Can I keep him?

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

American Robin fledglingFor five years, I was the ZooCamp ( director at the Oakland Zoo, a fantastic camp serving preschool to high school and offering campers a week of nature activities, animal observations, hands-on learning and fun. Along with our strategically planned activities always came those unplanned teaching moments that only nature can offer.

Like the time a whole group of kids stepped on a beehive. But we won’t go into that...

Let’s talk about the time that a bunch of campers found a baby bird on the ground under a tree during lunch time explorations. In they came, running and shouting about a lost and hurt and abandoned and sad and lonely and ABOUT TO DIE baby bird. Luckily, my camp staff was astoundingly educated and after observing the baby, found it to be a robin fledgling, in the middle of his flight training. The campers were directed to step way back and the staff created a barrier around the baby. The baby hopped about for a while. We observed the concerned parents squawking from the tree. Finally, down came mom and she hopped along with her baby, trying to teach him the ins and outs of flight.

The next day, baby bird was still there. And the next. And the next. The ZooCampers watched from a distance. Amazingly, the very next morning, a few staff and campers were able to witness our baby bird friend hop hop hop then fly off to a branch. Our notion to leave the baby bird and protect the area while he fledged was spot on. Hooray for nature knowledge and educational opportunities!

If you find a baby bird on the ground, ask yourself these questions:


1. Is the baby a FLEDGLING? Does if have feathers yet?

Feathered baby birds are fledglings and are likely to be in their flight training stage. Fledglings will normally jump or fall out of their nest. It may take a number of days for the mother to feed her baby on the ground and teach him to fly. The parents are probably around watching you and waiting for everyone to leave so they can return to their baby and their training job.

You can help by keeping pets and people away from the area and leaving the baby bird alone.

2. Is the baby a NESTLING? Is the baby mostly naked?
Nestlings stay in the nest and are warmed by and fed by the parents. A nestling out of the nest usually means it was pushed or fell. Sometimes the whole nest is on the ground, either in one piece or destroyed. Being pushed by a stronger sibling is a natural, survival of the fittest, bird behavior, by the way.

You can help by putting the baby bird back in the nest. It is not true that the mother will not accept the baby if they smell like stinky humans. They can’t smell very well. You should wash up after you touch the bird, however.

If the nest is down, you can place it in a strawberry basket, or another kind of basket, as long as there are spaces or holes for water drainage. Then wire it up in the tree as close to the original nest site as possible.

If the nest is destroyed, you can create one from a plastic butter tub or strawberry basket. If you use a tub, make holes in the bottom, line it with paper towels and place securely in tree. Do not line with collected feathers or grass, as these can get cold and wet. Always place nest out of direct sunlight and in a wind-protected spot.

Warm the babies in your hand before placing them in nest. You can watch the action from a far away spot with binoculars. It may take a while for the parents to trust the situation, but it is likely that you have just saved the day!

3. Are you sure the parents are GONE?

IF this is the case, your job is to keep the baby bird warm until you get to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center.

Keep him warm and safe by putting him in a small box with holes in the lid. Baby birds like things dark and quiet. Warm him by putting the box on a very LOW heat pad or hot water bottle (NOT TOO HOT).

Do not give the baby bird any liquids or try to feed him. Do not sing to him, chirp to him or play him classical music. Keep him in his warm, dark box and get him to a specialist.

4. Where should I take the baby bird that DOES need a rescue?

One excellent place is Sulphur Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Hayward.: (
(510) 881-6747
1801 D Street, Hayward

Hours: 10:00 am to 4:30 pm

5. Can I keep him?

Nope. Sorry.

Amy Gotliffe is Conservation Manager at The Oakland Zoo.