Bird Myths: A mother will reject its baby if a human touches it

Unlike some of the other myths I’ve covered, this myth has been prevalent for decades and probably arose from parents not wanting their children to touch any baby birds they find on the ground.

Despite the widespread belief that touching a bird will leave a human scent on it and therefore make other birds reject it, the story is absolutely false.

Birds have a terrible sense of smell, so the idea that they can smell the scent of humans on a baby bird is pretty crazy. Someone once said the idea was akin to a human mother smelling a bird that landed on the top of her child’s head and then no longer wanting them in her house.

Scientists and researchers have been handling baby and adult birds for years without birds abandoning the baby or ostracizing an adult from the flock. All this is not to say you should go around touching birds in nests.

Occasionally, a bird will abandon its baby if it sees a human coming around and grabbing the baby too often. The mother doesn’t smell a human on the baby, but might perceive there to be extreme danger and risk to herself and the baby from constant activity. Generally, this type of behavior is not very common since the mother will fight until the end to protect her baby.

Another reason this myth might be common is that when someone picks up a fallen bird and places it back in the nest, the mother might only come back for a little while and then fly away for several hours. There are two reasons for this: either the fallen bird was a nestling and the mother was going to find it more food or the bird was a fledgling learning to fly and the mother was giving it distant support to ensure it learned how to fly on its own. Neither of these have to do with the smell of a human.

If you find a fallen nestling on the ground and see the nest within sight, there won’t be any risk of picking it up and placing it back. However, you should always avoiding picking up wild birds unless absolutely necessary.

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38 Comments

  1. Funky
    Posted June 2, 2011 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    But wat of when the egg is touched wil it hatched it

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      Even if eggs are touched by bare hands, they will still hatch. However, you should avoid touching eggs all together because messing with them (i.e. shaking them, making them different temperatures, getting them dirty) will make them less likely to hatch. Also, if a mother sees you coming around her eggs and touching them too often, she might feel threatened and abandon the eggs.

  2. Maryann
    Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I have a duck egg and I turned it over, and my mom said that it killed the duck,and I got sad, but all the things I’ve heard say That the turning doesn’t matter is that true?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      There’s no reason to believe you touching or turning the egg had any effect on it. Mothers naturally turn their eggs during incubation and touching it will not leave a scent. So, you probably didn’t kill it.

    • Posted March 31, 2013 at 1:22 am | Permalink

      dont feel bad i have a problem i touched a baby duck because it was all alone and i did after 10 minutes i fond the mother and returned it to her.
      but will the mother take care of the duckling. yes or no

  3. Maryann
    Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I also jogged with the egg and flipped it upside down when i picked up the egg. Will it still hatch? I have it in a cardboard box , and the egg is in newspaper under a light.

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Generally speaking, when the egg is shaken, which it possibly was while you were jogging, then it probably won’t hatch. Careful and light movements are fine, but anything more will be too traumatic. It doesn’t hurt to keep trying if you don’t think it was shaken too badly, though.

  4. Maryann
    Posted April 30, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    I love your replies Timothy Martenez Jr. : )

  5. joey
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    but can it still hach after a humun tuches it

  6. Kim
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    We had a family of house finches build a nest onto a very narrow ledge under our patio several weeks ago. I always worry when they build there since the ledge is so narrow (they’ve built there before). We’ve been keeping watch on the goings on of the little family and discovered that the mother had laid five eggs in there (we would only check quickly when she had left the nest to avoid upsetting her). Last week I went to check on the nest and saw that all five eggs had hatched! However, yesterday, I was shocked to see the nest on the ground, along with one of her babies, dead. I couldn’t believe that the other four babies were still lying on the ledge! The only thing I could think to do was put gloves on and carefully try and put the nest back together (though, I’m not a bird so I’m sure I did it wrong!) and gently put the four remaining chicks inside. I carefully replaced the nest onto the ledge. The mother and father have both been back frequently to feed the chicks and keep them warm. However, yesterday I noticed that two of the four chicks were (yet again!) out of the nest on the ledge. Is this mother just rejecting some of her babies and pushing them out of the nest? They’re so young that I can’t imagine they’re getting out on their own. We’ve never had this happen before with house finches. My kids are worried that more of her babies are going to die. Maybe the mother knows something we don’t? Any insight?

  7. Posted June 4, 2012 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    I picked up a baby bird and put it back in its nest .will the mother reject it?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted June 4, 2012 at 2:42 am | Permalink

      No, it won’t reject the baby bird.

