You’re walking down the sidewalk when suddenly you notice a waddling little mass of black feathers trying awkwardly to hide under a bush or car. When you begin to approach the young crow, it simply stares up at you or perhaps continues on its poorly planned waddle down the sidewalk or worse, into traffic. Clearly this baby crow cannot fly and has a habit of making bad decisions. Your instinct (and perhaps the opportunity to interact with a baby animal) are tempting you to intervene and “save” this young crow who seems ill prepared to be out of the nest. What should you do?
The answer, almost always, is to ignore your instincts and good intentions. I have many friends and colleagues who are either licensed wildlife rehabbers or who spent summers volunteering with their local rehab facilities, that can attest to the dozens of animals that get brought in during the spring and summer by well intentioned folks who assumed that finding a baby meant it needed help. In many of these cases, these animals did not need help and now they’ve been separated from their parents or mother and stand a much lower chance of surviving once they’re released. So how do you avoid making the same error?
First, understand that corvid babies (and many other open-cup nesting songbirds) very often leave the nest before they are completely flighted. For crows, this early departure can be on the order of 7-10 days before they can fly. Although this strategy is risky and leads to lower fledgling survival rates than for species that wait until the babies are fully flighted, the alternative is quite literally an “all your eggs in one basket” situation where the longer the kids stay in the nest the more chance they stand of being discovered by a predator who will then wipe out the whole brood.1 By pushing kids out sooner, the less developed ones may get caught by a predator or killed by some other means, but the stronger individuals stand a better chance of escaping. It’s not a great compromise, but its continued selection suggests it’s the one that works best.
During this vunerable time, the young are still in the care of their parents who will continue to feed and defend them until they reach independance. So finding a flightless baby crow or jay is totally normal between late May and July and does not imply that it has been abandoned or fallen out of the nest.
Simply knowing this piece of corvid biology will lay to rest the concerns for most situations you may find yourself in this summer. For babies that are naked, bleeding, have drooping wings, or are within reach of a dog or cat, etc., the following flow chart is excellent and will help navigate the situation (I’ve thrown in the mammal one too just for good measure).
The main thing to remember is; as long as the baby is mostly feathered and being attended by its parents, it’s just where it needs to be. Only if it’s trapped in a storm drain, naked, injured, cornered by a cat, or after several hours has not been visited by its parents is it appropriate to intervene. Even in most of those cases, simply creating a makeshift nest out of a basket and securing it to a tree, or placing the baby in a bush and leaving the area, is much better than taking it away to a facility. So use your best judgment this summer and remember; if you feel your situation is unique and has not been addressed by the flow charts provided, give a rehab facility a call and let them help you decide if an animal needs to be removed before you make the mistake of taking babies away from their parents.