Myths and Frequently Asked Questions about Nests
These are some common misconceptions and questions about birds and their nests.
- What should I do if I find an “abandoned” baby bird?
- Birds live in their nests all year long
- Birds sing for our benefit or because they are happy
- My cat doesn’t kill birds
- How do birds incubate their eggs?
- Why do birds leave the nest before they can fly?
- If I handle a baby bird, won’t its parents pick up my scent and abandon it?
- What should I do if I find an “abandoned” baby Killdeer, duckling or gosling?
What should I do if I find an “abandoned” baby bird?
At some point, nearly everyone who spends time outdoors finds a baby bird—one that is unable to fly well and seems lost or abandoned. Our first impulse is to adopt the helpless creature, but this often does more harm than good—and in most cases, the young bird doesn't need our help at all.
The first thing to do is to figure out if it's a nestling or a fledgling. If it's sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it's a nestling. If so, the nest is almost certainly nearby. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don't worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell!
If the bird is feathered and capable of hopping or flitting, and its toes can tightly grip your finger or a twig, it's a fledgling. Fledglings are generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that the bird has been abandoned and needs you. But fledglings need a special diet, and they need to learn about behavior and vocalizations from their parents--things we can't provide.
Fortunately, the vast majority of "abandoned" baby birds are perfectly healthy fledglings. Their parents are nearby and watching out for them. The parents may be attending to four or five young scattered in different directions, but they will most likely return to care for the one you have found shortly after you leave.
When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it's not a good idea to put the bird back in--it will hop right back out. Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm's way. Fledglings produce sounds that their parents recognize, and one of them will return and care for it after you leave.
If you have found both parents dead or are otherwise absolutely certain that the bird was orphaned, then your best course of action is to bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator. The National Zoo has excellent information on emergency care until you can get an injured or truly abandoned bird to a wildlife rehabilitator.(back to top)
Birds live in their nests all year long
Some people think birds go to their nests to sleep at night just like we usually sleep in our beds, but birds usually only use their nests when they are raising babies in the spring.(back to top)
Birds sing for our benefit or because they are happy
Birds will defend the territory around their nests by singing to signal their presence and by chasing other birds away. Birds don't sing to make us happy, they sing to attract a mate and defend their territory.(back to top)
My cat doesn’t kill birds
Cats kill more than two million birds every year (see a recent article by The New York Times on the subject). Chipmunks and mice also eat birds' eggs. Keep cats inside and if you put up a nest box make sure it has a predator-proof protector like an upside down shield on the pole below it (check out NestWatch's page on how to deal with predators).(back to top)
How do birds incubate their eggs?
In some species, like the Rock Pigeon, the male and female will both sit on the nest and incubate the eggs, to keep them warm and protected while the chick inside the egg grows and develops. Usually the male pigeon sits on the nest during the day so the female can go look for food when its easier to find food. She spends more total time on the nest because she will sit there all night, as well as in the early morning and late evening.
The time for incubation varies widely from species to species. You can get this information for any of our focal species you're interested in by going to its page in our guide, or by visiting AllAboutBirds.org(back to top)
Why do birds leave the nest before they can fly?
It's to some young birds' advantage to leave the nest as soon as they can. People tend to think of nests as safe, cozy little homes. But predators have a pretty easy time finding a nest full of loud baby birds, and nests can be hotbeds for parasites. So parent birds work from sunrise to sunset every day to get their young grown and out of the nest as quickly as possible. After fledging, the young birds are more spread out in the area, and the parents can lead them to different spots every night, enhancing each one's chances of survival. Some types of birds, like swallows, woodpeckers, and other cavity-nesters, nest where there are no nearby branches for young to awkwardly grab onto when they first leave the nest. Unless startled by a predator, young of these species tend to remain in the nest until they are strong fliers.(back to top)
If I handle a baby bird, won’t its parents pick up my scent and abandon it?
It's a myth that parent birds will abandon young that have been touched by humans--most birds have a poor sense of smell, and birds in general identify their young using the same cues we humans do--appearance and sound. It's perfectly safe to pick up a fallen nestling and put it back in the nest, or to carry a fledgling out of danger and place it in a tree or shrub. But please refer to the question on what to do if you find a baby bird, since it is still best if you don't handle a baby bird unless absolutely necessary.(back to top)
What should I do if I find an “abandoned” baby Killdeer, duckling or gosling?
Baby Killdeer, like baby ducks, geese, and other fowl, are what we call "precocial chicks." These chicks hatch out of the egg covered with thick down, open their eyes quickly, and are perfectly capable of walking. Within minutes of hatching, they imprint on their parents and follow them tenaciously. Both parents show them food items, which they pick up and eat. The family unit stays together for several weeks.
Killdeer chicks grow rapidly, requiring huge amounts of food, but the chick you found has probably already imprinted on its parents and needs to be with them in order to recognize food and to eat.
The best thing to do is to bring the chick back and search for the adults. If you get anywhere near the rest of the family, one of the parents may give a broken-wing display, acting as if it's injured. You should set the chick down and leave as quickly as possible. It's sad to leave these adorable balls of fluff, but it's much sadder, for the bird as well as for you and/or your children, when it starves to death in your care.
If you don't know where a Killdeer chick was picked up, but do know where another Killdeer family is, with chicks close in size to the one you're dealing with, release it with that family. This also works in the case of ducklings and goslings.
For more information about helping baby ducks, geese, Killdeer, and other precocial chicks, try the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.(back to top)