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Photo Guide to Fledglings

There are two terms that describe the different development stages of baby birds: these are 'nestling' and 'fledgling'. When nestling baby birds are found outside of the nest or on the ground, they always need help. When fledgling birds are found outside of the nest or on the ground, they do not need help, unless sick or injured. Fledgling birds are best left alone, or monitored from afar - not being able to fly for a short period is a normal part of their growth and development.

 

Each nesting season, wildlife rescue centres are flooded with fledgling birds that have been removed from the wild unnecessarily by well-meaning people. Their survival rate drops significantly once they have been separated from their parents. It's therefore very important to be certain that a bird is a nestling, not a fledgling, before you take any action for it.
 

This guide is designed to help you tell the difference between nestling and fledgling birds, so that you know when to intervene and seek help from your nearest wildlife rescue centre - and when not to! Please note that any bird or small animal caught by a cat needs urgent treatment from a rescue centre, even if it appears to be unharmed.
 

Nestlings - get help.
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Fledgling - leave alone.

So, what are fledgling birds?

  • Fledglings are juvenile birds who have recently left the nest for the first time, which is a process called 'fledging'. They may spend the first few days out of the nest on the ground or in low branches of trees and hedges with limited flying ability. Their parents will often be close by, and continuing to feed them throughout the day.
     

  • Even though this is a very vulnerable stage in their lives, it is a natural part of the process of becoming independent, and unless they appear to be injured or have been caught by a cat, they do not need help.
     

  • Fledglings are fully feathered, with no bald spots or ‘pin feathers’, which look like thin straws. They are mobile and able to hop and walk around and sometimes fly short distances. 
     

  • If you find a bird and are unsure whether it is a fledgling or a nestling, take a photo and contact your nearest wildlife rescue centres for advice before interfering with it. 
     

  • If you see a fledgling bird in a risky or exposed location, or if there is a cat nearby, try to move it to a safer spot such as a low branch of a tree, or somewhere with lots of coverage from trees and bushes. Make handling as brief as possible and be sure not to move the baby too far away, as its parents will be nearby and continuing to feed it.
     

  • If you have fledgling birds in your garden and are also a cat or dog owner, you might want to consider keeping your pet inside for 1-5 days to allow the fledglings time to learn to fly safely and give them the best chance of survival. Unfortunately, rescue centres will be unable to remove fledglings from your garden simply because you are a dog or a cat owner, as removing healthy animals from the wild is a breach of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. 
     

  • Fledgling birds, particularly smaller species such as song birds, are extremely prone to stress, and picking a fledgling up and handling it too much can be enough to send it into a fatal state of shock. This is why it is best to intervene only when it is absolutely necessary.

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Nestling - get help. 
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Fledgling - leave alone.

What are nestling birds?

  • Nestling birds are baby birds who are not yet ready to leave the nest for a few more weeks, or even just days. They are reliant on their parents for food and warmth.
     

  • If they fall from the nest onto the ground they will quickly die from shock, dehydration, the cold, or are eaten by predators. Their parents are also unlikely to continue feeding them on the ground. They need urgent help from a wildlife rescue centre.
     

  • They can be identified by their closed eyes (if only recently hatched), baldness or bald spots, pin feathers that resemble thin tubes, downy fluff, lack of mobility, gaping mouths, and sometimes a lack of fear of humans, depending on how young they are.
     

  • If you find a nestling on the ground, try to locate the nest and return the bird to its nest. The parents will not ‘smell’ humans on the baby as birds do not use scent in this way. They may get spooked if you make a lot of noise and fuss around their nest, however, so try to place the baby back quickly and quietly.
     

  • If you cannot return a fallen nestling bird to the nest, it's important that you seek help from a wildlife rescue centre ASAP. If you are local to Greenwich or Bexley, you can find our list of recommended rescue contacts here. You can also visit www.helpwildlife.co.uk for a directory of rescue centres across the UK.
     

  • While you look for help for a nestling bird, place the bird in a secure box with holes for ventilation, and provide it with an external source of heat such as a hot water bottle or heat pad wrapped in a towel. Nestlings cannot generate their own warmth so will quickly begin to decline if kept at room temperature. Do not attempt to feed any baby bird - just get expert help as soon as possible. Read more 'do's and don'ts' for orphaned, sick, or unwell wildlife here.

Nestling - get help.
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Fledgling - leave alone.

What else do I need to know?
 

