Knowing the age of baby birds is key to helping them – Daily Press

There is nothing more helpless than a baby bird on the ground. But should we help him or leave him alone? Almost all of the baby birds you see on the ground are healthy baby birds that should be left alone.

The reproductive cycle of most small songbirds is similar. The male defends a territory by singing and chasing rivals. Females settle in the best territory and mate with the owner. Males often build the beginnings of several nests as suggestions, but it is the female who does most of the collecting and weaving of nest material. All the while, the male follows her carefully to make sure she is never alone with any of her neighbours.

After a week or two of nest building, females lay an egg each morning until the clutch is complete, usually 4–6 eggs, and stay away from the nest to avoid attracting attention. With the last egg laid, she begins to incubate them all, the delay ensuring that no egg gets ahead and hatches prematurely.

After 2-3 weeks of incubation, the embryos coordinate their hatching with small noises, and the parents take the broken shells away and place them in your garden. For a few days, the naked chicks need to be brooded, which is equivalent to incubation, and they receive very little food. But once they have enough feathers to keep warm, both parents begin frantic deliveries of protein-rich insects every 10 minutes for 14 hours a day. This schedule is why trying to raise a bird in the nest yourself is doomed to failure, unless you are a professional or a bird.

After just 2-3 weeks of feeding, the tiny pink baby birds are now heavier than their parents and of normal size, except for their slowly growing wing and tail feathers. It is so dangerous to stay in a nest, where cats, snakes or blue jays will eventually find them, that the baby birds jump to the ground before they can fly.

The parents, especially the males, continue to feed these chicks furiously on the following days – this is when you usually encounter them in your garden. By bringing healthy but flightless baby birds indoors to “rescue” them, you are signing their death warrant. The parents will search for them for an hour or two, then follow the rest of the brood to other yards and move on with their lives. If you stand near a youngster in your driveway to look for the parents, they will stay away until you leave and you will mistakenly conclude that the youngster is abandoned. It takes more discipline than most people possess, but you should almost always leave the baby birds alone.

If you find a baby bird with open eyes and feathers, it’s a baby bird, so please keep it out of traffic, put your pets inside and leave. If you find a baby bird – featherless with eyes that can’t open – that fell from a nest during a windstorm, it’s probably already dying of hypothermia. Place it in a warm cloth and call a local vet. The best way to help baby birds is to donate to professional networks equipped to save many, such as The Wildlife Center of Virginia (www.WildlifeCenter.org) or The Richmond Wildlife Center (www.richmondwildlifecenter.org). DIY baby bird rescue is illegal, unethical and doomed to failure.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Department of Biology at the College of William & Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. For local birding opportunities, visit http://williamsburgbirdclub.org/

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