Many of us have heard the age-old myth that handling a newborn bird or its egg will lead to the parents rejecting it. In this article, we delve into the truth behind this misconception and explore what really happens when you encounter a baby bird in the wild.
Let’s address the myth head-on: the notion that touching a baby bird will result in parental abandonment is simply untrue for most bird species. While it’s essential to exercise caution and care when encountering wildlife, the fear of human scent causing abandonment is largely unfounded.
The foundation of this myth rests on the assumption that birds have an acute sense of smell, which couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, most birds have a poor sense of smell, making it unlikely for them to detect human scent on their offspring. Even potent odors like a skunk’s spray hardly disturb many bird species.
Contrary to the myth, most bird species are not quick to abandon their young when they sense potential danger. In fact, many birds will go to great lengths to safeguard their chicks if they perceive a threat.
While most birds won’t abandon their young due to human scent, there have been a few documented cases where parents temporarily left their nests. However, these instances were triggered by parents visually noticing disturbances, not by detecting scent. Typically, parent birds return to their nests after briefly observing the situation.
In the rare event that a nest is destroyed, you can recreate a new nest nearby and place the nestlings inside. The parents are likely to accept this arrangement as long as the new nest is in close proximity to the original one.
Origins of the Myth
This myth likely emerged from concerns about children mishandling baby birds. Children’s curiosity and lack of understanding about wildlife can sometimes lead to harm. Birds’ nests may be disturbed, eggs taken home, or young birds captured, often with fatal consequences.
Taking the Right Steps
When you encounter a young bird on the ground, it’s essential to respond appropriately. Whether it’s a nestling or a fledgling, here’s what you should do:
Return to the Nest
Nestlings, which lack feathers and cannot hop around, are best placed back in the nest if it’s nearby. It’s not uncommon for young birds to fall from their nests, and parent birds typically recognize and care for them.
Observe from a Distance
Fledglings are more mobile and may even hop or make short flights. While you can place them back in the nest, they are often eager to explore. It’s best to observe from a distance, as they are close to acquiring the ability to fly and parents are actively caring for them.
Avoid Taking Them Home
Under no circumstances should you take a young bird home to care for it. Birds need to learn critical skills from their parents, including behavior, vocalizations, and survival skills. Attempting to raise a wild bird without proper expertise can be detrimental to its well-being.
If you are certain that the parents have passed away or if the bird is injured, contact a wildlife rehabilitator. They have the knowledge and resources to provide appropriate care and treatment.
Fascinating Bird Behavior
While dispelling the myth, let’s explore some intriguing behaviors of specific bird species:
Some bird species, such as killdeer and mallards, are remarkably independent shortly after hatching. They can leave the nest within minutes and even find food without parental assistance.
Several birds have developed unique defense mechanisms against predators. Despite their limited sense of smell, they employ tactics like spraying pungent substances to deter threats. For instance, the Fulmar can eject a foul-smelling chemical from its bill to repel attackers, targeting them from a significant distance.
Ducks and Hoopoes have a rather unconventional way of protecting their eggs from predators. They will urinate on their eggs, creating a strong-smelling deterrent that discourages would-be egg thieves. Hoopoes, in particular, emit an odor detectable from a considerable distance, akin to a skunk’s spray.
Handling a baby bird will not cause the parent birds to reject it, but there are many lesser-known facts and details related to this topic that can further enhance our understanding of bird behavior and interactions with their offspring.
Limited Sense of Taste: In addition to having a poor sense of smell, many bird species also have a limited sense of taste. This means that they are unlikely to detect any foreign taste, such as human skin or scent, on their chicks.
Eggshell Camouflage: Birds often lay eggs with shells that blend into their natural surroundings. This camouflage is a protective adaptation to reduce the chances of predators finding their nests. Some bird species can even change the coloration of their eggs based on their environment.
Caching Eggs: Certain bird species, like the common eider, will leave their nests temporarily while laying eggs to avoid drawing attention to their nests. They may return later to continue incubating the eggs.
Brood Parasitism: Some birds, like the cuckoo, employ a reproductive strategy called brood parasitism. They lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species, shifting the responsibility of rearing their young to the host parents. This can lead to conflicts and adaptations in host birds to detect and reject foreign eggs.
Egg Disguise: Birds may employ tactics to hide their eggs. For example, the Eurasian coot will cover its eggs with nesting material when leaving the nest, making them appear as part of the nest structure and less likely to be preyed upon.
Nest Relocation: Some bird species, like American coots, are known to move their entire nests if they perceive a threat. They can transport their eggs and chicks to a new location to enhance their offspring’s safety.
Parental Defense: Parent birds are often highly protective of their young. They may use various tactics, such as distraction displays or feigning injury, to lure predators away from their nests or chicks.
Synchronized Hatching: Many bird species lay multiple eggs, but they don’t all hatch at once. Instead, parents often coordinate hatching so that all chicks are similar in size and development. This strategy reduces competition among siblings.
Nest Sanitization: Some bird species exhibit remarkable nest hygiene. They actively remove fecal sacs (waste produced by nestlings) from the nest to keep it clean and reduce the chances of attracting predators.
Nest Construction Variability: Bird nests come in various forms, from simple scrapes on the ground to intricate structures built high in trees. The construction and location of nests depend on factors like species, habitat, and predator threats.
The myth that touching a baby bird will lead to parental abandonment is largely unfounded. Most bird species have a limited sense of smell and are more concerned with visual cues and sounds when it comes to recognizing their young. While it’s crucial to handle wildlife with care and respect, rest assured that a brief touch will not doom a baby bird. However, always prioritize observing and preserving these fascinating creatures in their natural habitat, allowing them to thrive with the guidance of their vigilant parents.