A fledgling songbird is a “teenaged” baby robin, sparrow, starling, finch, etc. These babies often have a fleshy white, pink, or yellow “lip” around the edge of their beak. They may open their mouths wide and chirp to beg for food.

Fledglings are older babies, so they already have most of their feathers. Their tail feathers are still very short, and they may have naked patches under their wings or on their belly.  Some species may have a bit of white or grey fluffy down poking out, especially around their head.

Are you sure it’s a baby?

Just because the bird you’ve found is small (or even tiny!) it might not be a baby,

Small adult birds like kinglets, warblers, and vireos may weigh less than 10 grams, but they’re all grown up! These birds will have smooth feathers with no fluffy down, a long tail compared to their body size, and while they might sometimes vocalize when captured, they won’t chirp continuously or open their mouths to beg for food. If you found the bird between the months of October and April, there’s a good chance it is an adult.

If you think the bird you’ve found is an adult after all, please go to our page on helping small injured birds. 

Is the baby bird injured?

A fledgling baby bird with any of the following signs is injured and needs medical attention:

  • There are obvious wounds or blood on its body
  • It has had contact with a cat – even with no obvious injuries, this is a medical emergency for baby birds
  • The bird is lying on its side and cannot right itself
  • It cannot stand, hop, or perch
  • It is covered in bugs or insects
  • The bird feels cold to the touch when you pick it up
  • It is fluffy, looks “sleepy”, and doesn’t perk up or try to get away when you approach it.

Put the injured baby bird(s) in a cardboard box in a dark, quiet place. Put a heat source like a rice sock or warm water bottle in the box with them. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away.

Fledgling red-winged blackbird

Adult warbler

If the baby is not injured, it may still be possible to reunite it with its parents. Read on.

What’s normal

Most baby birds leave the nest before they can fly. Surprised? It actually makes a lot of sense! Babies stuck in a nest are vulnerable to any predator who comes along, and to changes in weather. The sooner they can leave the nest the faster they can start learning to hide from danger, look for shelter, and find food. Even though they can’t fly, they can hop and move around and hide, and their parents are still taking care of them while they’re learning.

A human baby doesn’t take its first steps and then run a marathon the same day.  For a baby bird, learning to fly is a process that can take a while and have a few false starts. And just like a human baby, a baby bird’s mom and dad help them out along the way.

Fledgling blue jay

If you found fledgling songbird

If the fledgling bird is bright and alert, hops well and flaps its wings, and tries to get away from you, it is probably okay. Monitor from a distance to see if the parents are coming down to feed it — watching from inside is even better. Most birds will feed their babies every 10-30 minutes, but you should watch for at least 2 hours — especially if you already contained the baby before reading this and have just put it back. Some birds, like robins and red-winged blackbirds, can be very vocal and bold about protecting their babies when you are around. Others, like starlings or grackles, may be a bit more secretive. Watch carefully, but make sure you’re not so close you’re scaring the parents off.   If after 2 hrs there is no sign of the parents, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

What if the fledgling is in an unsafe spot?

If the fledgling is in an open area with nowhere to hide (an open lawn, a sidewalk, a parking lot or driveway), it’s okay to scoop it up and move it to a spot with a bit more shelter. It may help to cover it with a towel or scarf to catch it. Take it to a bush, low tree, or flowerbed nearby. At this stage baby birds are mobile, and their parents are used to looking around for them and communicating by calling back and forth. Make sure not to move them too far — within easy visual distance, or not more than about 50 feet.

Even in the most urban areas, there is usually a flower planter, a hedge, or a patch of weeds in the corner of the alley that is a suitable spot for a fledgling bird to hide.

Monitor from a distance for parents coming back to feed the baby. Most birds will feed their babies every 10-30 minutes, but you should watch for at least 2 hours — especially if you already contained the baby before reading this and have just put it back. If there is no sign of the parents after 2 hours, or if there is literally nowhere safe to put the baby bird,  contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

MYTH! If you touch a baby bird, its parents will not abandon it. Birds are excellent parents. All they want is their baby back.

What if there are cats or other predators around?

It’s true that unflighted fledgling baby birds are vulnerable to predators, especially cats. Cats are not a natural predator in our part of the world (they were introduced here by people only a few hundred years ago). Native birds evolved their fledging process long before cats were in the picture.

That said, it isn’t fair to steal a baby bird away from its parents because something might happen to it in the future. Its mom and dad are going to take much better care of it than any human possibly could.

If your own cat goes outdoors, keep it in until the baby is able to fly and evade predators. We all love cats at Toronto Wildlife Centre, but are strong advocates of keeping them indoors. Consider transitioning your cat to an indoors-only lifestyle — see our friends at Cats and Birds for tips and advice. If it’s a neighbour’s cat, talk to them and explain the situation. Share the above website with them, too. They might be willing to keep their cat inside if means saving a baby bird’s life.

If the fledgling has already been caught or had contact with a cat, even if you don’t see any injuries, get it contained and contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away. Cats have a lot of bacteria in their mouth, and even a tiny puncture wound can cause a deadly infection.

Fledgling cedar waxwings

What if it’s late in the day?

If you find a healthy fledgling in the evening or after dark, bring it inside.  Keep it dark and quiet in a cardboard box, and make sure it has a heat source (like a hot water bottle). Birds don’t feed their babies overnight, so don’t offer food or water. First thing the next morning, at dawn when birds are most active, follow the instructions above to reunite the baby with its parents.  Monitor from a distance for parents coming back to feed the baby. Most birds will feed their babies every 10-30 minutes, but you should watch for at least 2 hours — especially if you already contained the baby overnight and have just put it back. If you have seen no sign of the parents after 2 hours,  contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

Should I leave food or water for the baby bird?

No. Leaving food (like bread) or water near the baby bird runs the risk of attracting predators like raccoons, skunks, or outdoor cats. If you want to help the birds out, stay clear of the area until the babies learn to fly, and keep pets away. Planting bushes with fruits on them, or flowers with large edible seed heads, can help birds that choose to nest in your area in the future. Remember that most birds feed their babies larval insects — not using pesticides is also a great way to help bird families!

If you’ve tried to reunite the baby but the parents haven’t come back, or there’s literally nowhere safe to put it, or the baby is injured, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

In the meantime, keep the baby in a dark, quiet spot. Make sure it has a heat source (like a hot water bottle), and don’t give it anything to eat or drink. Further information on temporary care instructions can be found here.