If You Touch A Baby Bird Will The Mother Reject It?
We’re always told that if you touch a baby bird even if it’s fallen from a nest, and we replace it in the nest, the mother will reject it. However the latest research suggests that it’s simply not true. In many cases the parent won’t even know the baby bird has been touched. Apparently birds don’t have a great sense of smell and rely more on sight and sound to navigate their way through life.
According to the Cornell Lab  the majority of birds recognise their offspring by sound, sight and the position of the nest. So as long as it’s just to help the poor little baby out, it’s safe to pick up a nestling and put it back in its nest. Or even a fledgling, as long as its parents aren’t around and you can see it’s in some sort of danger or distress, it’s fine to gently pick it up and place it somewhere safe like on a branch of a bush or tree.
It is also fine to touch bird eggs that are in the nest, the parents won’t reject them either, why you would want to touch unhatched bird eggs is a mystery, and you shouldn’t make it a habit. Some birds will abandon a nest if they think it has been damaged by predators and rebuild a new one somewhere they consider to be a safer location.
Nestlings Or Fledglings?
Even though picking up a baby bird won’t cause the parent bird to reject it, you should only move a baby bird if it is actually in danger. Most small birds found on the ground don’t need any outside help. Often the parents are close by and they’re giving the baby a life lesson. Fledglings need to learn how to fly and how to get themselves out of danger by themselves.
We aren’t always going to be around to pick them up so don’t intervene unless it’s absolutely necessary. Nestlings found on the ground probably are in need of assistance but not fledglings, so how do you tell the difference? Firstly, nestlings are never found too far from the nest site, and have usually fallen out of the nest, whereas fledglings are usually farther afield.
The Feathers Hold The Clues
In most bird types nestlings don’t have feathers as such, some are completely bald, while others have a soft, down but no actually identifiable feathers. Fledglings on the other hand, will have feathers and will usually be moving their wings whilst hopping frantically trying to fly. This is how they learn, and if you do pick up a fledgling it will probably try to grip your fingers with its feet. Nestlings don’t move so clearly and look like they are dragging themselves along, and they won’t attempt to grip your fingers either.
If it is a fledgling there’s a good chance the parents are somewhere close keeping an eye out for their youngster, so it’s best to leave it alone. A nestling however, needs to be put back into the nest as soon as possible as it will probably not survive for long away from the nest. You need to be extra gentle with a nestling so just scoop it up and gently return it to the nest. The parents won’t smell human or neglect the baby once it is returned to the nest.
If the only nest near to the nestling happens to be broken, you can try to repair it using similar nesting materials, then place the baby in the nest. Keep an eye on the nest with the baby in it, to be sure the parents return to look after their offspring. If they don’t return after a reasonable time, it’s safe to assume they are dead or they have abandoned the nest and the nestling. If after a couple of hours the parents haven’t returned then you should get in touch with a local wildlife rehabilitation centre.
The idea that birds will abandon their young once they’ve been touched by humans, comes from the misguided and incorrect assumption that birds can smell humans on their offspring, and will no longer care for their young. In reality, birds don’t have a particularly good sense of smell. There are a few exceptions to this rule like starlings have the ability to smell insecticidal compounds in vegetation which they use to keep bugs away from their nests. Turkey vultures are attracted to a gas produced by rotting organic matter called methyl mercaptan to help them locate food.
There is no evidence that birds can detect the smell of humans, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go fiddling about with birds or their nests without good reason. This is because birds won’t abandon the nest because of the smell of a human being, but they will abandon it because it’s been disturbed. It appears that birds that have longer lifespans (hawks, raptors etc) are more sensitive to nest disturbance than birds with shorter lifespans (robins, wrens, and other garden birds).
Birds of prey are far more likely to abandon their young than garden birds. In general, all wild animals make strong bonds with their offspring and don’t usually abandon them. In extreme circumstances ducks have been observed pretending to be injured to lure predators away from their young. The whole birds smelling humans story was probably introduced by parents to prevent curious children interfering with birds and their young or eggs.
