Leaving the nest: 'Orphaned' birds don't need a helping hand

Fledglings on the ground often aren't in danger and are just learning to fly

Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2007

FAIRBANKS - If you can't barf up a bug every 20 or 30 minutes, you can't take care of a baby bird.

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Though they try to put it in more politically correct terms, that's the message the folks at the Alaska Bird Observatory want to get out to people at this time of year as young birds leave the nest.

"We're just not meant to raise birds," said ornithologist Susan Sharbaugh at the ABO. "They need food every 20 or 30 minutes from dawn to dusk for two weeks."

Every year at this time, the bird observatory starts fielding calls from area residents who have "found" a baby bird. Many people speculate the birds have been orphaned and take them inside to care for them, said Sharbaugh.

Not only is that illegal, it's a death knell for the bird, no matter how incapacitated and fragile the birds may appear.

"As hard as we try and as much as we want them to survive, we can't meet their demands," Sharbaugh said. "As soon as you take them away, you're doing more danger to them than good."

In most cases the birds have not been abandoned. Rather, they are learning how to fly or "fledging." Because they haven't yet fully developed their flying skills and feathers, they often end up on the ground. Chances are the parents will return to feed and check on the bird.

"Nine times out of 10, the adults are in range and hoping you don't touch them," Sharbaugh said, adding that parent birds will still care for their young after they leave the nest.

The calls have already started coming in from local residents who have found nests with baby birds in their flower beds, lawns, gardens, shrubs and brush and are wondering what to do them. In another week or so as birds fledge and people find squawking birds on their lawns, the calls will increase, Sharbaugh said.

Whether it's a nest of birds or a fledgling, Sharbaugh offers the same advice: "Leave 'em alone."

If the bird is in imminent danger of being killed, such as in the middle of a road or driveway, the best thing to do is pick it up and move it to a safer location like a nearby tree branch, said Sharbaugh. Fledglings typically look "pretty dopey" and don't fly very well when they leave the nest, but their fragile looks can be deceiving, she said.

"They're more resilient than they look," Sharbaugh said.

It's during fledging that most of the mortality of young birds occurs.

"That's part of the system," she said.

Many people find nests in the spring when they are doing yard work, said Sharbaugh. There are several kinds of birds that nest on the ground or in shrubs, she said.

Kim and Erik Gutgesell found that out first-hand last week when an equipment operator excavating around their west Fairbanks home came upon a nest full of dark-eyed juncos, one of the ground nesters Sharbaugh was talking about.

"We had a dozer operating and he was pushing some of the piles of topsoil away when two juncos started flying around his head attacking him," said Kim Gutgesell. "He stopped, got out and looked and there was a junco nest in front of the blade."

The operator, Cody Crane of M&M Constructors, picked up the nest and moved it to a brush pile in the woods.

"I thought that was pretty nice," said Kim Gutgesell. "Most dirt guys I know wouldn't care about a bunch of baby birds."

For more information on "orphaned" baby birds, go to ABO's Web site www.alaskabird.org and click on the link, "I found a baby bird."

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