Many types of birds hatch naked and helpless, and during their first few weeks of life, they are completely dependent on their parents. While they are in the nest and growing, they are known as nestlings.
Once they have grown most of their feathers and are almost ready to fly, young birds leave the nest and spend several days on the ground, in brush, or in low branches. At this stage, they are called fledglings. Though fledglings can’t yet fly, they can hop around. And since they are feathered, they don’t get chilled like a nestling would if out of the nest. However, fledglings are still completely dependent on their parents, who are feeding them and teaching them how to forage and become independent.
If you find a baby bird on the ground, use the pictures and text below to figure out whether it’s a nestling or a fledgling. It is important (but not hard) to figure this out, since what you do for each will be completely different. Also, check out this helpful flowchart.
Does this baby bird need help?
Nestling vs. Fledgling: How to Tell
Clue #1: Does it have fuzz or feathers?
Clue #2: Do you see naked skin?
Yes: Nestling (both pictures below are of nestlings). The one on the right has developing feathers covered by a waxy sheath, known as pinfeathers.
Clue #3. What is it doing most of the time?
Sleeping or eating: Nestling
Sitting upright or hopping around: Fledgling
Nestlings on the Ground
Nestlings may fall out of their nest, or their entire nest may fall to the ground. A nestling or whole nest of nestlings on the ground is in trouble and needs your help! First, warm the bird in your hands. If the nest is still in the tree, return the bird to the nest. If you can’t find or reach the nest, get the bird(s) to a wildlife rehabilitator.
If the baby is mostly feathered but still a nestling (see above), and if you are unable to reach or can’t find the nest, poke several holes in the bottom of a margarine tub, line the inside with grass and leaves and place the baby inside. Attach the artificial nest to the tree closest to where you found the bird, as far above the ground as possible. Watch hidden from a distance for an hour. If the parents do not return within that time, call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance.
If the entire nest fell to the ground, place the nest, along with the baby birds, inside a margarine tub with holes in the bottom, and secure this to the tree closest to where you found the babies. Then, watch hidden from a distance for a hour. If the parents do not return within that time, call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance.
Fledglings On the Ground
If you find a fledgling on the ground (fully feathered and hopping around), leave it alone after making sure that pets and kids won’t bother it.