How to identify orphaned birds and waterfowl

by | Wildlife Fact Sheets |

Before you jump to the rescue of a bird in a nest who you think has been left behind, there are some things you need to consider before acting! These tips from our fact sheet, How to Identify Orphaned Birds and Waterfowl, will help you out.

The first step is to determine whether the bird is a hatchling, a nestling, or a fledgling.

Is the bird a fledgling?

orphaned birds or waterfowl
photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) 94M Views NS-01783 – Leave me alone…. via photopin (license)

One way to identify fledgling birds is they are fully feathered, but do not yet have the long tail feathers seen on adults. Fledglings may be able to flutter for short distances but they are not completely capable of flight. If the bird is a fledgling, he/she may be out of the nest as part of the natural cycle of bird development. Birds learn to fly from the ground, and fledglings spend several days hopping and fluttering around before they are able to actually fly. During this time parents will continue to feed fledglings, will teach them to look for food, and will try to protect them if they are threatened.

If you are concerned there are no parents assisting the fledgling, watch from a distance (preferably from inside) to see if parents appear. It may be an hour or more before a parent appears, but they should be checking on the fledgling at regular intervals. Keep in mind you may miss a parental visit. Adult birds can be very efficient and may not remain in the immediate area for long.

If it becomes clear, after four to six hours, that no adult bird is providing the fledgling with care, the bird should be transported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, your local Ontario SPCA Animal Centre or affiliated Humane Society. Fledgling birds are obviously vulnerable to various threats while they are learning to fly, however, this is not sufficient reason to remove them and take them to a wildlife rehabilitator. This stage of development is crucial and the benefits of learning life-skills from natural parents are irreplaceable

If the bird is a hatchling or a nestling, is the nest site visible?

birds and waterfowl, orphaned
photo credit: Kamil Porembiński Bird via photopin (license)

Small birds who are not fully feathered (i.e. may be completely naked, have some downy covering, have some feathers etc.) are hatchlings or nestlings. Birds this young should not be out of the nest as they are too young to care for themselves. If you can see a nest, and the bird clearly belongs in that nest (i.e. other birds in the nest look the same, or you saw the bird fall from the nest), try to place the bird back in the nest. You should warm the bird in your hands first because a bird returned to the nest cold may be pushed out of the nest by a parent. If you cannot reach the nest, or the nest is not visible to you, a substitute nest can be constructed.

Once a bird is returned to a nest, or placed in a substitute nest, observe from a distance to see if any parent returns to care for the bird. If you are concerned that no parent has returned, check the nest for fresh feces. The presence of fresh feces indicates a parent is feeding the baby bird even if you don’t see them. If no parents return to care for the bird after half-a-day, or if the parent bird is repeatedly pushing the baby bird out of the nest, please take the bird to your local Ontario SPCA, affiliated Humane Society or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.


If you find a duckling, gosling, or cygnet (young swan) who is covered with down or is in the beginning stage of feather development, and no parent is in the immediate area, there is cause for concern. Waterfowl, unlike other birds, do not leave their young unattended. A lone duckling, gosling or cygnet requires care and should be transported to your local Ontario SPCA, affiliated Humane Society or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Has the bird been attacked by a cat or dog?

If you know that the bird has been in a cat or a dog’s mouth, the bird should be taken to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, or your local Ontario SPCA Animal Centre or affiliated Humane Society as soon as possible. Birds have very thin skin and contact with the saliva of another animal can be deadly. Even if there are no visible puncture wounds, the bird needs rehabilitative care, including treatment with antibiotics.

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