You've likely heard more than one heartwarming story about people rescuing baby birds either abandoned by their mothers or shoved prematurely from their nests. But according to wildlife experts interviewed by the Audubon Society, most of these stories aren't good at all. In fact, they're akin to kidnapping.
"Eighty percent of baby birds that come in have basically just been kidnapped," Melanie Furr, education director at the Atlanta Audubon Society, explained. "They need to be taken back."
When it comes to young birds, the difference between rescuing and kidnapping lies in the distinction between a fledgling and a nestling.
Per Furr, wandering from the nest is exactly what fledglings—birds just learning to fly—are supposed to be doing as part of their development. Though they might appear abandoned, fledglings are likely under close surveillance by their parents. While there is always a chance that they're sick, injured, or in danger, it's probable that the wayward chick is simply exploring.
Nestlings, on the other hand, are almost always in need of rescue, Rita McMahon, co-founder and director of the Wild Bird Fund, told the Audubon Society. Whether they fell or got pushed from their nest, nestlings are "not ready to go off into the world," she added.
The first thing to do when determining whether or not to intervene is to establish the age of the chick. According to McMahon, fledglings are larger and covered almost completely in down and feathers, while nestlings are small and mostly naked. Fledglings can also hop, whereas nestlings might drag themselves by their bare wings.
If you found a fledgling, "walk away from the bird," McMahon said. Not only would a rescue be unnecessary, it can be detrimental to the bird's development. Chicks raised by hand can grow up to confuse humans as their parents and never really learn how to be a bird.
If it's a nestling you've stumbled upon, you should absolutely help. First, the Audubon Society recommends looking for its nest in the nearby bushes or trees. If you find it, simply put the chick back. And there's no need to worry about touching the bird. Susan Elbin, director of conservation and science at New York City Audubon, said that the idea that touching a baby bird will cause its mother to reject it is untrue. "Birds have a sense of smell, but it's not very well developed," she explained. "They're not going to abandon their chick."
If you think you've found a sick or wounded fledgling or nestling, the Audubon Society urges you to call a rehabber, state wildlife agency, or veterinarian immediately. If nobody is available, Furr suggests placing the bird somewhere safe, like in a closed box with air holes and a heating pad beneath it. But whatever you do, don't feed it.
"People have good intentions and think the baby bird is going to starve," Furr said. "But a lot of times it ends up doing more harm than good."
It's hard, but don't let your parental instincts take over. Chicks are not like humans. Wildlife experts are best equipped to deal with a baby bird in need.