A nestling or hatchling songbird is a 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.

Hatchlings are babies that don’t have any feathers yet. Their eyes are usually still closed, their skin is usually pink, and they may have a bit of fluffy white, grey, or dark down, especially on their heads.

A nestling is a little bit older, but still too young to be out of the nest. Nestlings may have a few feathers, but will still have some naked spots or “pin feathers” coming in on their bodies. They cannot stand, hop, or perch yet.

If you don’t think the bird you’ve found is a nestling songbird, go back to our species selection page. 

Are any of the baby birds injured?

A 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 is covered in bugs or insects
  • The bird feels cold to the touch when you pick it up

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.

Hatchling starling

Nestling starlings

Nestling starlings

If the some or all of the babies are not injured, it may still be possible to reunite them with their parents. Read on.

What’s normal

Hatchlings and nestlings are too young to be out of the nest, so if you find them on the ground they’ve likely fallen or been removed. Getting them back into their original nest, or making a fake nest, will let their parents continue to care for them. Luckily, most birds are cared for by both their mother and father, so they’re almost never actually orphaned. Their parents will take much better care of them than any human ever possibly could!

If you found just one baby bird

Nestlings and hatchlings can’t walk or fly, so unless a predator (like a cat) carried them, their nest is probably very close. Check in trees and bushes nearby. Have a look around and see if you can find the nest. Remember that not all birds (especially starlings and sparrows!) nest in trees, so check nooks and crannies in buildings. Look for parent birds flying to and from a nest.

If the baby looks healthy and you are able to get it back into its original nest, do so. Watch from a distance for 2 hours to make sure the parents are coming back to feed the baby.

If you cannot find the nest, or the nest is not reachable, or the parents do not come back, keep the baby dark, quiet, and warm, don’t give it any food or water, and 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.

If you found more than one baby

Nestling and hatchlings can’t walk or fly, so if you found a group of babies together, their nest was probably very close by. If the babies are still in a nest that has fallen or been removed, then they definitely haven’t moved very far. You can try to reunite the baby birds with their parents by making a fake nest for them.

If the nest is shaped like a bowl

For a nest shaped like a bowl or cup, find a wicker basket (like an Easter basket) or plastic container (like a margarine tub) the right size. If you use a plastic container make sure to POKE HOLES in the bottom for drainage.

Place the original nest in the basket or container. If the original nest has been destroyed, pad the bottom of the fake nest with dried grass. Don’t use tissue or paper towel because it can get wet and sticky. Don’t put the babies in the nest just yet.

Find a way to secure the nest as close as possible to where it originally was. If the nest was very high, get it up as high as you reasonably can, but don’t worry about getting it all the way up. The nest should be placed in the same tree or structure that it was built in. If it’s a bit lower than it was, that’s okay, but if you move it more a than a few feet in any other direction, the parents may not find the babies. Make sure to mount it in a spot where there’s a bit of shade and some protection from wind and rain, like below a building overhang, or under a sturdy branch.

Once the nest is secure, put the babies back inside. Watch from a distance, preferably  from inside. For most species, the parents should feed the babies every 10-30 minutes, but you should watch for at least 2 hours to give them a chance to find the new nest. If you see the parents feeding the babies, that’s great!  Leave the babies alone until they fledge, which shouldn’t be more than a couple of weeks.

Father robin on margarine container “fake nest”

If the nest was in a vent or hole in a wall, or a hole in a tree

For a nest that was found inside a vent or hole, find a 2liter plastic jug (like from orange juice, bleach, or anti-freeze). Make sure to rinse it very well, and POKE HOLES in the bottom for drainage.  Cut a “U” shape 2×2 inches on the side of the jug, and fold it up to make a door (see illustration).

Place the original nest in the basket or container. If the original nest has been destroyed, pad the bottom of the fake nest with dried grass. Don’t use tissue or paper towel because it can get wet and sticky. Don’t put the babies in the nest just yet.

Find a way to secure the nest as close as possible to where it originally was. If it was in a vent or hole, mount the jug directly above or below the opening.

Once the nest is secure, put the babies back inside. Watch from a distance, preferably  from inside. For most species, the parents should feed the babies every 10-30 minutes, but you should watch for at least 2 hours to give them a chance to find the new nest. If you see the parents feeding the babies, that’s great!  Leave the babies alone until they fledge, which shouldn’t be more than a couple of weeks.

Starling feeding babies at “jug nest”

Leave the nest alone

If the parents are coming back to feed the babies, that’s great! Leave them where they are, and monitor over the next few days. Baby birds grow up really quickly, so the babies should be gone within 2-3 weeks. Once they leave the nest, they don’t ever come back to it.

Can I move the nest to a better spot?

No. Birds are very specific about the location of their nest. Moving it even a few feet away can cause the parents to abandon it. Bird are also not capable of picking their babies up and moving them to a new location.

What if it’s late in the day?

If you find the birds in the evening or after dark, bring them inside and keep them dark, quiet, and warm. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice. It may still be possible to reunite with the parents in the morning, but it may depend on the species and condition of the babies.

Should I leave food or water for the mother bird?

No. Leaving food (like bread) or water near the nest runs the risk of attracting predators like raccoons, skunks, or outdoor cats. If you want to help the birds out, try to stay clear of the area until the babies fledge. 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 babies but the parents haven’t come back, or there’s no way to get the nest back to its original location, or the babies are injured, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

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