Nature News: It’s baby bird season at the Center for Wildlife

published week of June 1, 2021 in the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily, the Portsmouth Herald and other Seacoast Media Group print and digital sources.

This spring a robin built a nest in the dense lower branches of a fir tree next to our house.  It started sitting on eggs back in April.  Even though the nest was visible from the window it was so well camoflaged we didn’t actually notice it until it was built and the robin was sitting in it.  My partner, a wildlife photographer, wanted to try to take pictures of the nestlings but didn’t want to disturb the robin – there is always that possibility that a bird will abandon a nest following too much disturbance.  So we waited, perhaps  3-4 weeks before trying, but when we went out with the camera, the robins were gone. We’ll never know whether a predator got into the nest (it’s still intact and looks undisturbed so we hope not) or whether the babies fledged and left. But, after a quick tutorial on baby birds while visiting the Center for Wildlife’s (CFW) new facility in Cape Neddick last week I’m hopeful that the babies are out there now.

That bright orange mouth outlined by the rubbery yellow beak
make a perfect target for the parents when feeding their young. sue pike photo

This is baby animal season-the CFW has been receiving a wide variety of baby animals every day, from squirrels to opossums to countless baby birds.  The new facility gives the CFW the ability to house all these stressed and injured animals in comfortable, safe conditions and give them the state-of-the-art medical care they might need to survive and return to the wild.  According to executive director Kristen Lamb the best way to help spring babies is to protect their environment.  “1. Save tree work and removal for the colder months when wildlife are not nesting with young.  2. Keep an eye out after wind storms for young that have fallen from the nest.  3. Remember that not all young found are always abandoned, fledgling birds and other animals often spend time away from mom once they have reached a stage when they are almost ready to leave their nest or home.  4.  When possible, it is beneficial for wildlife when our domestic cats are kept indoors (especially in the spring).”  The advice about tree work hit home-they currently have some juvenile crows that were displaced from their nest during  tree work.  

Baby birds stay with their own–in this case robins–so that they will
not imprint on other species -sue pike photo

When a lone baby bird is brought to the CFW, as soon as it is able it is placed with others of the same species so that it can get to know what it should look like and learn the language of its species.  This is critical to the care of these youngsters-they can’t imprint on humans, or any other species and be able to function independently in the wild, they need to be surrounded by their own species.  This is one of the many reasons why, if you find an abandoned baby animal (first observe it for a while to make sure it is truly abandoned-most baby birds that people find are fledglings, they can’t fly well but probably have a parent close by feeding and protecting them), you should bring it to a wildlife rehabilitation center. Other reasons to not raise a baby bird yourself: It is illegal to raise any wild bird in captivity unless you have the proper licenses.

Baby robins waiting for their every 20 minute feeding. Sue Pike photo

In addition, baby birds have specialized diets tailored to who they are -insectivore or seed eater- and nestlings need to be fed every 15-20 minutes, from sunrise to sundown. One study found that robin parents made feeding trips back and forth to the nest over 400 times in one day! 

Empty robins’ nest! We’re hoping the nestlings fledged. -sue pike photo

I asked Kristen whether it was plausible that the baby robins in the tree next to our house could have fledged (left the nest after acquiring enough feathers) and left so quickly.  She said certainly, American robins will often have 2 broods per summer with the total time from laying the egg to fledglings leaving the nest less than a month. Robins are super quick to rear their young and get them out of the nest.  Most birds are. Nests are dangerous places to be-they are predator magnets.  If I were a raccoon or a weasel I would spend a good part of my time in the spring looking for nests full of appetizing little nestlings.  

So, this time of year, watch for baby birds out on their own, but, if you find one, pay attention to what it is doing, back away and watch from a distance.  There is a good chance a parent is waiting nearby for you to leave and that the baby is really a teenager, out of the nest, hopping around and building up its flight muscles, in no need of rescue.