Column: Hatchlings, nestlings, fledglings – birds, but do you know the difference?

California
A fledgling band-tailed pigeon was treated for a wing injury at our Sandra J. Goodspeed Wildlife Center. The Pasadena Humane Wildlife Program rehabilitates injured, ill and orphaned wild animals with the goal of releasing them back to the wild. We also offer wildlife education and a free helpline to support community members who need assistance with wild animals. Learn more at pasadenahumane.org/wildlife. (Photos by Sorrell Scrutton/Pasadena Humane)
A fledgling band-tailed pigeon was treated for a wing injury at our Sandra J. Goodspeed Wildlife Center. The Pasadena Humane Wildlife Program rehabilitates injured, ill and orphaned wild animals with the goal of releasing them back to the wild. We also offer wildlife education and a free helpline to support community members who need assistance with wild animals. Learn more at pasadenahumane.org/wildlife. (Photos by Sorrell Scrutton/Pasadena Humane)

This spring, Pasadena Humane’s Wildlife Helpline has heard from many concerned callers who think they’ve found an injured or abandoned bird. Luckily, in most cases, the bird in question is not hurt or orphaned. It’s a fledgling.

I think of fledglings as being comparable to human adolescents. They’ve started to wander away from the nest on their journey to adulthood, but they are not yet able to fly on their own.

Fledglings will spend about two weeks on the ground walking, hopping and fluttering as they develop their flight muscles. These awkward movements are normal for fledglings, and their parents are usually nearby to feed and care for them.

Hatchlings and nestlings are a different story. Think of hatchlings as newborns and nestlings as children. These little birdies are too young to be out of the nest.

If you suspect a bird is injured or orphaned, identifying the bird’s stage in life is paramount in determining the appropriate intervention.

It’s easy to spot hatchlings. Just a few days old, their eyes are still closed. Nestlings’ eyes have opened, but they aren’t flaunting their feathers yet. Fledglings can be distinguished from these younger birds by their feathers and ability to move around on the ground.

Fledglings have many features that help you distinguish them from full-grown adults. A fledgling’s wing and tail feathers are shorter. Also, fledglings may have a different eye color. For example, crow and raven fledglings have blue eyes.

Fledglings have what I think is an ingenious evolutionary trait. The bright color of a fledgling’s beak or bill (usually yellow or pink around the edges) acts as a bullseye to ensure their parents are delivering food to the right place.

The best thing to do if you see a healthy fledgling on the ground is leave it alone. But, a truly sick or orphaned fledgling needs your help.

If you are not sure if the bird is a fledgling or whether or not it is healthy, take a clear photo and contact our Wildlife Helpline at 626-344-1129 for assistance.

For a hatchling or nestling found on the ground, please place the bird back in its nest where it can be raised by its parents and have the best chance of survival.

If you can’t locate the nest, create a makeshift one. It’s a myth that parent birds will reject their young if touched by humans.

Likewise, if a fledgling is in harm’s way — say a cat is nearby, or they’ve landed in a busy intersection — it’s time to intervene.

Use gloves or a towel to gently return the bird close to its nest. You can place the fledgling on a low branch or a bush, or under a bench to keep hidden from predators.

Next, observe from a distance to see if the parents return. If you are too close to the nest or checking too often, the parents will be afraid to come back. If you are unsure if the parents have returned, call or text our Wildlife Helpline for further guidance.

We are happy to assist with rehabilitating birds that are truly sick, injured, or orphaned. You should not try to care for these feathered friends on your own.

Our veterinarians and wildlife specialists are trained in wildlife rehabilitation. It’s a tricky balancing act.

The goal is to keep wildlife as wild as possible by avoiding human exposure as much as possible, while also helping wild animals to heal and learn the skills they will need to survive once they are released back into the wild.

To learn more about wildlife rehabilitation at Pasadena Humane and how you can help promote peaceful coexistence with wildlife visit pasadenahumane.org/wildlife

Dia DuVernet is president and CEO of Pasadena Humane. pasadenahumane.org

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