This is a question often askeded by people who, upon seeing a solitary bird, take it with them, thinking it needs human help. However, in most cases, that's not the case. Most often, birds found in spring and summer are young birds that have just left the nest and are weak or almost unable to fly. You can recognize a young bird, often called a fledgling, by its short tail, as it often has underdeveloped tail feathers, and by the gape flanges – yellowish swellings at the base of the beak.
In the picture on the left, you can see the beak of a young bird, a fledgling, with gape flanges (Black Redstart).
On the right, you can see the head of an older bird, which no longer has gape flanges at the base of the beak.
A thin, long beak indicates that it is an insectivorous bird.
Birds that feed on seeds and grains, known as granivores, have short and stout beaks, like the well-known sparrows – in the picture, an adult female sparrow.
Even from a distance, you can tell that the bird, here an insectivorous Black Redstart, is young, recently left the nest, and is still being fed by its parents.
Many bird species, such as blackbirds, fieldfares, jackdaws, magpies, black-hooded crows, kestrels, owls, leave their nests before they are capable of full flight. This is a natural part of their maturation cycle. These are known as fledglings – their flight feathers and tail feathers are not yet sufficiently developed, but the birds are already capable of living outside the nest. However, they are not left to fend for themselves; their parents continue to care for them and bring them food. Fledglings often hide in the grass, in bushes, and sometimes perch on tree branches, but not in a group like in the nest, rather individually, dispersed, with each sibling in a different place. This is beneficial for their survival. Even if a predator were to spot them, there is a good chance not all of the young birds would be caught, as might happen if they were together in the nest.
Fledgling of fieldfares are waiting for their parents - one of the siblings is perched on a tree branch, and the other is on the ground in the grass.
That's why when walking through a park or garden, you may see a single bird that appears to be an orphan. In reality, it is waiting for its parents to arrive so it can start calling and asking for food. If you have the patience to observe from a distance for a while, you'll notice that the bird's parents haven't forgotten about their young. They come to each one individually with their beaks full of food, feed them, and also show them how to find food. They provide warnings about dangers and indicate what is risky. This is something that a human cannot teach a bird taken from its natural environment. Therefore, if you come across such a fledgling, leave it alone; do not take it with you, as it doesn't need our help. However, if you've already taken a fledgling home out of ignorance and concern, return it as soon as possible to the place where it was found. The bird's parents will surely accept it because birds do not have a sense of smell that would allow them to detect the scent of human hands. Similarly, if a dog brings you a caught bird, examine it carefully. If its wings and legs are not injured, take the bird back to where it was presumably caught as soon as possible (up to one hour) and leave it on the ground under the cover of a bush or other shrubs.
When a young bird, like this juvenile blackbird, is found near a road or in a dangerous place, you should either shoo it into further parts of a lawn or bushes or gently pick it up and place it on a branch of a shrub away from the road.
If you believe that a bird is in a dangerous location, such as on the street, sidewalk, or in an area where dogs or children play, you can move it to a safer place. Place it in some bushes or on a tree branch higher up. The parents will likely find it, possibly observing the entire situation from a distance, and after some time, they will start calling. A chick will also make sounds to call its parents and indicate its location if it waits for them for a while.
This young oriol was most likely unnecessarily taken from its natural environment. Young oriols leave the nest before they can fly and are fed by their parents in the tree branches. Sometimes a fledgling may fall to the ground, not harming itself, and may hop around on the ground. You can help it by placing it as high as possible on a tree branch. If it's taken and raised in captivity by a human, it has a lower chance of survival in the wild.
If you find a not fully feathered chick, look for the nest it might have fallen from, and if possible, gently place the chick back into the nest. The adult birds will not reject it but prioritize feeding it. A more challenging situation can be a nest with small chicks that, for some reason, detached from a building's wall, fell from a tree, etc. If the nest is not severely damaged, try to put it back in the same location or nearby. The adult birds should find it and feed the young. Keep an eye on whether the adults resume feeding.
This also applies to the nests of swallows. If there is access to the place where the nest fell, you can try to create a substitute nest from a small container or box similar in size to the original nest. Attach it (e.g., with a nail or appropriate glue) where the original nest was or as close to that location as possible. Then, put the remains of the old nest with the chicks into the new one. There is a chance that the adults will accept it and continue to care for the chicks. However, you should observe for an extended period to see if the parents have resumed regular feeding. If the adult birds do not accept this change, the chicks will need human help.
Only injured and unfeathered birds should be taken under human care. This includes situations where the nest has not been found or there is no possibility to return the chick to the nest, when adult birds did not resume feeding after human intervention, and when it is known that the parents of the young, helpless bird are no longer alive.
The situation with found swifts is also special. A swift found on the ground usually needs human help. It is often an injured adult bird or a young one that has left the nest too early and cannot yet fly. Such a young bird on the ground will not be fed by its parents, so it relies on human assistance.
