Into The Air

The Official Blog of Backyard Chirper

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

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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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42 Comments

  1. Funky

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

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.

      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

    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.

      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.

    • 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

    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.

      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

    I love your replies Timothy Martenez Jr. : )

  5. joey

    but can it still hach after a humun tuches it

  6. Kim

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

  8. jacob

    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. yaz

    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?

  10. Tina

    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.

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

  11. Leslie

    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?

    • 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

  12. 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.

      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.

  13. Krista

    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.

  14. Joy

    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.

      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.

  15. kayla

    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?

  16. Heidi

    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.

  17. Dana

    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.

      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.

  18. Rachael

    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.

      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).

  19. Garland

    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?

  20. dorran

    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.

      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.

  21. Amanda

    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

  22. crystsal

    my cat got ahold a nestling and the mommy bird come and looks at it then flies away what does it mean

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.

      The mother is probably just assessing the scene and seeing whether the nestling is still alive. There’s not too much the mother can do if it’s out of the nest and injured.

  23. Mina

    I was outside today with my dog, and I found him trying to eat a baby bird. I picked my dog up and threw him somewhere else, while I picked up the baby bird to keep it from being attacked by my dog again. I let the baby go near its mom and now I hope the best for the little fledgeling, if I wouldn’t of found my dog, the poor thing would of died.

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.

      I’m glad you were able to save the bird in the nick of time.

  24. Maddy

    PLEASE HELP! This morning my dad was taking the cover off of our camper and a nest fell out with 3 baby birds, which they barely have any fur and the drop was not high at all. My dad didn’t want to harm them so he got two sticks and picked the nest up and set it in a little eave on the roof which was only about 15 yards away from the original location. I haven’t seen the mother around. But a little later I went to go check on them they were begging for food..(you know opening their mouths and looking up) it was really sad and I wanted to feed them but I don’t want to hurt them or feed them something wrong either that might result in killing them. Then the next time I looked at them they were sound asleep all bundled up. Are they okay? PLEASE PLEASE help me I really don’t know what to do and I want to help them and make sure they don’t die and also make sure that the mom finds them. PLEASE RESPOND. I also don’t know what type of bird they are.. HELP

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.

      It sounds like your dad did the right thing. If you the nest can’t be put back in its original location, put it in a logical place nearby. Birds will typically be able to find the nest again if it’s not far. Sometimes the mother comes and goes without anyone noticing. It’s possible the mother has returned. Hopefully she was able to find the nest again, but there’s not much you can do about.

  25. Amanda

    We have a doves nest right outside our window in a low lying pine tree. It has 2 baby birds…maybe a week old. I have not seen the nest without a bird on top. But I did see the mama bird get spooked this morning (my fault) and fly off. This was an hour ago and she has not returned. Will she come back?? When she flew off, she went to my neighbors drive way and it looked as though she was having a hard time flying. Would that be from sitting so much?? I’m just concerned for the babies. If she doesn’t come back, how long should we wait to get them care?

    • Timothy Martinez Jr.

      Baby birds can’t live for very long without their mother. If she is spooked, she might be watching from a distance, so steer clear of that area for as long as possible. You also have to be 100% sure she hasn’t come back. Sometimes birds will come back to feed the nestlings and leave again. If she hasn’t returned in several hours, you should contact your local wildlife rehabilitators for recommendations.

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

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