For many of us, watching a robin nest is our first real experience in the circle of life. Courting, nest building, blue eggs, incubation, hatching, feeding, growing, pooping, and fledging (leaving the nest)... a whole development cycle right in front of our eyes!
Though successful fledging is always the best option, we know that not all nests will be successful. Predators may destroy the nest, the nest may be abandoned if stress levels are too high or the weather is too inclement, eggs may not hatch, or nestlings may fledge too early-or too late. Despite these challenges; birds know best and really are fantastic parents.
Wild birds don’t need help to find nesting materials
Long strands of yarn, string, or human hair that are “donated” by humans to “help” birds often become wrapped around the legs or wings of birds, causing them to eventually lose circulation or the ability to fly. Hatchlings are especially susceptible to death when they become entangled. Pet hair, yarn, string, and human hair are also full of materials that can be safe for us but toxic for birds, which are much more sensitive. The fragrance in your shampoo, dye in your yarn, and flea products in your pet’s fur are all quite dangerous to birds. The best nesting materials that you can give birds are the ones that are already outside! Leaving twigs, leaves, grass clippings, and native plants in your yard can help to create a natural habitat where birds can thrive.
Parents not only nourish and defend their young, they also teach them who they are as a species
Songbirds learn language in a very similar way that humans do; by listening, by repeating, and by practicing. Baby birds need to be with conspecifics (members of their own species) to complete normal development and song development, or this will lead to behavioural and reproductive issues later in life. Please leave baby birds with their parents!
For many species, both parents play an active role in parenting whether that is through nest selection, nest building, nest defense, incubation (or mate feeding during incubation), nestling feeding, and post-fledging watchfulness. This cycle of development in birds can be broadly captured;
Incubation: when the mother (usually) uses her body heat to grow embryos inside fertilized eggs
Hatchlings: Newly emerged from the egg, may be naked and helpless (altricial) or feathered and mobile (precocial)
Fledglings: Fully feathered--leaving the nest and spending substantial time on the ground to complete development
Songbirds are born blind and mostly naked (altricial), relying on their parents to bring them food and keep them safe while they grow up in the nest. Many will spend a few weeks in that nest until they have grown enough feathers and confidence to fledge. At this stage they spend a few more days on the ground strengthening their wings while their parents continue to feed and watch over them. It is a totally normal - albeit awkward - stage of development, and is crucial to their eventual success in the wild!
Waterfowl like ducks and geese however are a little bit different. They are born ‘precocial’ which means they have downy feathers, open eyes and can walk and feed themselves. They aren’t safe on their own, but they won't spend any more than about 24 hours after hatching in the nest. Once all the hatchlings have dried off from their eggs, mom will lead her clutch to a safe and familiar body of water. The nest is often built a fair distance from the water in order to protect it from flooding.
Unless a baby bird is obviously injured, bleeding or has been in a cats mouth, it is best to call an Authorized Wildlife Custodian before touching or interfering with it. Parents are likely watching and will become quite distressed seeing a potential predator near their babies. And never ever try to feed or give water to a baby bird, or any wild animal. Each species has special dietary requirements, and improper feeding methods often cause more harm than good.