  8. jacob
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 6:16 am | Permalink

    I found a baby blue jay yesterday. Unfortunaly my dog found it first, and broke one of its legs at the (knee?). I have been feeding it mushed up cat food and keeping it in a small plastic dish full of t shirt scrapes at night. I have also been leaving it outside during the day because mama is still looking after it. I’m not sure what to do with the little guy. Any impute?

  9. Posted January 3, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    hi butt face

  10. Posted January 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    sorry wanted to se if this worked

  11. yaz
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    i have to birds in their cage but when it layed its egg it fell on the bottom rail cage and they look like they are going insane. picking each others beaks. we have wood nest for it but the egg looks fine does not look broken is it possible for me to get it and put it on its nest?

  12. Tina
    Posted May 8, 2013 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    A baby Morning Dove fell out of its nest in our yard last week. I put gloves on, got the ladder out, and as I reached up to return it to the nest, mama never left it. Instead she lifted up her wing for me to slip the baby under it, then tucked her wing around it as I got down and took the ladder away. She never took her eyes off of me, but clearly she welcomed her baby back. I then happened to be in the yard when mama and papa were teaching their two babies to fly. Close quarters in the yard,and they knew I was there. This is the second year this pair have nested in this spot. Same nest, just remodeled a bit this year. We are benevolent neighbors.

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted May 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      That’s a fantastic story. It just goes to show that birds to appreciate the help of people!

  13. Leslie
    Posted May 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    I spotted a birds nest in ny orange tree in my back yard. I went to show my kids the nest and the momma bird flew away now everytime I open the door or go outside (mostly everyday) I see the momma bird fly to a higher tree and look at what im doing. Im scared shes going to feel threatend and leave her eggs… What should I do?

    • Posted May 16, 2013 at 2:43 am | Permalink

      Honestly I think the momma bird just isn’t used to you yet I think you should just leave her alone and make sure your kids aren’t secretly messing with her eggs and jut dont look directly at her that does potentially threaten a bird i say just dont even egnolage her and you should be fine after a while u will just become part of her daily routine and she won’t be threatens

  14. Posted May 16, 2013 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Ok so I have a question there was a baby sparow nest with 6 babies i touched everyone of them will the mommy come back and then I fed them strawberries because i heard they were good the babies were very young then i saw the momma bird having trouble finding her babies so i relocated the nest to the bush that the mom always sits at to find her kids before that i had at the nest on the ground and played with 2 of the baby birds then put it back in the bush then told my parent and they made me move the babies back to there first location they say the moma won’t come back or she will kick them out of the best or kill them herself and I feel really bad what will happen to the birds PLEASE HELP ME I CRIED FOR TO HOURS OVER THIS WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THOSE BIRDS ??????

    • Posted May 16, 2013 at 2:24 am | Permalink

      Please help me i don’t want to find out the bad results

  15. Posted May 20, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    WILL A MOMA BIRD SIT ON HER BABIES IF THEY ARE DEAD? I HAVE A NEST NEXT DOOR TO ME THAT FELL OFF THE HOUSE AT NIGHT IN A STORM AND WE PUT IT BACK AT NIGHT SO SHE WASN’T AROUND TO TAKE CARE OF THEM UNTIL THIS MORNING. THEY LOOKED ALMOST DEAD LAST NIGHT AND WET. IF THEY ARE DEAD WILL SHE STILL GET INTO THE NEST? SHE IS UP THERE NOW UNLESS THE BABIES (2 OF THEM) OR BABY LIVED ALL NIGHT IN THE RAIN AND CHILLY TEMPS.

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted May 20, 2013 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, a mother will usually still sit on her babies if they are dead. But it’s possible they’re still alive and she’s rehabilitating them, so you shouldn’t give up hope.

  16. Krista
    Posted May 22, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    I need help! So this bird made a nest and layed 3 eggs in my parents barbecue grill, and someone threw the eggs far away from the birds nest. I picked the eggs up and put them back in the nest… but I think the parents might have abandoned the nest!D: Also one of the eggs had a huge hole in it but the other two are fine. (Both my mom and I thought we felt them moving a little!). I’m sorry I’m not the good with typing stories. So will the parents come back? It’s been about a day and I don’t think I’ve seen them.

  17. Joy
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi,
    We have House Finch nest rather close to our house that we can see the mother bird sitting on nest from inside our house. She has been sitting on nest for over 3 weeks with no eggs hatched. This is too long. Can the eggs still be alive? And how long will she sit there if the eggs are dead?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, there’s still a remote possibility that the eggs will still hatch (there have been some interesting cases), but it’s very likely they won’t hatch. It’s hard to say how much longer the mother will continue incubating the eggs, but she will eventually make a judgment and move on when she realizes they will not hatch.

