Leave baby birds alone! Why 'rescuing' them isn't always the answer...
As spring finally arrives and with it, lots of new baby birds, it’s time to talk about some misconceptions. People love baby animals (when we aren't eating them by the billions, that is) so every year, compassionate and well-intentioned animal lovers sap much needed funds from wildlife rescuers (like local hero Debbie Doolittle, for example) by picking up what they believe are abandoned baby birds and 'rescuing' them. These misguided rescues can also be seriously detrimental to the birds themselves.
A common myth is that touching a fledgling bird will result in her parents recognising your scent and abandoning her, but that isn't true. So if you find a baby bird on the ground and she is clearly too young to be out of the nest, put her back. Do not take her to a rescuer, and absolutely do not attempt to raise her yourself.
But how will you know if the bird is too young to be out of the nest? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the first thing to do is figure out whether the bird is a nestling or a fledgling:
Most of the baby birds people find are fledglings. These are young birds that have just left the nest, and can’t fly yet, but are still under the care of their parents, and do not need our help. Fledglings are feathered and capable of hopping or flitting, with toes that can tightly grip your finger or a twig. These youngsters are generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail. [...] Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors. [Note: Do not move the fledgling far, however: the parents need to be able to find them again.] The parents may be attending to four or five young scattered in different directions, but they will return to care for the one you have found. You can watch from a distance to make sure the parents are returning to care for the fledgling.
If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling. If so, the nest is almost certainly nearby. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans. (More info here!)
If you cannot find the nest, however, or the bird is injured, it may be time to call a rescuer.
This is also a great time to consider keeping your cats indoors if they aren't normally. Though they may be beloved members of our families, cats are particularly dangerous to wildlife during the breeding season, when fledgling baby birds spend time on the ground. A bell on their collar is helpful, but as cats are incredibly talented hunters they generally learn to adjust to them; moreover, the tinkling of a bell is a useless warning to a baby bird who cannot yet fly.
Finally, it’s worth noting that a lack of a sense of smell does not mean that birds are indifferent to the presence of humans. If you do find a nest, leave it alone! While your scent certainly won’t be an issue, continued interference can be. Some birds will abandon their nests if they feel threatened.