If You Touch a Baby Bird, Will Its Mom Abandon It?

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

When I was a kid, our living room opened out onto a back deck through a set of French doors. A pine tree stood over the deck, providing a home for countless birds. Baby birds would regularly fall from their nests onto the deck, and would lie there crying in full view of my brother and me as we sat on the floor watching TV. Our parents always told us that we should never attempt to rescue these birds, no matter how long they were out on the deck, because our scent would cause their parents to reject and abandon them.

Some of these babies would get their act together and find their way back into the nest. Some would get dragged off by neighborhood cats. A few got plucked off the deck by hawks (and, once, devoured as I watched). Whatever happened to the birds, though, my brother and I dutifully listened to our mother.

These days, I feel bad about that. It turns out my mom is full of baloney.

Scent of a Human

Birds will not readily abandon their young because they “smell humans.” For one thing, birds don’t have a great sense of smell. Their olfactory bulbs are small and simple compared to other animals (although this wasn’t always the case, and there are exceptions to the rule, like the turkey vulture, albatross and kiwi), and they’re not going to be able to pick out your scent from all the other smells hitting their beaks at any given moment.

Even if they could detect your scent, and make a negative association with it, they’re not just going to up and leave. You wouldn’t abandon your kids and home at the first sign of danger, would you? Even if you didn’t love either all that much, you already went through the trouble of painting the living room and changing all those dirty diapers, right? Birds will make that same simple economic decision. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in those babies and they’re not going to give them up for nothing. Mess around with a nest before the eggs are laid or before they hatch, and a bird might re-nest elsewhere, but once the kids are in the picture, they’re no push-overs.

Rescue Mission

So, my mother is obviously no ornithologist, and she’s not your mom, so feel free to ignore her advice. (Sort of. Let me explain.)

There are two types of baby birds you’re likely to encounter on the ground: nestlings and fledglings. Nestlings are featherless or fuzzy and are too young to leave the nest. Fledglings have their feathers and are old enough to leave the nest and be on the ground, making their first bold steps away from home under the watchful eye of mom and dad.

Fledglings you should leave alone. They’ll usually sit around for a few days outside the nest before their flight skills develop enough that they don’t need their parents. If you’ve got a fledgling near your home and are worried about predators, ask your neighbors to keep their cats inside. Hawks? Well, that’s just the circle of life.

Nestlings, though, could probably use a helping hand. Pick them up and put them pack in the nest, and their parents will not think any less of them if they smell a little bit like a human. What you should not do is take the little guys inside and try to care for them yourself. Sure, you’re at the top of the food chain. You’re smart and civilized and have dominion over the natural world. But you are not a bird. You will make a lousy bird mom.

This $49 Video Game Design Course Will Teach You Everything From Coding to Digital Art Skills

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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A Prehistoric Great White Shark Nursery Has Been Discovered in Chile

Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
Great white sharks used prehistoric nurseries to protect their young.
solarseven/iStock via Getty Images

Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) may be one of the most formidable and frightening apex predators on the planet today, but life for them isn’t as easy as horror movies would suggest. Due to a slow growth rate and the fact that they produce few offspring, the species is listed as vulnerable to extinction.

There is a way these sharks ensure survival, and that is by creating nurseries—a designated place where great white shark babies (called pups) are protected from other predators. Now, researchers at the University of Vienna and colleagues have discovered these nurseries occurred in prehistoric times.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, Jamie A. Villafaña from the university’s Institute of Palaeontology describes a fossilized nursery found in Coquimbo, Chile. Researchers were examining a collection of fossilized great white shark teeth between 5 and 2 million years old along the Pacific coast of Chile and Peru when they noticed a disproportionate number of young shark teeth in Coquimbo. There was also a total lack of sexually mature animals' teeth, which suggests the site was used primarily by pups and juveniles as a nursery.

Though modern great whites are known to guard their young in designated areas, the researchers say this is the first example of a paleo-nursery. Because the climate was much warmer when the paleo-nursery was in use, the researchers think these protective environments can deepen our understanding of how great white sharks can survive global warming trends.