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Photo © Al Tuttle

The nestlings’ mother has disappeared. Should I take the nestlings and put them in another nest, or try to raise them myself?

The practice of placing nestlings from one nest into the nest of another female of the same species is referred to as wild-fostering, and is a tactic that should only be used by wildlife rehabilitators to raise abandoned nestlings. Unless you are a licensed and permitted wildlife rehabilitator, you should not attempt to initiate wild-fostering yourself for the following reasons.

If one or both parents are dead, there may be infection, disease, or parasites in the family, and it’s possible the nestlings and nest are contaminated. Moving nestlings from one nest to another can spread the disease and leave all the birds worse off than before.

The addition of hungry mouths to feed can also put undue stress on the foster parents. Eastern Bluebird nestlings, for example, require insects every 20 minutes, and even with both parents helping out, the effort can be exhausting. Too many nestlings leaves adults susceptible to illness and predation. In addition, for wild-fostering to be successful, the orphaned nestlings must be placed with a foster family of the same age. More than a single day’s difference in either direction, and the foster parents may reject the new nestlings. Trained rehabilitators are better able to match the nestlings in need with a foster family that will accept them and that can handle the added stress, or to raise the nestlings in a captive facility until they can be released.

The most important thing to remember is that the nestlings may not need their mother. In most altricial bird species, both the male and female care for their young (except hummingbirds). If one parent dies the other parent will often continue to care for the nestlings. If your nestlings are at least a week old, they have enough feathers to keep themselves warm at night, and no longer require their mother’s brood patch to survive. Bluebird males help in the raising of nestlings, and members of previous broods may give some assistance too (particularly in Western Bluebirds), so it’s quite probable the nestlings are being fed even without the female.

Before you take any action:
Monitor the nest from a distance to see if it is truly abandoned (note: parents may not tend to the babies if you are too close). Watch the nest for at least a full hour, or, if that’s not possible for you, wedge a very small stick or weed stem in the entrance hole and return later to see if it remains. If one parent shows up during that time, you may choose to put out food (e.g., waxworms, mealworms) to help the remaining parent, but no further action is required.

If no adults have shown up during that time, the nest itself will need to be checked. Are the nestlings still alive? Are they feathered? Are they begging loudly, or are they listless? Take mental notes on their condition. Remember that it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for anyone to touch or handle the eggs, nests, or nestlings of any native bird without a proper permit.

Contact your local wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. The rehabilitator will come pick the nestlings up themselves or give you careful instructions on how to properly bring them in (remember, baby birds can die from the stress of being handled, so do not handle them unless instructed to do so). Once in the care of the wildlife rehabilitator, the nestlings will be examined, warmed, and fed. If the rehabilitator does choose to wild-foster your nestlings, rest assured they are in the hands of trained professionals, and every step will be taken to ensure both nestlings and foster family are safe. If you cannot find a wildlife rehabilitator in your area, call your state wildlife agency for guidance. Do not try to raise the nestlings yourself. Remember, while it’s natural to want to lend a hand, it is also extremely important for baby birds that they do not socialize with humans at a young age, as this can interfere with their normal learning and make it impossible for them to survive in the wild.

Please Note: NestWatch seeks data on natural nesting success. If you are working with a wildlife rehabilitator to assist wild-fostered nestlings, do not continue to report those nests for NestWatch, to avoid potentially biasing the data. The NestWatch system is not designed to track nestlings that are moved from one site to another, or to handle artificially-increased brood sizes. However, you can continue reporting nests for which only supplemental food was provided. We appreciate your cooperation.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology