Nestling or Fledgling? Baby Bird Dos and Don'ts

Baby bird season is upon us! As we know, birds prefer us to keep a distance as they nest and raise their young, so it’s best for us and them if we do! But what if you see a baby bird that is not in its nest? Because they look and behave differently to adult birds, these young birds can sometimes seem like they need a helping hand. They can be quite clumsy, and can seem vulnerable, especially if they are on the ground, and this can cause people to be concerned. But it is important to know when we should intervene and when the adult birds actually have everything under control. Here, we talk about the difference between a nestling and a fledgling and list the dos and don’ts for each, so you’ll know just what to do if you see one. 


If the baby bird is fluffy, downy or has only a few feathers and it is unable to grip with its feet, then it is a nestling. It is not ready to leave the nest yet and will not have travelled far. It has likely fallen out of the nest so search nearby trees and shrubs for the nest and pop them back in if you can. If you can’t find a nest, you can try to wedge an ice cream container with drainage holes poked in the bottom (or similar) in a tree, line it with some leaves and soft materials (though nothing the bird could get tangled in) and place the nestling in there for the parent birds to find. 

Watch from a distance (and hidden if possible) and the parents should come to attend to the young bird. If they do not come back within about an hour, contact a wildlife rescue group for further advice. Contact a wildlife rescue help if you suspect the young bird is sick or injured. 


If the baby bird is largely feathered (usually with a short, stumpy tail) and it can perch (grip a branch with its feet) and hop around, it is a fledgling. It is learning to fly and move around and might be quite clumsy, but it is ready to be out of the nest and doesn’t need help. Its parents are likely nearby and returning to feed it regularly.  If there is a threat, like a dog, contain the threat if possible and simply find a nice safe branch in a tree or shrub and pop the fledgeling up there. Some fledglings like Tawny Frogmouths and Australian Magpies spend a lot of time on the ground and if you do put it on a branch, it may come down to the ground again.  

Again, watch from a distance (and hidden if possible) and the parents should come to attend to the young bird. If they do not come back within about an hour, contact a wildlife rescue group or vet for further advice. Contact a wildlife rescue group or vet if you suspect the young bird is sick or injured. 

In most cases, these small interventions will be all that’s needed to help any baby bird you come across. However, if you suspect that a bird is ill or injured, or you watch from a distance (and hidden if possible) for a significant amount of time and the parents don’t return to look after the baby, then you should take further action.  

Sick or Injured Birds 

Sick or injured birds may appear fluffy and hunched and may have dirty, matted or missing feathers. They may have visible wounds or injuries. Their eyes might be weeping, puffy, or crusty. They may be unable or reluctant to fly, making shallow, rapid breaths, head tilting, limping, not moving when approached or sitting in unusual, open places. Often other birds will also attack an unwell bird. 

If you do find a bird that is sick or injured: 

  1. Ensure the threat to the bird is removed and it isn’t in immediate danger (and keep yourself safe too). 

  2. Handle the bird gently but firmly (and wear gloves wherever possible or use a towel). For small birds, use one hand and hold the bird so its head is between your index and middle fingers. The rest of your hand will wrap about the body. For medium sized birds you will need two hands – one over each wing. Large birds like raptors and owls have large beaks and claws so avoid handling birds of this size (contact wildlife rescue immediately and have someone qualified capture it). 

  3. Put the bird into a well-ventilated box and keep it dark and quiet while you get treatment for it. This reduces the stress and shock for the bird and is the best treatment you can give it. 

  1. Don’t feed the bird or give it water. This could cause the bird to aspirate or delay any treatment it might need. 

  1. Contact your local wildlife rescue group or vet. Depending on resources, they may be able to come and collect the bird themselves directly or will provide you with advice based on the situation you are describing. A vet will not charge you for bringing in wildlife. 

Note that under all state and territory legislations, you must be a qualified and licenced wildlife carer in order to rehabilitate wildlife. Carers are trained and knowledgeable in the care of wildlife, so if you find a sick, injured or baby bird that is not able to be reunited with its parents, you must hand it over to a licenced wildlife rescue group or take it to a vet. 

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