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Europe and Central Asia
6 Feb 2017

Resist the call of the cute

Young kestrel © Anna Kogut
Young kestrel © Anna Kogut
By Shaun Hurrell

What should you do when you see a baby bird on the ground? It is hard to resist the urge to rescue. Often people intervene when in fact most chicks should be left alone. Our Spring Alive project1) is raising awareness of this issue with children and adults throughout Europe, Central Asia and Africa, with this season’s theme of “Don’t take chicks with you”.

Alone, helpless, small, cold, clumsy and fluffy… We see a flightless chick on the ground in our garden and many of us go weak at the knees. How did it get here? Where are its parents? Is it orphaned? Has it fallen from a nest? Is it injured? It is cheeping, maybe it is calling for help? We are struck by an overpowering urge: I must rescue it… I must do something…

Stop. Think. Is interfering the best thing to do in this situation? While small actions can, and do, make a big difference in conservation, sometimes our willingness to step in can be detrimental - especially when our judgement is clouded by “the cute factor”. We might have the best of intentions, but taking a chick with you can be a bad thing, it is messing with nature, and can even make things worse for the chick.

Nature is harsh sometimes. One thing to remember is that young birds naturally face tough odds, with only thirty per cent of songbirds surviving their first year – but this is a natural strategy in which the strongest survive and there is enough resources in the environment for them. And hand-rearing a bird is not easy. You might think it could lead to an amazing story of care, bonding and devotion – and in very rare cases it does – but you could effectively (often illegally) be taking a wild bird as a “pet”, and if you eventually re-release it into the wild, the bird has not learned essential survival skills from its parents.

So what should I do? This is to provide a basic summary, please see the links below for more information and for further questions please ask your local animal rehabilitation organisation.

First you must identify whether the chick is visibly injured. It might be clumsy, or even unable to walk if it is very young, but that is perfectly natural. In very rare cases, it could be bleeding or has other visible trauma, in which case the best thing to do is call a local wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian.

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Conservation organisations, including BirdLife Partners around the world are often called by people with an injured animal or an “abandoned” chick, but in most cases these are calls which should have gone elsewhere, and take up vital time that conservationists would otherwise be spending on things like protecting a habitat for many species. You don’t call a dentist if your child has bit their tongue.

Let’s face it, the chick that is found is unlikely to be Critically Endangered; and even if it is a threatened species, and conservationists would love to help, they have different skills.

Know the difference between a “hatchling”, “nestling” and a “fledgling”. If the bird is uninjured, then it may well be a fledgling, meaning it has naturally left the nest (fledged) and has short adult-like feathers but is still being fed by its parents. It might be sitting on the ground or hopping about, but can’t quite fly. However, its parents are probably nearby, collecting food or keeping a watchful eye where you cannot see them. Removing a fledgling from the wild reduces its chances of survival.

So it may be best to back away… Your presence might even be stopping the parents from feeding the chick. If the fledgling is in a dangerous place however, like in a road or about to be pounced on by a pet cat, as a last resort you can move the chick a few metres out of harm’s way, but so it is still in hearing distance of parents. Keep cats in the house until fledglings are flying.

If the bird is a hatchling (eyes not yet open) or nestling (eyes open, some downy feathers and/or tube-like sheaths), and it is healthy (sometimes parents deliberately eject chicks that are ill or dying so they can concentrate on feeding the remaining chicks) then, if you can see an obvious nest that it came from, you should put it back. If not, or if the nest has fallen, you should construct a makeshift nest by hanging a small porous basket filled with dry grass in a tree and placing the chick in there. The parents should then return to care for it. If they don’t return within two hours, or cannot quickly construct a makeshift nest, you should call a local expert wildlife rehabilitator and follow their advice.

“If I pick it up, the parents will smell me and abandon the chick” – for more myths and questions, see below:

·         Helping birds – the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK)

·         Baby birds out of the nest – Mass Audubon

·         “Orphaned baby birds” – The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

·         Help a baby bird that has fallen out of a nest – WikiHow

A swift response

Things are different for one migratory species featured in the Spring Alive project, however. The Common Swift Apus apus needs a high platform from which to take off, so if you see this species on the ground it might not be injured – it may just be stranded. So in this case the best thing to do is pick it up and simply let it fly out of a high window. In this case, a local bird organisation can help you assess the situation. Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica chicks also fly straight from the nest, so should never be found on the ground.

In most cases however, people misidentify a fledgling as a nestling in need of support, or will take away a nestling when they could be placed in their original nets, or a makeshift one. It’s such a common mistake that the Spring Alive teams across Eurasia and Africa will be spreading these messages to teachers, pupils, children and parents, as well as continuing to teach about bird migration and conservation.

We know it is difficult, but you can see that in most cases it is important that you must resist those cute calls.

For more information please visit www.springalive.net

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About Spring Alive

Spring Alive is an international project organised by BirdLife International, a worldwide organisation for the protection of birds. The campaign is designed to help European, Asian and African children, their families, friends and teachers, to understand, engage with, and take action for birds and nature, and to understand the need for international conservation for migratory species. The core component of Spring Alive is the website www.springalive.net with contributions from participants in 55 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa. All citizens, but specifically children and families, are encouraged to observe and record the arrival of 5 migratory bird species each year: White Stork, Barn Swallow, Common Swift, Common Cuckoo and Eurasian Bee-eater.

Funding: The whole project would not be possible without the great support of The Mitsubishi Corporation Fund for Europe and Africa (MCFEA), Spring Alive’s main sponsor. The aims of the MCFEA are to encourage the appreciation and conservation of flora and fauna with an emphasis on endangered species.

Thanks to our competition sponsor Opticron for providing binoculars as prizes.


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.