  18. kayla
    Posted June 21, 2013 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    We had to cut a couple trees down. One the tree was down my husband found a nest w baby birds in it. He picked the babies up and put them back in their nest and placed the nest in another tree. How do I know if the mother had rejected the babies? Is it a safe guess if she’s not sitting on them at night she left them?

  19. Heidi
    Posted June 22, 2013 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    I have a nest in a hanging plant under my porch. The five eggs hatched this week and I have only seen the mother once since then. The babies are alive and breathing, is it normal for the mother to be gone often? I’m not outside often, but she was always there before they hatched. I’m a bit worried something happened to her. I believe they are sparrows.

  20. Dana
    Posted June 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Today I found a baby bird on the sidewalk. He was an older one who couldn’t quite fly yet. I looked around the area for a nest, but couldn’t find one. I did however find another baby bird under a tree a few feet away near some shrubs. There were some adult robins on the tree above with worms in their mouths, glaring at me. I didn’t want to leave the little guy on the sidewalk, so I picked him up and put him next to his assumed sibling. Did I do the right thing, or should I have let him be?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted June 24, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      It’s always good to leave a bird alone, unless it’s in some sort of immediate danger. I don’t know what the situation was like, but the sidewalk could be a dangerous place, especially if people are walking a dog. It might not have been necessary to move the bird, but it almost certainly didn’t harm it. To answer your question, either one is fine.

  21. Rachael
    Posted June 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi, yesterday found a nestling crow fell thirty feet down from a very big tree we have. Had her in my hands and she perched on my arm for hours calling her mother. Whilst her mother called called back for her. So a neighbor climbed the tree and placed thebaby back up there. But unfortunately I found her dead this evening. Seemed not like a cat had gotten her maybe fright led her to fall out of the tree again. But this is the third dead baby bird, the other two were much smaller. But this nestling was big but couldn’t fly. Learning to, I wish I hadve kept her she wouldn’tve been dead and crows are quite intelligent. I am very sad. :( but will bury the third baby in my backyard with head stone. But do you think that these birds scare easily might’ve died from the trauma of being placed up in he nest or falling again? Ive read they fright (smaller ones like finches etc) die from fright. Never survive being placed in captivity. Birds are fragile from my experience. So I’m quite sad bout the whole thing. Have any advice if another falls down?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted June 30, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why these birds keep dying. You say it was a nestling, but it sounds like it could have been a fledgling (big but can’t completely fly yet). If it’s a fledgling, you should try to leave it alone on the ground. The mother will still feed and take care of it. It could also just be that birds accidentally fell out of the nest. So if it’s a nestling, you should put it back, but know that it may not survive if it was a really huge fall and it was on the ground for a while. If it’s a fledgling, you should leave it be (unless it’s in some sort of immediate danger).

  22. Garland
    Posted July 7, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Three blue bird eggs just hatched, I think yesterday or today, but there has been no adult birds around for more than a week, that I have seen. I think they were hatched by the heat from the sun. They look very weak in the nest. Should I just leave them alone?

  23. dorran
    Posted July 22, 2013 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    I found a fledgling today and kept it I am going to return it to the nest tomorrow , will the mother still take care of it?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.
      Posted July 22, 2013 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      If it’s a fledgling (has feathers and looks about ready to fly), that means it’s probably ready to leave the nest anyway. If you found it on the ground in front of the nest, you should put it back where it was. The parents will usually still take care of it on the ground as it’s learning to fly.

  24. Amanda
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I have two doves that had a baby about a week ago and today we changed the nest and we must have touched it because the mother started to pluck and pull at the baby’s feathers and swallow them. Is it possible that the mother is now rejecting her baby? If so, how do we feed the baby by hand, how do we give it water, etc. the male doesn’t seem to mind the baby but the mother doesn’t want to go near it. Help

  25. Robyn
    Posted June 19, 2014 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    I have heard that blue jays will sometimes put their eggs in a robin nest to have the robin bird hatch and raise the baby blue jay. Is this true?

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Sweet Surprise | Whats Ur Home Story? on April 22, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    [...] A robin’s nest! We had seen the mommy robin around for days but hadn’t thought much of it till them. After a frenzy of inquisitive peeking through the crack between the deck boards (from above) we spotted eggs. We should have just let it be but you all know we are a very curious bunch and of course I had to show it to you too. Off I went to Google to research more about touching/ moving the nest. It seems it is ok as long as you don’t bother it too much. So we took it down to examine and take pics. (I know a few of you were concerned about the mommy bird abandoning her nest upon human touch. It seems that whole saying is a myth. The author in this post has described the origins of this saying in detail here). [...]

  2. [...] you can still assure everyone that a mother bird will not reject a chick if it smells human on [...]

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