  • Any bird or small animal that has been caught by a cat, regardless of the bird’s age, needs urgent treatment by a wildlife rescue centre, even if there are no visible wounds or injuries. This is because cats can carry bacteria in their mouth that can cause fatal blood poisoning in birds and small animals within 48 hours.
     

  • Unlike many other species of garden birds, swifts, swallows, and house martins typically do not go through a fledgling stage, and leave the nest with full flying ability. If these species are found on the floor at any age, they need help.
     

  • Pigeons also do not typically go through a fledgling stage - when they leave the nest, they are able to fly and look very similar to adult pigeons. Any baby pigeon with downy yellow fluff on it will need help if found on the ground.

Fledgling and Nestling Identification by Species

Browse each slideshow to get to know fledglings and nestlings of different bird species. Hopefully, you will quickly see a pattern - bald spots, pin feathers, gaping mouths, and closed eyes - these are all signs that a baby bird is out of the nest too soon and needs help. Fledglings, on the other hand, have all their feathers, are active and able to hop and run or fly short distances, and may be warier of humans. They have left their nests willingly, as part of their natural development, and don't need rescuing!

Goldfinch

Adult Goldfinch
Adult Goldfinch

It looks completely different from a fledgling! Don’t expect fledgling and adult birds of the same species to look the same. Fledglings will gain their adult colours after their first molt in late summer.

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Nestling Goldfinch - help.
Nestling Goldfinch - help.

This goldfinch is 1-4 days old - far too young to be out of the nest. It will need help from a rescue centre if found on the ground at this stage.

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Nestling Goldfinch - help.
Nestling Goldfinch - help.

This Goldfinch is slightly older, but it is still a nestling, not a fledgling, and is too young to be out of the nest. It needs help if found on the floor.

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Blackbird

Fledgling Blackbird - leave.
Fledgling Blackbird - leave.

This is a fledgling blackbird. He is able to hop around and fly short distances and will soon be independent. If you see him in your garden, leave him alone!

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Nestling Blackbird - help.
Nestling Blackbird - help.

This is a newly hatched blackbird. It will certainly need help from a rescue centre if found on the ground at this age.

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Nestling Blackbirds - help.
Nestling Blackbirds - help.

These blackbirds are slightly older, but they're still nestlings & will need help if found at this age. They don't have any wild instincts yet, so will beg anyone for food.

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Robin

Adult robin
Adult robin

As with many garden bird species, the robin's plumage is completely different as an adult.

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Nestling robin - help.
Nestling robin - help.

A recently hatched robin, needs urgent help if found out of the nest.

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Nestling robin - help.
Nestling robin - help.

Although a little older, this robin is still a nestling - note the pin feathers & lots of fluff. It needs help if found outside of the nest or on the floor.

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Sparrow

Nestling Sparrow - help.
Nestling Sparrow - help.

This sparrow is a nestling or a 'hatchling', meaning it is 1-2 days old. If found on the ground, it will die within hours. It needs to be kept warm until it can be transported to a rescue centre.

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Sparrow Fledgling - leave.
Sparrow Fledgling - leave.

This is a fledgling sparrow, it is normal for it to be out of the nest, with limited flying ability. If you see one in your garden, monitor from afar and keep it safe from cats!

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Pigeon

Adult pigeon
Adult pigeon

An adult pigeon has no yellow fluff, iridescent markings around the neck, and a white cere (the nobbly bit above the beak).

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Nestling pigeon - help.
Nestling pigeon - help.

This is a recently hatched pigeon - note the yellow downy fluff and closed eyes. Needs help if found out of the nest at this age.

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Nestling pigeon - help.
Nestling pigeon - help.

These nestling pigeons also aren't ready to leave the nest. Pigeons don't have a fledgling stage like some birds, and leave the nest fully feathered & flying.

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Starling

Nestling Starling - help.
Nestling Starling - help.

This nestling starling is too young to be out of the nest, and needs help if found at this age.

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Starling Fledgling - leave.
Starling Fledgling - leave.

What a difference a few weeks makes! This fledgling starling has all of its feathers and will be venturing out into the world for the first time. He doesn't need help!

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Crow

Nestling crow - help.
Nestling crow - help.

Pin feathers, mouth gaping - this crow is clearly a nestling, and won't survive without its parents. It needs to go to a wildlife rescue centre.

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Fledgling crows - leave.
Fledgling crows - leave.

These fledgling crows are almost identical to adult crows, except they have blue eyes. They will still be being fed by their parents, but learning to become independent out in the world.

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