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As we reach the peak of summer, it will not be long until we see young birds taking their first unsteady flaps from their home nest. As mentioned last week, some early nesters such as Black-capped Chickadees have already done so. Young birds still in the nest are called “nestlings”, and those old enough to leave (or fledge) the nest are known as “fledglings”. The distinction between the two is important, especially when a concerned do-gooder may be tempted to stage a rescue of a baby bird on the ground. A nestling may need help, but a fledgling often does not.

Above Left: An adult male Magnolia Warbler, banded this week – potentially the father of: Right: Four Magnolia Warbler nestlings, covered in dark pin feathers. This nest was first found as eggs during our first MAPS round this year, located near one of our net lanes. To avoid disrupting the busy parents, we did not run that particular net until the young warblers left the nest this week.

After finding a baby bird out of its nest, first we must identify whether it is a nestling or a fledgling. Nestlings grow relatively quickly. Over the course of a week and a half, Magnolia Warbler nestlings go from bald and barely able to hold their heads up, to fluffy with down and demanding eaters, to outgrowing the nest itself. Young birds will grow their feathers in almost all at once. A nestling may look spiky with pin feathers, which are thin shafts that contain growing feathers. Nestlings do not have great mobility, if any. A grounded nestling who still has visible skin or pin feathers on its body will need help getting back into its nest. Look for clumps of twigs or grass directly above or beside the fallen nestling. Some birds, like Ovenbirds and Canada Warblers, nest on the ground. If the nest is intact, gently scoop the nestling into your palm and deposit back into the nest. Leave the area and wait to see if the parents come back, as they are usually never too far away. If there is reasonable evidence of the nest being abandoned or destroyed, contact a wildlife rescue organization for further instruction before doing anything else. The closest wildlife rehabilitation centre to Slave Lake is WILDNorth in Edmonton.

Red-eyed vireo fledgling, fluffy with down and pin feathers still visible in the shoulder of the wing

Above: A fledgling Red-eyed Vireo from 2019. Though downy, this young bird’s body is fully feathered with some pin feathers still visible on the wing.

On the other hand, you could be looking at a fledgling. It will be fully feathered, but may still have tufts of down, especially on its head, with a nubby tail and wings that are still growing in. Being a weak and awkward flier, a fledgling’s best defence is invisibility, so it will wait until the last possible second to flee — if it moves at all. Therefore it is all the more important to avoid straying from marked trails and paths, and to trim lawns regularly during this time of year.

A bird that has lift and mobility does not require any help back into a nest it has already left. However, if there is an immediate, unavoidable danger to the fledgling — think unleashed cats or a neighbour’s lawn mower — then an attempt to move it out of harm’s way may be necessary. In these cases, fledglings should be moved to nearby low branches or shrubbery, where their parents can still find them. Always remember that a young bird has demands best met by its own parents. Fledglings should not be kept indoors unless they are injured or abandoned, and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator has given instruction to do so.  If you do need assistance, contact the WILDNorth Wildlife Hotline at (780) 914-4118.

By Bronwyn RobinsonLSLBO Assistant Bander