It may be tempting to reach for an egg in an abandoned nest, but disturbing wildlife is never a good idea. While popular belief holds that human scent causes birds to abandon their nests, most birds cannot detect human scent and instead abandon their nests because of disturbance.
What You'll Learn
- 1 Why You Should Never Touch Bird Eggs
- 2 Human Touch vs. Human Disturbance
- 3 Laws Surrounding Bird Nests
- 4 Bird Eggs and Human Health
- 5 Common Reasons Birds Temporarily Leave Their Nests
- 6 Common Reasons Birds Abandon Their Nests
- 7 What to Do if You Find an Abandoned Nest
While exploring the woods, cleaning out your gutters, or trimming your backyard trees, it’s common to come across a nest filled with delicate, baby-blue speckled eggs waiting to hatch. We all experience that childlike desire to reach out and touch such a fascinating aspect of nature.
Once this feeling of wonder and excitement wears off, you might be left with some questions. Am I allowed to touch this nest? What’s the harm in touching it? What if the nest is abandoned? Let’s ease some of this confusion!
Why You Should Never Touch Bird Eggs
Before you’re tempted to touch a bird’s nest or eggs, remember that disturbing a bird’s nest can be detrimental to a mother bird and her young and can also be detrimental to you!
Not only is it illegal to disturb nesting birds, but doing so can spread nasty diseases. Your friends, family, and momma bird will thank you for leaving those eggs alone!
Human Touch vs. Human Disturbance
You’ve probably heard at some point in your life that a mother bird will abandon her eggs or young if she detects a human scent on her nest.
While this age-old lesson has ultimately protected many nests, it’s actually a myth. Birds, in reality, have very simple olfactory nerves, meaning their sense of smell is very limited.
But don’t think this gives you permission to touch a momma bird’s hard work!
Birds may not abandon a nest because of human touch, but they do abandon both their nest and offspring because of disturbance. Mother birds often stay close to their nests, and there’s a good chance that she will abandon her nest if she sees a human, or other predator, disturb it.
However, once her young hatch and begin to feed, the mother bird is less flighty in response to disturbance and may instead move to a new nesting site.
Laws Surrounding Bird Nests
Not only can messing with a bird’s nest potentially disturb an innocent bird family, but it can also be illegal! Most bird eggs, nests, and young are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
The Act prohibits the possession and sale of migratory birds, their nests, and their eggs and offspring. It also prohibits one from destroying or disturbing a nest that contains eggs or chicks.
You have two options if you want to remove an active nest from your home or business. First, you can apply for a permit to move the nest, but they are usually difficult to obtain.
The other option is to wait the four to six weeks it usually takes for a mother bird and her young to migrate. Neither option is ideal, but let’s look out for the birds!
Bird Eggs and Human Health
If you’ve read this far and are still tempted to touch or disturb a bird’s nest, this final fact should steer you away. Birds, their nests, and their young carry a variety of diseases that can be easily transmitted to humans.
Common diseases that birds can carry include E. coli and Salmonella, which can be especially harmful if passed to children. Bird nests also harbor several species of fungi and are breeding grounds for parasites, lice, and fleas.
If you do accidentally touch a bird or nest, wash your hands with soap and warm water as soon as possible.
Common Reasons Birds Temporarily Leave Their Nests
So now you know not to touch a bird’s nest or eggs, but you might still be wondering what to do if you come across a nest with no mother bird in sight. Should you interfere in the name of saving her young?
Before you panic, just remember: mother knows best!
There are three main reasons a mother bird may temporarily leave her nest, which indicate that all is well in her home.
The mother bird must stay healthy and strong, which means she has to eat! During the egg-laying period, birds don’t have to spend much time on the nest, and they often leave to forage for fruit, seeds, insects, and more.
Incubation is the process by which birds begin hatching their eggs. To do so, the mother bird sits on her eggs, which keeps them at the proper temperature to ensure that her young develop properly.
Instead of incubating their eggs as they are hatched, birds incubate them all at once. This means that a mother bird can leave her nest until her last egg is hatched. Once she starts to incubate, she can leave for up to 30 minutes at a time.
So if you find a few eggs in a nest, just know that the mother bird is likely around the corner to come back and lay some more!
A final reason a mother bird may temporarily leave her nest is to protect her eggs from predators. Birds intentionally leave their nests for long periods before incubation so they don’t draw attention to their nests. What a smart strategy!
If you are observing a nest with eggs and are still concerned about the parent bird returning, just remember that eggs can stay viable for up to two weeks! Momma bird is likely monitoring them from a distance.
Common Reasons Birds Abandon Their Nests
While we’ve learned that birds often leave their nests with the intention to return, there are unfortunate times that a mother bird may completely abandon her eggs or young.
Mother birds are typically pretty tenacious, especially once they’ve invested time and energy into laying and incubating their eggs. But they, like humans, make cost-benefit decisions. Birds aren’t likely to waste their time protecting a nest if the risk of a predator attack is high and their young aren’t likely to survive.
Because of this, birds are known to abandon their nest if they’re particularly spooked. For example, a bird may desert her nest if she is constantly harassed by competing birds or predators after her eggs, or if she sees humans poking around her territory.
Harm to the Parents
While parent birds may try to protect their young from predators, they often face predators themselves. Common predators of birds include cats, snakes, foxes, raccoons, and larger birds.
In the unfortunate event that one bird parent is killed, the other parent will decide whether it can continue to raise their young. Many male birds, including songbirds, don’t possess the necessary skills to incubate the eggs, so they may abandon the nest.
If a female is left to care for the nest alone, she may also abandon it if she decides she cannot incubate and raise her young alone.
Another unfortunate event that may lead to nest abandonment is insect infestation. Insects such as mites, fleas, and ants can infest a nest and feed on adult birds and their young.
Not only can an insect infestation become extremely unhealthy for a bird who is trying to incubate her eggs, but it also poses harm to her young once they hatch. If adult birds determine that this risk is too high, they will abandon their nest.
What to Do if You Find an Abandoned Nest
Observe from a Safe Distance
As previously stated, birds are often hesitant to abandon their nests. If you have been monitoring a nest with no recent activity and believe it may be abandoned, experts suggest you follow the “one-month rule.” Because eggs are viable for two weeks before they are incubated, allowing one month before taking action will ensure that the nest is truly abandoned.
It’s also important to observe the nest from a distance, as your presence could spook the bird and preventing them from returning to the nest. Also, keep your pets, especially cats and dogs, away from the nesting site, as they may scare off the adult birds.
If a month or longer has passed and it’s clear that the mother bird has not returned to her nest, it’s best to contact your local wildlife agency for advice. Remember the laws protecting birds and their nests, and be sure to never touch or move the nest without permission from an agent!
Birds, and their nests, are such fascinating aspects of nature that deserve respect from humans. Next time you come across a bird’s nest, remember that touching or disturbing it not only risks the longevity of the bird’s family, but also poses both legal and health risks to you.
Hopefully, you’ll also remember that mother birds are often close by their nests and have likely not abandoned their eggs or young. If you have reason to believe that they have, based on the information above, please contact your local wildlife agency. Happy bird watching!
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I am Bryan Powell and I own BirdHour.com. I love bird watching; in fact, I have a parakeet of my own. I enjoy spending time outdoors and observing the natural world around me. This website is a means of sharing my passion for birds with others who may be interested in this activity.