WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU FIND A BABY BIRD?

by Whit Gibbons

March 1, 2015

What should you do if you find a baby bird on the ground? What if the bird is a bald eagle? The short answer is "nothing." Whether it's a tiny wren or one of the world's largest raptors, leave it where it is. Most birds that end up on the ground unable to fly do so because of a natural occurrence.

Deciding what to do about the plight of a baby bird has reached fever pitch at Berry College (Ga.) where a real-time video (www.berry.edu/eaglecam/) has 24-hour coverage of a bald eagle nest with two babies. The site has many followers, and some viewers got concerned when the babies appeared to be getting chilled because of an approaching cold front. The response of the scientists running the website was right on target. "OK, eagle friends, calm down! Eagles are wild animals used to living out of doors. They have 7,000 feathers and a layer of down. They are not suffering and they are not miserable."

The next phase in the rearing of two baby eaglets disturbed some people even more than the threat of cold weather. One of the babies was not playing fair. "The older and larger sibling ... is aggressively targeting the younger [one] ... and preventing him from eating." As seen on the webcam, the younger sibling "is looking smaller and weaker and is unable to compete for food." It clearly is in the crosshairs of intentional siblicide.

The act of nest siblicide, the killing of a brother or sister, has been documented for several bird species. Siblicidal birds are not cannibals. They do not eat their brothers and sisters, they just kill them, or force them from the nest, which results in the death of the rejected bird. Siblicide has been commonly documented in eagles.

Of no surprise is that birds that kill one another in the nest possess the weapons to do so. The large, hooked beak of an eagle aids in pecking one's nest-mate to death. Also, such species are confined to an enclosed nest area, in contrast to many other birds. For example, bobwhite quail lay their eggs on the ground, and the young scatter soon after they hatch. Do you suppose they heard early childhood stories about what happens to little birds that stay around too long?

One somewhat ironic reason to keep your hands off a baby bird is that you might be keeping it alive for longer than the parents intended. A pre-fledgling bird may be on the ground because it was deliberately pushed from the nest by the parents or a sibling. Birds have a variety of strategies to deal with limited food resources. One of them is to feed and raise fewer young than the number of eggs they lay. So, in "helping" a baby bird, you may be thwarting the preferences of the parents who have assessed that they have too many mouths to feed. They may have intentionally ejected the baby, or allowed a sibling to do so.

The Berry College ornithologists have created an awesome opportunity for observing the biology of bald eagles in the wild. They have also made some important points about wild animals. Among these are that "they are not pets" and "we will not . . . intervene." As they further state, "This is nature up close and personal - a rare glimpse into another world. It can be difficult to watch." But perhaps the most important lesson they provide is an opportunity to "see how humans, with our ability to think through our actions and have a conscience, are able to behave in more compassionate ways if we so choose."

I applaud Berry College for establishing a webcam that offers the public a splendid opportunity to watch nature in action. I also appreciate their pointing out the distinction between the behavior of wild animals and that of humans. Well done.

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