Baby bird touched by human = rejected by mother?

I always heard as a kid that a baby bird touched by a human will be rejected by its mother. Is this true, or just something told children so they leave the baby bird alone?

The reminded me of the Birds-Eating-Rice-At-Weddings UL, so I did a search on Snopes, but didn’t find anything.

Nope,it’s true. Human’s have a smell to them. If we touch a chick our oils will transfer to the chick. The mother will sense(smell? not to sure) something different and abandon it. I have heard two reasons why.

  1. The mother does not recognize the smell of it’s chick so leaves it alone.
  2. What wild animal ever trust humans?!
    This is all IMHO of course.

Not all birds will reject chicks that have been touched by humans. I have seen some of those bird documentaries on PBS where the host (Is it David Attenborough?) picks up chicks with impunity, and after he walks away, the mother bird returns, seemingly unperterbed by human scent.

Sorry about that-- post was cut off.

The reason why seems to be determined by the breed. Some birds that nest closely together have to distingush their chick from the neighbors’ look-alikes by scent. Birds that nest seperately remember their young by where the nest is, and will feed any chick that peeps in that nest.

One certain bird breed takes advantage of that fact by laying its egg in another bird’s nest. When the huge, ugly chick hatches along with the real parent’s smaller, frailer chick, the parents will feed them both, not seeming to realize they’ve been duped into raising another species. When the bigger, changeling chick grows too large for the small nest, he kicks the other chicks out of the nest to die on the forest floor.

I think you are referring to cuckoos… could be wrong though

That would be the cuckoo, Lissa - whence the term cuckold, which can be fun if you can get away with it.

In a discussion with brachyrhyncos about raising crows and ravens, I came across this FAQ with a relevant answer. However, there is this disclaimer:


so YMMV. Actually I’d like to see what brachy has to say on this one myself. You think we could get her out of the treetops long enough to give us her $.02?

The kind we feed. :slight_smile: (ducks, pigeons, etc…granted, this pertains to individuals, not the species as a whole) Come to think of it, Dodos did not fear humans…and see where that got them.

re: cuckoos - there are other birds that are nest parasites too, but I can’t think of them at the moment (cowbirds?)

overall, I agree, it probably depends on the species. but scent does play a big part in the animal world.

There are many types of cuckoo but there is also a duck that lays its eggs in another nest.

When the chicks hatch they immediately remove themselves from their ‘siblings’. I can’t recall if they are then tended by their natural parents or wether they find their own way in the world.

Phobos, remember that these animals that we feed were not always that way. society has befriended certain animals because we have spoiled them. If I give you free food, place to live and attention wouldn’t you stick around?
Wow, where did that come from…I almost started to get into this ;j

People who count broods and nestlings say you can replace a baby in the nest and the mother won’t know the difference. The bird sense of smell is not very sharp (this must vary by species).

After a certain age the will no longer stay in the nest and replacing them does no good - even if they are not ready to fledge. All is not lost, if the baby will not stay in the nest, take it to a protected area and the mother will find it just the same. Cats take a lot of these babies since the birds hopping is the way they get around.

Someone reported finding a broken nest on the ground after a windy storm, she glued a cereal bowl to a branch in the same tree, fit the nest together, set it in the bowl, set in the babies, and the mother came back - business as usual.

Most birds have a very poor sense of smell. Touching the baby will leave your scent on it, but backyard birds do not have a strong enough sense of smell to tell. However, I advise you not to touch the baby birds anyway so nature can take its course.

Mammals, however, are a different story.

Also, you need a liscence to legally touch most birds.

“Hello, Wildlife Department? I’d like a bird-touching license.”

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid the bird-touching season has passed.”

that means she’s online with those folks over on SDMB…

My mother always told me not to touch the dirty birds. She still tells me that today. I tell her that’s what I’m paid to do: I AM a federally licensed bird toucher.

