Bird Welfare

HELP! There’s a baby bird on the ground

It’s that time of year again; you’re out in your garden or taking an early morning woodland walk and you spot a young bird on the ground. Your parental instincts kick in and your first thought is to rush over to the helpless animal and see if it’s okay. But wait ! Do we need to get involved?

The bird nesting season in the UK is officially from 1st of March to 31st July, during this period adults will be caring for their eggs and chicks.

Birds go through five stages of development:

hatchling – chicks who are undeveloped and unable to move around. They appear naked with some fine down, eyes closed and rely solely on their parents for food and warmth.

nestling – chicks are a few days old, their eyes are open, and their small bodies are covered in down. You may also be able to see the development of flight feathers, but the young will still solely rely on their parents and remain in the nest. Nesting not only occurs high up in trees but in lowland shrub, farmland, heathland or, along cliffsides. You will find a Skylarks nest in arable fields while a Nightjar lays its eggs on bare ground. Ground nested chicks should not be mistaken for orphaned young.

fledgling/juvenile – once the chicks have all or most of their flight feathers and the wing muscles are developed they will begin to explore their environment. The young birds are only able to take short flights and commonly spend this time on the ground. Usually, the parent is nearby feeding their young and protecting it against potential predators.

subadult and adult.

There’s a young bird on the ground …

It is at the stage of fledgling that many well-meaning people spot young birds on the ground and become concerned that the bird has fallen out of its nest or has been orphaned. However, unless the bird is very young (hatchling or nestling), injured or abandoned it should be left alone.

Each year the RSPCA rehabilitates over a thousand birds, most of which were not orphaned but fledging and would have had a better upbringing in the wild.

I think it’s a hatchling – what should  I do?

  • Does the chick only have down feathers with potentially some developing flight feathers ? If so it may be a hatchling.
  • In some instances, the adult will eject a chick from the nest If they sense the chick may be dying, abnormal or unwell, so they can focus on looking after the healthy chicks.
  • If a healthy chick has fallen from the nest you may be able to put it back, but only if you are certain which nest the hatchling fell from.
  • In the case of an injured or orphaned chick, or a healthy chick that has not been able to be returned to its nest it will become dependent on humans for its survival and should be passed on to the relevant expert.
  • Contact the relevant organisation and If you can, place the bird into a dark warm box with minimal handling. In the case of waterfowl or Birds of Prey wait for relevant advice before intervening.

I think it’s a fledgling – what should  I do?

  • Observe from a distance. Normally you will find that the bird is able to travel around, or its parents will return to feed it.
  • Don’t touch the bird, unless you are certain that it needs help. Handling can cause a lot of stress and you may injure the bird in the process, or even end up being attacked by a protective parent.
  • Don’t return the bird to a nest, it is usually where it is meant to be, especially if it’s a ground-nesting bird. The parent usually returns, and there is always the possibility that you may end up placing the chick into the wrong nest.
  • If the fledgling is in immediate danger, move the bird to a safe place which is within hearing distance of the original spot.
  • If you are certain the bird is injured or orphaned contact the relevant expert (see below) and if you can, carefully place the bird in a dark warm box with minimal handling. In the case of Waterfowl or Birds of Prey wait for relevant advice before intervening.

Who should I contact?

For injured or orphaned fledglings/hatchlings please contact the RSPCA (England and Wales), SSPCA (Scotland) or, USPCA (Northern Ireland). You will be given the relevant advice as to how to proceed with the injured wildlife.

  • RSPCA: 0300 1234999
  • SSPCA: 03000 999 999
  • USPCA: 028 3025 1000

Once contacted they may recommend you take it to your local vet or a local wildlife rehabilitator or independent rescue.

For local independent rescues visit

Further Reading