Each year when baby birds hatch, inevitably some don’t make it. They may fall from the nest or simply be abandoned by the parents – and when this happens, it’s natural for people to want to help.
However, this is not always advisable, and in this post, we explain why – as we answer the question, what do baby birds eat?
Table of Contents
- An introduction to parental care in birds
- What to do if you find an abandoned baby bird
- Why you shouldn’t try to look after an abandoned bird
- What do baby birds eat in the wild?
- What can you feed abandoned baby birds?
- What can’t you feed to a baby bird?
- Some fun facts about baby birds you might not know
- Leaving them alone or calling in the pros are the best options
An introduction to parental care in birds
Birds are an extremely diverse group of animals, and it is thought that there are around 10,000 different species in the world today.
Unsurprisingly, with such a large number, birds rear their young in a range of different ways, so it’s difficult to generalize. However, here is an overview of how birds bring up their young.
All birds lay eggs, and when the young hatch, they can range from being completely helpless (“altricial”) to completely independent (“precocial”) – with many birds being somewhere in between.
While precocial baby birds may be able to leave the nest and fend for themselves as soon as they hatch, altricial birds are looked after by their parents for a certain amount of time until they “fledge”.
A baby bird is said to fledge when the feathers and wing muscles have developed enough to allow them to fly.
Before fledging, nestling chicks need to be fed by their parents, and in many species, the adult birds go out to find food, which they swallow and partially digest.
When returning to the nest to feed the chicks, they then regurgitate the food for the baby to eat, and since it is already partially digested, it is easier for the baby’s system to process.
If you want to watch a video of baby robins hatching, here it is – just because it’s so cute!
In many species, babies can fledge but still be dependent on their parents for care and feeding. Birds in this stage are known as fledglings.
Often, people will find fledgling birds on the ground and mistakenly believe they have been abandoned.
They will then try to help the young bird, but although they may have the best intentions, this is the worst thing you can do since it prevents the bird’s parent from caring for it naturally.
For this reason, if you find a fledgling bird on the floor, you should think very carefully before intervening – because in the worst case, this could cause an otherwise healthy baby bird to die.
What to do if you find an abandoned baby bird
The first thing to do if you find an abandoned baby bird is to establish for certain that the bird has been abandoned.
If you see baby birds in the nest and suspect they are no longer being fed, you need to watch them carefully for at least an hour or two.
A parent can feed a baby in only a few seconds, so it can be easy to miss – but most babies will need to be fed every 15-20 minutes, so if you watch for an hour or so, you should see the parents coming and going several times.
If the bird is a fledgling on the ground, the chances are there is no problem. Again, you can keep an eye on it for a while – and you will probably see that its parents are still looking after it by bringing it food.
In any case, with a fledgling, the best thing to do is just to leave it alone. However, if there are cats, dogs or young children in the area, it might be better to pick it up and put it somewhere out of reach.
On the other hand, if it is visibly weak or lethargic – and especially if you notice its condition deteriorating over a day or two – it may require help.
If, after carefully observing nestlings or a fledgling and deciding they have indeed been abandoned and need help, by far the best thing to do is get in contact with local bird rehabilitation experts. This is a far better solution than trying to look after it yourself.
Why you shouldn’t try to look after an abandoned bird
Looking after a baby bird is complex and time-consuming, and most members of the public don’t have the time or the skills to do it properly.
Additionally, it is actually illegal to attempt to care for a baby bird without the proper license, so it is inadvisable to try.
However, if for some reason, it is impossible to call in the pros – or if you decide to try to help the bird yourself despite all advice to the contrary – you will need to know what baby birds eat in the wild and what food you can prepare for them in a pinch.
So let’s look at this now.
What do baby birds eat in the wild?
Baby birds eat what their parents eat, so it depends on the species you are talking about.
For example, baby penguins eat fish that their parents catch while birds of prey like owls feed their babies small mammals like mice.
However, the kind of birds you are likely to need to rescue around your home are those belonging to the large group of “passerine” – or perching – birds. This group contains around half of all bird species, and adult birds commonly eat some or all of the following:
As anyone who has tried to seed a lawn will know, many birds enjoy picking up and eating seed. This is also why farmers need to use scarecrows in their fields.
Everyone knows the saying “the early bird gets the worm” – and worms are a favorite snack for many species.
Insects like grasshoppers and many others are on the menu for lots of bird species. Since many species are altricial and require lots of protein for growth and development after they are born, their parents try to feed the babies plenty of insects to supplement their diet.
Some birds are capable of picking up snails and smashing the shells on a rock to get at the tasty treat inside.
- Fruit and berries
Many birds are not carnivores and are quite happy to eat fruit and berries when they get the chance.
What can you feed abandoned baby birds?
If you decide you have to feed a baby bird, here are some of the things you can try giving them:
- Moist dog or cat food
Moist canned dog or cat food can be fed to baby birds. Make sure you only give them tiny pieces that they can manage.
- Softened dog or cat kibble
You can feed baby birds cat or dog kibble that has been softened in water. Make sure it is moist enough to not be hard – but it also shouldn’t be soggy or the water content can cause the birds to suffocate.
- Softened dog biscuits
Like kibble, dog biscuits softened in water are also ok.
- Raw liver
Raw liver can be given to birds – but it should be unseasoned.
- Hardboiled egg
Baby birds can eat hardboiled eggs.
- Chopped insects
If you have dried insects available, you can chop them up and feed them to baby birds.
- Finely chopped fruit or vegetables
Finely chopped fruit and vegetables are another option that can help.
If you want to see how to feed a baby bird, this video can give you some tips.
What can’t you feed to a baby bird?
Here are some of the things you should avoid feeding a baby bird:
Birds are not mammals, and their digestive system can’t process milk.
Baby birds don’t need water to drink – they receive it from their food.
- Whole birdseed
Whole birdseed can’t be given to baby birds since they can’t digest it.
- Pet bird food
Similarly, pet bird food is not ok because they can’t break it down.
- Bread and bakery products
Don’t give baby birds bread or any other bakery products.
- Kitchen scraps
Save your kitchen scraps for the compost pile – don’t feed them to baby birds.
Some fun facts about baby birds you might not know
Here are a couple of interesting facts you might not know about baby birds.
- Megapodes are the most precocial species
Megapodes are the most precocial type of bird. After hatching, the young climb out of the mound their egg was incubated in and have to fend for themselves from then on.
- The great frigatebird is the most altricial species
At the other end of the scale is the great frigatebird, which takes six months to fledge and is then fed by the parents for another 14 months before it becomes fully independent.
- Most altricial passerine birds fledge in under three weeks
Most altricial passerine species are fully fledged in under three weeks – which means they only need to be looked after for a short time, after which they are ready to look after themselves.
- Birds don’t reject their babies if you put their scent on them
Unlike animals such as hamsters, which reject their babies if you touch them and put an unfamiliar scent on them, birds won’t react adversely if you handle their young.
This means the best solution if you find a nestling on the floor is to simply pick it up and put it back in the nest.
Leaving them alone or calling in the pros are the best options
So as we have seen, usually, the best option is to leave a fledgling alone – but if a bird is truly in need of help, calling in the pros is always advisable since they have the equipment, training and expertise to save baby birds.
However, if you do decide to step in against all advice to the contrary, at least with the info in our post, you should now know what baby birds can eat – and what you should avoid feeding them.