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San Diego Humane Society

Raptors - Renesting and Reuniting

Baby birds are most successful when raised by their parents in the wild. These babies receive the most natural and appropriate nutrition from the parents, learn where and how to forage or hunt, are taught how to recognize and avoid predators and other dangers, and are overall more adaptable and resilient when raised by parents in the wild. For these reasons, we try to reunite baby birds with their families whenever possible. 

Young birds are often left alone while their parents look for food. Parents may also leave their babies temporarily in order to avoid attracting other animals to the nest. If you find a fallen nest, or baby bird without parents, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the bird has been abandoned or orphaned. We always assume the parents are alive and caring for their babies unless proven otherwise.  

If you moved a bird, found a single baby bird or disturbed a nest, please use this resource to attempt to reunite them with their parents and monitor the health of the baby bird(s) unless both mom AND dad are found deceased. Please note that, contrary to popular belief, parents will not abandon their babies because you touched them. However, parents will not return if you are too close because humans are seen as threats. Successfully reuniting baby birds with their parents requires you to provide both time and space away from the nesting area.

Background Information

Raptor nests vary greatly in appearance and location depending on the species, but most make stick nests or stick platforms off the ground in trees or on cliffs. Some (including owls and kestrels) also use holes in trees or cliffs for their nests. As humans continue to build on natural land, birds may also nest on man-made structures like buildings or bridges.

Raptor parents leave their babies alone for up to four hours at a time while out hunting for food. Most young raptors “branch,” meaning they leave their nest and stay on branches nearby while they finish growing. Less commonly, the young remain in the nest until fully grown and capable of flight.

Bird Age and Type

Before you begin the renesting or reuniting effort, please use the information below to confirm the bird's species and age. Below are just two examples to help you identify common traits of raptors, but the bird you found may look different.


American kestrel nestling


American kestrel fledgling

Raptors are easily distinguished from other birds because they have a short, hooked beak and long, sharp talons on their feet. Please be sure to read the safe handling instructions before handling any raptor (Box 1).

Confirm the bird is young (rather than an injured adult) by looking for fluffy feathers (known as “down”).. As the bird ages, the amount of fluffy down feathers decreases. By the time all the down is gone, the bird should be able to fly. If the bird in question has no down feathers and you were able to catch them, they are likely an injured or sick adult. We recommend bringing injured adult birds to Project Wildlife for evaluation and potential rehabilitation (Box 2).


Barn owl nestling


Barn owl fledgling

Age Determination

Estimate the bird’s age by choosing the closest description, then follow the correct reuniting or renesting instructions below.


Great horned owl nestlings

  • May be fluffy or fuzzy with bare skin
  • May have regular feathers growing in, nestlings have more down (fluffy feathers) than regular feathers
  • Unable to fully stand or perch


Left: Great horned owl fledglings Right: Great horned owl brancher

Fledgling / Brancher
  • More regular feathers than fluffy down feathers (except in owls who are still mostly down at fledging)
  • Able to stand, walk and perch


Health Check

Reunite reasonably healthy babies only. The parents won’t return for a sick baby or be able to help them recover. 

Check for the following:

  • Significant injury (the bird has broken bones, deep cuts or a drooping wing, or is non-responsive, gasping, limping or bleeding)
  • Signs of illness (cold to the touch, falling over, discharge from eyes or nose, crusty eyes) 
  • Seen attacked by a cat (or other animal)
  • Mites or lice all over their body
  • Ant, fly or maggot infestation on the bird or in the nest

We recommend bringing any baby with these symptoms to Project Wildlife for evaluation and potential rehabilitation (See Box 2). Minor scratches or bruises are not cause for concern unless known to be caused by a cat attack.


With the exception of owls, reunite raptors during the daytime when parents are active. Reunite owls at dusk or during the nighttime when parents are active. If you picked up and kept the bird for 12 hours (at the time of day when parents would be active) AND no other babies remain outside, we recommend bringing the bird to Project Wildlife for evaluation and potential rehabilitation (See Box 2).

Renesting and Monitoring Netslings

Renesting raptors successfully can be difficult. We recommend placing nestlings in a box with air holes and calling Project Wildlife as soon as possible for further guidance (Box 2).

Reuniting and Monitoring Fledglings

  1. 1. If the area is safe, return or leave fledglings at the location where they were found. Fledglings leave the nest and move around branches in their nest tree and occasionally fall to the ground. If you see a fledgling on the ground, place them on a branch in their nest tree (or nest ledge).  Some species of raptors (mostly owls) can climb trees at 3-4 weeks of age, so it’s not uncommon for them to move to different trees in the nesting area.
  2. Monitor the fledgling. Observe the fledgling continuously for four hours from a distance. Remember, the parents will not return if you or other animals are too close. We recommend using a camera, computer or similar device to monitor the nest if possible. In the case of nocturnal raptors (owls), please be sure your monitoring time starts when the parents are active at night.
  3. Review the footage or observe from a distance to see if the parents come to the nest or the fledgling. If you observe this, the reunion is successful! If you do not see the parents, check on the baby. If they are still doing OK, you can give the parents another four hours.

If the parents don’t return to the baby within eight hours or the baby’s condition is worsening, we recommend bringing the bird to Project Wildlife for evaluation and potential rehabilitation (See Box 2).

Box 2: Project Wildlife Drop-Off and Contact Information

You can drop off confirmed orphans during our admission hours.

Pilar & Chuck Bahde Wildlife Center
5433 Gaines St.
San Diego, CA 92110
Business Hours:
Daily: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Ramona Wildlife Center
18740 Highland Valley Road
Ramona, CA 92065
Business Hours:
Daily: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.

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