With so many people at home this spring and children out of school, many folks are taking advantage of the warmer weather and sunny skies. If you live in a home where there are trees and shrubs, chances are there are bird nests and young ones nearby. Children are quick to notice when something is out of place and it is to be expected that they might be the first ones to discover a baby bird on the ground. They should be educated on how to act if they happen upon one. It will be better for the bird and will be a good homeschool lesson all in one package.
Tell the difference between hatchlings and fledglings
There are two types of baby birds, hatchlings and fledglings. All of them will fall somewhere into these two categories at some point in their lives. Hatchlings are the very youngest baby birds. Their eyes may be closed and instead of feathers, just some fluffy down here and there. Even when their eyes open, hatchlings are totally dependent upon their parents to feed them and keep them warm. Without feathers, they cannot regulate their own body temperature and need warmth from a parent when the spring temperatures drop or when it rains. Fledglings are bright-eyed and have enough feathers that most people familiar with birds can tell what kind they are. Their wings and tails may by stubby and short and they may hop more than they fly, however they are well on their way to adulthood.
Fledglings generally do not need help
Children should be taught never to try and catch or handle a baby bird. Their bones are so small and fragile, they could injure them without meaning to. It could also frighten the bird into moving far away from where the parents left it. That's right, a fledgling is still under the parent's care and they still make sure that it is fed as it learns to fend for itself. Unless it is obviously injured, let nature take care of itself. Chances are, the bird will be fine. Children have a natural instinct to want to help, especially if something looks sad, abandoned and lonely. Fledglings appear to be abandoned, however in 99% of the cases the parents are nearby and will return to feed it. As the little bird grows and is physically able to fly better, the time between parental visits will lengthen to encourage the offspring to fend for itself. I've seen nearly grown juveniles hopping behind the parents demanding food, while the parents pointedly ignore the teenager so it will learn to forage itself. Children should be aware of how the system works before they actually have the experience. You can watch from a safe distance and even encourage your child to try and identify the species as a learning exercise.
Hatchlings cannot survive outside the nest
A hatchling, is a different problem. These babies are totally helpless and if one is discovered on the ground, children should tell an adult. It is simply not true that the parent bird will abandon a baby if they have been touched by a human. Birds have a poor sense of smell but excellent eyesight. However, children shouldn't attempt to return the hatchling to its nest. This is a job for an adult. Birds can carry a number of things like salmonella, trichomoniasis, mites and lice so children shouldn't handle them and adults only as little as possible, then wash their hands well with soap and warm water, unless they wear gloves. If a hatchling is on the ground and the nest destroyed by a storm or other accident, call a wildlife rehabber to come and take it. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal for the public to capture, hunt, kill or sell migratory birds, so contact someone who is a designated rehabber. Baby birds have specific nutritional requirements and they will know what and how to feed it. Put it in a box with some fluffed up paper towels and lightly cover it until help arrives. Just about every area has a certified wildlife rehabber. There is an organization called the National Wildlife Rehabilitator's Association and they can assist you in finding someone local who will come and take the baby to a safe place where it will be looked after until it is ready to be on its own. If you find an injured fledgling, do the same thing.
Teach children to respect and leave wildlife alone
Having this discussion with your children this spring is important if they play outside. It gives them a sense of responsibility and knowledge of what to do. This should be applied to all wildlife. They could happen upon baby squirrels or rabbits as well. Use the same criteria. If the baby is helpless and not in a nest or burrow, call an adult. If it looks like a miniature version of the adult and seems uninjured, leave it be. Wild animals have been taking care of themselves since the beginning of time and more often than not, humans just get in the way.