It's a myth that if you go near a baby bird or nest the mother will abandon the nest or worse, kill the hatchlings inside. While it is best to not interfere with wildlife in most situations, your presence alone is not enough to overcome the instincts of nature and procreation.
I've Fallen and Can't Get Up
The most common possibility of finding a baby bird on the ground is simply due to accident. Hatchlings are mobile, but awkward, and it's not difficult for one to take a tumble from their nest. Windy days pose a problem as well: Baby birds weigh less than an ounce, and it doesn't take much for a random gust to push a chick from the nest.
Just learning how to fly can cause a chick to land hard. Baby birds at this stage are called "fledglings." It's not uncommon for fledglings to fall a few times while learning. What most of us don't see is how this training takes place: Learning to fly is more of a series of graceless and clumsy flops from one branch to the next as the fledgling comprehends how to glide. Often, one of these ill-timed dives results in the baby bird depositing itself on the ground, instead of its intended destination. Parents are prepared for this, and will continue to care for the chick.
The kindhearted cat owner with a baby bird in their yard may not realized that it's their own Mr. Fluffy that has pulled a chick from its nest. Outside cats -- both feral and domestic -- consider baby birds fair game. Cats can kill between 1.4 billion and 3.7 billion birds a year, with cats claiming about 10 percent of those numbers. Sometimes the adults are the prey, leaving the nest abandoned. In other situations, a cat can carry a baby bird away from the nest, before being interrupted and leaving the chick, who now appears to have been kicked from the nest.
Leaving It All Behind
Although the culprit isn't "human smell," there are situations when adult birds will abandon their nests, eggs and all. Insect infestations, constant predator threat, a broken egg and particularly inclement weather are all reasons for the parents to call it quits on a nest.
A few visits to keep an eye on a nest and eggs will not encourage the adult birds to leave. Exceeding more than 10 visits during the entirety of the chick's growth, however, may indicate a pattern of consistent threat to the parents, and encourage them to leave the nest. It is also important to never move the nest, as birds recognize their home from "nest-site fidelity." If their nest has been moved, they may not recognize it as their own, and therefore not return to the waiting eggs or chicks.
For the Greater Good
Unfortunately, there are situations where a mother bird will kill or deliberately push a baby bird from a nest. While this happens rarely, it usually comes down to the risk a baby bird presents to its siblings and the rest of the nest.
If one chick develops an infection or illness, or is deformed in some way, a mother bird may either kill it and eat the remains for nourishment, or push it from the nest to keep the other babies from sickness.
First-time bird parents will sometimes kill their babies because they simply don't know what to do. This can happen with domestic pet birds that have been hand-fed or raised away from parents of their own. When the conditions of the nest change, new parent birds may become overly anxious, or panic, pecking their chicks or pushing them from the nest due to stress.
Dos and Dont's
If you find a baby bird on the ground, there are some things you can do -- and should not do -- to give it the best chance of survival.
- Do: Keep an eye on the baby bird and nest.
- Do: Notice if it has feathers or not. A feathered bird is more than likely a fallen fledgling.
- Don't: Move the nest.
- Do: Keep your cats and dogs indoors.
- Don't: Try to raise the baby bird on your own.
- Do: If the chick is featherless, attempt to put them back in the nest.
- Do: Call a local wildlife facility.
- Don't: Move the baby to any place but its nest.
- Don't: Give the baby bird water. Adult birds do not bring water to their chicks.
- Don't: try to feed the baby bird.
- Do: Give the baby bird space, as its parents may be afraid to approach if you are near.