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Baby Screech Owls

You found a bird! Now what?

During nesting season, we receive multiple calls from well-meaning members of our community about what to do when finding a wild baby bird on the ground that fell or flew out of the nest. This is a common occurrence when babies are learning to fly, storms  roll through our area, nests become damaged in tree trimming, or natural predators attack a nest.

Here are some pointers to help steer you in the right direction if you find a wild baby bird and aren’t sure what to do or know if it is injured and needs help.

Let’s start with debunking a persistent myth:

If you touch a wild baby bird, the mom will smell the human scent on her baby and reject it.

This is not true. Many bird species cannot smell or have very poor olfactory senses and will never know if you touched it or not. What they all have, however, is an incredible parental drive to take care of their babies, so much that they will put themselves in danger to care for them out of the nest.
Next, to rescue or not to rescue depends on a few important variables. First, how old is the baby bird?
Nestlings are naked, fluffy down feathers, or in pin feathers, which are little quills that are the beginnings of feathers. They cannot fly yet. Sometimes baby birds get overeager when feeding and fall or kick one another out of the nest. Storms and predators can also cause baby birds to find themselves outside of their cozy nest.
Fledglings are mostly feathered, often with short wings and a tail. They hop from branch to branch, often leave the nest and are still being fed by the parent birds. Fledglings may overestimate their skills and end up on the ground, but are still under the parents’ watchful eye.

From nestling to fledgling can actually be quite fast. Falcons (kestrels) and owls take only about eight weeks until they can fly. Vultures nest on the ground and their young are often mistaken for having fallen out of the nest and taken into rehabbers. Unfortunately, they are one of the hardest birds to raise without imprinting and often have to remain as education ambassadors instead of being returned to the wild. They also require special licensing.

If you find a bird on the ground, the first step is to always ensure that baby bird is not in imminent danger. Secure dogs, cats, kids, or any curious farm animals that might accidentally step too close. Returning a nestling to the nest is the number one option wherever possible. If you can, identify the nest it came from and deposit the baby bird with its clutchmates. Bird moms and dads are the best equipped to raise the baby bird, and they will take it back, even if they see you return it to the nest.

When to Take a Baby Bird to a Rehabber

If the baby bird looks injured with a droopy wing or some other form of visible ailment, it’s time to locate your nearest licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Also, if you have a potentially dangerous situation, such as a fledgling in an area with high traffic (which might be a judgment call), or if you can’t locate the nest to return the nestling, these would be other cases to contact a rehabber. It is always important to remember not to endanger yourself in this process. Use sound judgement and caution when attempting to retrieve an injured animal. If you are not comfortable in your ability to rescue the animal, call the TWRA at 615-781-6500.

When taking the bird to wildlife rehabber, place it in a box, like a cardboard box or a pet carrier, with a cover and possibly some padding, like an old towel or washcloth, to help it grip. It is important to make sure the box is large enough to accommodate the bird, but do the best you can. If you are unsure what to do, contact your nearest rehab for further instructions. Keep the box away from children and pets by putting it in a dark and quiet place until it can be addressed by a rehabilitator. This will help reduce the probability it will be flooded with stress hormones and offer it a better chance for survival.

If you are tempted to raise the baby bird yourself, our advice is don't! Besides the fact that this is a violation of both state and federal law, keeping wildlife without knowing how to care for them is cruel to the animal you are trying to save. The dietary needs of wild baby raptors varies greatly from species to species, from protein requirements to other important vitamins and minerals. They cannot eat bread, milk, lunch meat, pet food, bird seed or whatever else you have in the fridge. They require around the clock care with specialized treatment, and many young raptors die in the hands of well-intentioned but inexperienced humans.


Wildlife rehabilitators take great care not to imprint baby wild animals. Imprinting means acclimating the animal the humans, so that when they are released, they have reduced fear of humans and, in some cases, domestic animals. Doing so means almost certain death. Even if you nurse the baby and are able to wean it to eat food on its own, you do not see what happens when it goes back into the wild and still sees people as a source of food. Imprinted raptors can become aggressive with humans after release, creating another problem that could end the life of the raptor. We know you want to do a good thing by taking care of an injured animal. It makes humans feel good to be part of the story we can see, but we don’t think about the harm that we caused the animal in not only not being able to teach it to survive like mom and dad did, but setting it up for failure by seeking the wrong sources for food and security.

To find the nearest Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator near you, click here to go to the TWRA webpage:

TWRA Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators
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