In the case you find an adult swift or a young one with fully grown flight feathers, you should check if the bird is not injured. If there are no visible injuries, you should test whether the bird's fall was due to a temporary indisposition resulting from weakness, disorientation, or collision with an obstacle, or whether it is unable to fly for a more extended period. To do this, gently place the swift on an open, elevated palm and wait to see if it attempts to fly. There's no need to throw the bird into the air. If the swift doesn't take off or only flies a short distance and falls again, it should be taken into warm and quite place. It's good to weigh the bird with a scale accurate to 1 gram – the minimum weight for an adult swift is 41 grams. You should give the swift water and feed it (see the section Special Care Requirements for Certain Species), and after some time (several hours or overnight), attempt to release it again. If the swift still doesn't fly away, it will be necessary to transfer it to specialized care – if possible, to a rescue center or an experienced individual, as swifts are particularly challenging to care for. People who don't have the means to quickly transfer the swift to a specialized facility and choose to provide care themselves should carefully follow the guidelines on our website. Specific instructions for caring for swifts are provided in the section "Swifts" in the part Special Care Requirements for Certain Species.
The first and most important step when finding a young bird is to ensure it has the right temperature. Chicks acquire the ability to maintain a high body temperature (about 40o°C in birds) around the 7th day of life. Featherless chicks can't regulate their body temperature, so even if they are fed, they will become weak without proper heating. You can immediately start warming the bird in your hands and then place it in a small cardboard box lined with woolen or polar fabric (a fabric from which threads won't unravel, so the bird won't entangle its legs). Before placing the unfeathered chick in the box, you can partially tuck it into a lightly warmed glove or sock. Put the box-nest in a warm place, near a bottle with warm water or under a lamp with a low-wattage bulb (the distance from the bulb to the nest should be about 20-30 cm), and hang a wet towel next to it to humidify the air close to the chick. The nest should be warm, not hot, at a temperature of around 35o°C (for details, refer to "Care for a Nestling and a Juvenile Bird").
The next step is to provide the bird with lukewarm water to drink (see "Care for a Nestling and a Juvenile Bird").
If the bird is injured, has external injuries, or appears to be sick, it's essential to take it to a veterinarian, preferably one with experience in treating birds. In the case of a damaged wing, it's a good idea to place the bird in a relatively small box as soon as possible to prevent it from moving its wings and transport it to a veterinary clinic. If you feel capable, you can immobilize the broken wing during transport, especially if the bird is agitated. To do this, wrap the wing and body naturally with a thicker bandage, making sure the wing is securely attached to the body, but be careful not to squeeze the bird tightly. If there is an open wound at the same time, you should protect it with a sterile gauze before bandaging. This is only a temporary solution, and the proper dressing should be done by an experienced person because the correct immobilization of a broken wing or leg determines whether the bird can regain its mobility.
A wounded bird should be kept and transported in a small cardboard box with air holes. The box should be big enough for the bird to fit comfortably but prevent it from moving too much, spreading its wings, or jumping. Consultation with a veterinarian is also necessary when a bird has been injured by a cat, even if the injuries look relatively harmless. The saliva of a cat contains microorganisms that, once inside the bird's body, can lead to its death within a few days. A bird injured by a cat needs to receive the appropriate antibiotic as soon as possible.
Young birds that cannot fly proficiently are often preyed upon by cats. Even minor wounds inflicted by a cat are deadly for birds. In the case of this young black redstart injured by a cat, its life was saved by quick application of antibiotics, and its mobility was restored thanks to a well-applied bandage by a veterinarian and additional pharmacological treatment.
Birds that are shocked after colliding with a hard surface should be placed in a covered cardboard box with ventilation holes and kept in a warm, quiet place (do not overheat!). If the strike wasn't too severe, the bird may recover after several hours of rest and, if necessary, hydration, and can be released back into the wild. Sometimes, it may take a day or two to fully regain its strength, and during that time, it should be fed (see "Care for a Nestling and a Juvenile Bird"). If the bird is paralyzed, a visit to a veterinarian is necessary to assess the chances of recovery and applies appropriate medications.
Attention: It is legally prohibited to remove healthy, uninjured wild birds from their natural environment!
If, after considering all circumstances, you believe that the found bird requires human help, take it as soon as possible to a specialized facility, a bird sanctuary, where it will receive professional care and be properly prepared for its return to the wild. Unfortunately, such facilities are scarce in Poland, but every effort should be made to ensure that the bird in need is placed in one of them. The addresses of institutions that can provide assistance and advice can be found in the section "Bird hospitals and rehabilitation centres".
The advice provided on our website is only a guideline on how to handle a found bird until it can be handed over to specialists. Keeping birds by individuals without the proper authorization is prohibited.
If you are unsure about the species of the found bird, take a photo of it (even with your phone) and send it by email with a request for species identification to the following address: email@example.com.
In case of urgent situations, call the provided contact phone number on the website and send a photo via MMS. For advice on what and how to feed a specific bird, you can reach out to individuals or centers dedicated to raising wild birds:
Addresses of other centers can be found on our website:
Author: Ewa Szumakowicz
Consultation: Kazimierz Walasz
Photos: Ewa Szumakowicz
I would like to thank Mrs. Zofia Brzozowska for reviewing the text and for the valuable feedback, as well as everyone who contributed with their comments. Many of these suggestions have been incorporated into the content. However, the responsibility for the final content and form of the text rests with me as the author of this work