If I Handle A Baby Bird Will Its Mother Reject It?
During breeding season, we get lots of people writing in to ask what’s the best thing to do if they find a baby bird. Many people are also concerned that if they handle a baby bird it will be rejected by its parents. And lots of people remember being told as children to keep away from baby birds.
But is it true that wild birds are so sensitive to smell that they will abandon their chicks and eggs if they catch the faintest whiff of human scent?
The truth is that birds will not leave their nests if the smell of humans is on their babies or eggs. Most birds have a very poor sense of smell as their olfactory bulbs are relatively small compared to most animals. They wouldn’t be able to detect the scent of a human, let alone that left behind after someone had touched an egg or picked up a bird.
Even if they could smell human scent they are unlikely to abandon their chicks which they have invested an awful lot of time and energy in producing and which they are not going to give up unless there is a very real threat present.
If you disturb eggs while the parents are away from the nest, on their return they may notice that they have been moved which could indicate that a predator is close by. This could cause a nest to be abandoned and although this behaviour is fairly unusual, in this case the birds are responding to visual clues rather than olfactory signals.
It is perfectly normal for fledglings to spend a few days on the ground while they learn to fly properly as well as learn other behaviours such as vocalizations and survival skills, and the parents are likely to be nearby. Unless the bird is in immediate danger then you should leave well alone. After a while the parents should come back to the baby bird to feed and protect it.
If you see a nestling on the ground, then you may want to try and help it. Nestlings don’t yet have feathers and are too young to leave the nest so if you find one gently pick it up and pop it back in the nest. Do not take it away to look after yourself unless you are sure the parents are dead or gone for good. And get in touch with a local wildlife rehabilitation centre for help and advice.
So where did this myth originate from? We would take a wild guess and suggest that it was a way for (human) parents to try and stop their children picking up baby birds and bringing them home as pets. It may have been more effective to issue the dire warning that a tiny bird would be abandoned by its parents and starve to death than tell them the truth.
You can find more advice here on how to help baby birds during breeding season.