Leave All Wild Animals Alone
It is always best to leave the wildlife alone to let them get on with their lives-in the wild. There are some wild animals like rabbits that will abandon both their young and their burrows if they detect human interference. But most garden birds will appreciate you helping their nestlings to get home. However, fledglings need to find their own way home.
Garden birds are sensitive to their nests being disturbed some more than others, take the robin for example. Robins build their nests low to the ground in hedges or thick bushes, and if they even think the nest has been discovered they will abandon it and start a new one elsewhere.
In most cases baby birds are not abandoned and the parents are usually close by and just waiting for you to move to a safe distance so they can get back to teaching their offspring how to survive in the wild. So as a general rule, it’s best to leave them to it. It is possible you could spread diseases onto any wildlife you handle so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What Should You Do If You Find A Nest With Eggs But No Birds?
If you come across a nest with birds eggs in but no adult birds in sight, you should leave it alone. Most garden birds lay their eggs over a period of days and often leave the nest to find food for short periods during the day. It’s only once they have finished laying all of their eggs that birds start incubating the eggs.
Birds have been laying eggs and rearing their young in the wild for many centuries without our help (or hindrance) so let them be and only help when it’s absolutely in the birds best interest. Remember too that by your activity around the bird’s nest you could be alerting predators to the position of the nest, which will definitely cause more harm than good.
British Law And Bird Nests
Under section one of the wildlife and countryside act (1981) it is an offence to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use, being built, or to intentionally kill, injure or take chicks or adults, or intentionally take or destroy any eggs. So unless you want to risk a criminal record, leave birds eggs and nests alone.
What If The Bird Is In Danger?
For the most part, fledglings will find their own way in the world and even though they look like poor little things, it’s a rite of passage that they leave the nest. We should respect that and leave them to it. However, sometimes they are discovered on busy roads and pathways, in which case it is in their best interest to pick them up and move them to a place of safety. But remember they should be left relatively close to where they were found as their parents are probably looking for them.
Who Should You Contact If You Find An Abandoned Nestling?
If after returning a nestling to its nest, its parents don’t return within an hour or so, what should you do and who should you contact? You should contact the RSPCA in England or Wales, the SSPCA in Scotland and the USPCA in Northern Ireland. These are the national charities that can offer help and advice on injured or abandoned wildlife.
Alternatively you can find a local wildlife centre by contacting help wildlife by following the link you will find plenty of helpful advice and information.
Do Birds Have A Good Sense Of Smell?
We already mentioned the starlings and turkey vultures, but how about other birds? It has always been widely believed that most birds have an underdeveloped sense of smell, but the latest research on zebra finches has shown that they use their noses to identify their relatives. While it’s clear that more research is needed before any conclusions can be made, if one type of songbird is using its nose, why not others too?
Frequently Asked Questions
You should never touch a baby bird because 9 times out of 10 they don’t need any help. Often the parents are close by, or if the bird is a fledgling it has already left the nest and is trying to make its own way in the world. You should only help a baby bird if it’s a nestling (with no feathers and looks quite ugly) and then all you should do is return it to its nest.
The only birds that reject babies touched by humans are usually birds of prey. Most garden birds will only reject their babies if they believe the nest to have been disturbed by predators. It is a myth that birds reject their babies due to human touch.
In the majority of cases you should not pick up a fallen baby bird unless it is either a nestling (ulgy looking and with no or hardly any feathers) or it is in immediate danger.
You can get sick from touching a baby bird. Young birds can carry Salmonella germs on their bodies which can transfer to your hands. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a baby bird.
Baby birds (nestlings) can survive for 24 hours without mum or dad supplying them with food.
Fledglings can and do survive on their own. It’s what they do, they leave the nest, then they start to fly, and then they are on their own.
A robin will abandon her babies if she can see the nest has been disturbed, however most of the time she will nurture her babies and not abandon them.
Baby birds can carry the following diseases: salmonella and psittacosis after touching a baby bird or its droppings. It is vitally important to thoroughly wash your hands.
It usually takes around 2 weeks from hatching for a fledgling to start to fly.