A mother bird will not abandon her young if it's touched by a human.
- Birds do not identify their offspring by smell nor do they abandon their young without a good reason.
No matter how flighty birds appear,
they do not readily abandon their
young, especially not in response to
human touch, says Frank B. Gill,
former president of the American
- Sight and sound: Baby birds chirp for a reason.
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
- Some don't even care, or know, if it is not their offspring
Both the male and female Western
Bluebirds fed unrelated nestlings at
the same rate as their own offspring.
Neither male nor female Western Bluebirds
preferentially fed related nestlings, suggesting
that they may not recognize their own young.
- Preservation of the species.
This prevalent belief, however, is for
the birds: it denies animal parents'
innate drive to nurture their broods
and ignores a bird's basic biology.
In fact, most creatures find
extraordinary ways to ensure the
survival of their young. Killdeer and
ducks will feign a broken wing to lure
a predator away from their babies, and
raccoons and tree squirrels will
speedily relocate their progeny to
more protected pastures when a
potential threat is skulking about.
- Nests are a different matter.
Still, there's good reason not to go
fiddling around in an occupied nest.
"The fact is, birds don't abandon
their young in response to touch,
[but] they will abandon [their
offspring and their nest] in response
to disturbance," explains biologist
Thomas E. Martin of the University of
Montana and the U.S. Geological
Survey, who has handled birds from
Venezuela to Tasmania without
instigating abandonment. "They are
likely responding to disturbance in
relation to risk of harm to young."
- Disease may be one source of this myth...
Each spring, some children become
infected with Salmonella after
receiving a chick or other baby bird
for Easter. It is important to
remember that illness can occur from
these baby birds or adult birds at any
time of the year, and not just during
the Easter season.
Wild rabbits are the exception to this
rule. "These animals seem to be the
most sensitive to human and other
smells. They're a flighty, high-stress
If you suspect that a rabbit's nest
has been abandoned, the Humane Society
recommends making an "X" out of yarn
or string over the nest and checking
approximately 10 hours later to see if
it has been moved. If the X has been
pushed aside but the nest is still
covered, that's a good indication that
the mother has returned, nursed her
young, and then re-covered them. If
the X stays in place for 12 hours
after the traumatic event, it's likely
that the young rabbits have been
The Bottom Line.
- Birds identify their young by sound and appearance not smell (or taste) and being touched by a human does not modify a young bird's appearance or the sounds it makes.
- Studies have show many species of bird will feed and care for offspring other than their own.
- Like most creatures, birds have a strong biological instinct to care for their young and will not abandon them without just cause.
- If you find a baby bird
put it back in its nest. If it is in
danger: Get it out of danger and
place it in a tree or shrub.
- Do not disturb bird nests.
- Wash your hands.