Myths About Nesting Birds
MYTH: Birds that don’t migrate are not protected by law.
It is illegal to destroy, possess, or sell bird eggs, nests, parts, and feathers of ANY bird native to or migrating within North America, according to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Additional local and state regulations may also be applicable.
MYTH: If you return a baby bird to its nest, the parents will smell your scent and reject it.
Parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. If you find a baby bird on the ground, it’s okay to return it to its nest (which is almost certainly nearby). However, before you return a chick to its nest, you should be sure it did not leave on its own. If it’s sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling. If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. 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, fluffy, and have a tiny stub of a tail. 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. You should always leave fledglings where you found them.
MYTH: If you build it they will come.
Providing a nest box is a great way to attract nesting birds, but it is not a guarantee. Have patience– if you provide a box in the appropriate range and habitat for a cavity-nesting bird, the chances are good that eventually it will be occupied.
MYTH: One size fits all.
For cavity-nesting birds, one box size does not fit all. Purchase or build nest boxes with a target species in mind.
MYTH: My cat doesn’t kill birds.
Outdoor cats kill more than a billion birds annually according to some estimates. Keeping your cat indoors will protect birds and also keep your cat safer and healthier.
MYTH: Cowbirds are a pest species that should be eliminated.
Cowbirds are a brood parasite, meaning they lay their eggs in nests of other species. Baby cowbirds grow fast and can crowd out other chicks. This is an example of a species using an alternative reproductive strategy. Cowbirds are native to the United States and therefore are protected by law, so it is illegal to harm them. Some birds are able to recognize and reject cowbird eggs.
MYTH: Birds sing because they are happy.
Birds sing to attract a mate and to mark or defend a territory against competitors. The next time you hear a bird singing, listen and look for a female or a potential rival.
MYTH: Birds mate for life.
Some birds stay together for more than one breeding season, or perhaps until one of the pair dies. However, DNA analyses have revealed that many birds once thought to be strictly monogamous may actually have “cheated” on their partners by mating with others.
MYTH: Birds use nests all year long.
Birds only use nests as a place to incubate eggs and raise young. Once chicks fledge, adults and young do not typically continue to use the nest. However, some birds will return to the same general areas to nest year after year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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