raise its own young

This is why it’s so important to make every effort to re-nest baby birds and reunite them with their parents. And to be absolutely sure that rescuing a baby bird is the best option.


How to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator

Do you want more information about how wildlife rehabilitators are licensed? Or, maybe you want to find out how you can get your wildlife rehabilitation certification. To find out more about the process:
Maryland Department of Natural Resources – Licenses
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Call (804) 367-9588 for application instructions.


Credits, along with special thanks:

Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland for their comprehensive guide to rescuing wildlife “What Do I Do If…” available from the Second Chance Wildlife Center website. City Wildlife in Washington, DC.

Information on this page, and in attached PDFs, has also been sourced from the following:

City Wildlife ‘Does the animal really need help?’ Maryland Department of Natural Resources Think Twice Before Rescuing Young Wildlife National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association ‘Injured and Orphaned Wildlife: Birds’ Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries ‘When You Should—and Should Not—Rescue Baby Birds’ National Audubon Society