Welcome to this installment of Kings Park Focus on Nature.
We’re well into spring, and many species of wildlife in our area are busy raising their young. Kings Park residents are very likely to notice birds building nests, and then busily foraging for food to provide for their nestlings. I’ve noticed several nests right in my small yard – two robin nests, a mockingbird nest, and a pair of grackles that set up housekeeping near our front door.
I’m so pleased that these birds thought our humble yard had suitable habitat and good resources for raising their families. I was careful not to cause undo alarm for the adults when I took the photo’s that accompany this article. I think you’ll enjoy a close up look at the young robins, and yes, they sure are CUTE!
It’s that attractiveness of fledgling birds that sometimes leads to problems in how we humans interact with them. This is the time of year when people will often encounter one of these appealing baby birds away from the nest. An understandable protective instinct kicks in. People assume the bird needs assistance, but unfortunately in trying to help, more harm is done than good. To understand why, let me try to clarify a few points about the development of birds and their habits, and provide a few tips about how or whether or not to provide any assistance to them.
Well, the egg comes first, we’re clear about that! In some species of birds the young are able to walk about shortly after hatching. They are usually covered with protective down, and are mobile enough to follow their parents around and forage. These types of hatchlings are called precocial. These species tend to be shore birds such as terns, water fowl including ducks, and ground dwelling species, such as turkeys and bobwhite quail, for example.
The song birds, or “perching birds’ such as the Robins and Mockingbirds I mentioned earlier, have young which are referred to as altricial. These go through stages of development. They hatch out featherless, blind, mostly immobile, and not very attractive looking. At this stage they are referred to as “nestlings”. With mother and father birds feeding them about every 20 minutes during the day, the babies quickly grow. They develop down and feathers, open their eyes, and become able to stand. They are called fledglings in this phase of development.
As soon as they are strong and confident enough, the fledglings will leave the nest. Although the nest may seem like a safe place, it is best for the baby birds to leave it as soon as possible. Dispersing lessens the chance of the entire brood being taken by a predator. The fledglings will usually make this move before they are able to fly well. Their apparent haplessness at this time of their lives causes people to often think mistakenly that these young birds are abandoned. In fact, the birds are practicing flight, and learning to forage on their own. Their parents are still attentive, and will check up on and feed their young periodically.
If a threat is perceived, the adult birds will make alarm calls, and otherwise distract and harass would be predators with their presence. Predators may include hawks, raccoons, and foxes. However, house cats are the most common predator of both fledgling and adult birds in our area. These may be pets or feral cats, and throughout North America they are a major threat to bird survival on a large scale.
Sometimes there are legitimate situations where a fledgling does need help. Recently I came across a young Mockingbird which had fallen into a lidless garbage pail in our yard. (See the photographs of this bird.)
Since the young bird could not fly straight up out of the container, it was trapped. I removed it and placed it in the low branches of a nearby shrub, where its parents soonresumed protecting and caring for it. (The parents scolded me loudly for leaving the garbage pail lid off – I’m sorry, birds!) This would be an example of appropriate action to assist a fledgling. There are very few circumstances in which a young bird should be taken from the wild and ‘helped”. If a helpless nestling (featherless, unable to perch or stand) is found outside of the nest, look around for the nest which is likely nearby, and replace the bird. It is not at all true that a baby bird will be abandoned by the parents if touched by a human. Birds have a poor sense of smell, so that is not an issue.
If the original nest cannot be found, a small container with drainage holes and lined with tissue paper can be constructed to serve as a replacement. This can then be firmly affixed to the branches of a dense shrub or tree. Often the adult birds will still be nearby and will resume care.
If these measures fail, as a last resort the baby bird may need assistance of humans to survive. Your best bet in this instance is to contact a local veterinarian, who can most likely refer you to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Few people have the knowledge and time to take care of a young bird properly. Without understanding the animal’s specific needs, more harm is likely to be done than good. Additionally, it’s illegal to keep wildlife.
Birds are truly wonders of nature. They are unique in their adaptations, and have well evolved strategies for survival. We can best help them by creating and maintaining landscapes which enhance suitable habitat, and minimize hazards. Having done so, we can enjoy these remarkable creatures from afar, as nature intended.