Birds vary widely in their capability to distinguish odors. Most passerines (songbirds) have a poorly developed sense of smell as with the columbiformes (doves and pigeons). There are exceptions - corvids (crows, magpies, jays and ravens) appear to have a slightly better sense of smell than other passerines and as it turns out, they also have two olfactory lobes in their brains rather than one. Given that many corvids are omnivorous, they may be able to find food sources (dead or dying animals tucked away or previously cached food) more easily with an additional sense than relying on sight alone. But, their lobes are small compared to other birds like vultures. So perhaps their sense of smell isn’t so hot after all.
But, I doubt if many birds would abandon their kids with stinky human smells on them for the following reasons:
[ul][li]Probably can’t smell the odor in the first place due to those small or simgle olfactory lobes. Smell plays a minor role in their lives. Besides, some of these kids have an amazingly strong odor themselves. We’d have to roll them around in our armpits to both overcome their natural odor and to stimulate the parents recognition threshold.[/li][li]Kids cost a lot to get to a point beyond being an egg. You don’t abandon this effort based on the presense of a smell you’re not likely to detect.[/li][li]Parents do abandon nests for a variety of reasons, including human activity. The kid you find may be the result of an abandonment and your touching it will not affect the outcome of the parent’s response - they have already abandoned it.[/ul][/li]
So when I see a fledgling on the ground, I look or listen to see if Mom or Dad is about. If they are, I toss the kid back into a tree or put it into a thick bush if it is able to grip a branch. Mom and Dad will find, feed, and protect the kid. They are tenacious about it. If no one is about (rarely happens), I’ll take the kid to a shelter, or, if they are within a day or so of fully fledging, I’ll feed and water the little guy.

And now onto cuckoos and cowbirds. Old world cuckoos do leave their eggs in the nests of other species, but cuckoos in North American most often build their own nests. When they lay in someone elses nests, it is most often another cuckoos nest than a different species. During the 4th, I caught and photographed a Black-billed Cuckoo down in Cape May. They are beauties - much more delicate than I had thought! And yes, Phobos, Bronzed Cowbirds (Molothrus aeneus) and Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) do parasitize nests of other species.

And that’s my 2 cents. Oh, and casdave - in North American, redheads and ruddy ducks drop eggs in other duck species’ nests. I had no idea that the duck family had so many parasites (found this tidbit in Terres’ Encyclopedia of North American Birds). Far out. I’m going back to read some more!

Timely Thread (for me)!

This is a bit of a hijack, but that won’t slow me down.


We had tree trimmers work on the back yard a few weeks ago. I came home and was investigating the back yard while being berated by a few scrub jays. I then heard a rustling sound in the bushes. I found two fuzzy baby scrub jays and a nest on the ground. I panicked and ran inside to check the internet (of course). A spirited and quick search turned up info that the ‘birds will abandon chicks with human stink’ adage is a myth. I grabbed an old empty cigar box and ran back outside. I put the nest into the box and jammed the box into another tree (the tree nearest to the nest was unable to hide or hold my ‘box nest’) while the upset parents watched me. I scooped up the 2 babies and popped the back into the nest. This didn’t seem to quiet the parents much. I decided to investigate further and found that another chick had fallen further into the neighbor’s yard and was covered in ants. I scrambled to it and found it was alive. I proceeded to huff and puff the ants off the bird and inspect it. It was scratched up a bit but seemed OK. When I couldn’t find any more ants on it I put it into the nest as well. Afterwards I feared looking into the nest for what I would find. My wife checked it out a few days later and found the nest empty.

Anyone care to make an educated guess on their fate? Also anything else I could/should have done? My wife (in her trusting way) assumed the parents moved the chicks and thinks I’m a hero. I saw the chicks and they were pretty large (at least 1/2 the size of the full grown jays) and I doubt that they were really movable. My fear is that Crows (or other beasties) ate 'em.

I don’t think this behavior applies to Penguins. I was also watching this documentary about Penguins where the narrator guy handled one while it was at play. The documentary didn’t show the mother coming back to it, but you would think the guy would know not to touch the penguin, if this were true for them. But who knows, maybe the mother did leave it.

CheapBastid: An admirable effort! You’re probably right about a predator getting the chicks - nest mortality can be alarmingly high. Fortunately a number of birds (generally passerines) will do a clutch replacement or even double clutch. Male Northern Cardinals will feed fledglings while the female broods the next clutch. This is more likely to happen with birds in more southerly populations than in the north. While I don’t know specifically if Scrub Jays will produce a replacement clutch, it’s very probable they are doing so now. (BTW, jays, being a good corvid like crows, also take the eggs and young of other birds too. You gotta eat and provide for the family, right?)

That’s a tough decision when an entire nest falls out of the nest tree - talk about nest disturbance! I understand your decision. The parents were there and undoubtably knew where their kids were located. Unfortunately nest placement is a trickier question and avian parents choose nest sites for a variety of reasons including lowered detection by predators. Obviously these are factors we don’t think about - we just want the parents to take care of their kids and for the family to be together again. Like I said in my previous post, I would probably take the kids to a rehab place. But I do admire your attempt. And, depending on the circumstances, I might even try that myself. But I’d stuff the kids full of food first and then watch to see if the parents will feed them. If I don’t see the parents paying attention to them after, say 1/2 a day, then I’d take them to a rehab.

Reviving this thread with yet another hijack! Here’s a question posed by a friend via e-mail -

“The painters start on the house Thursday! I’m agonizing over a bird nest we have in the rafters that we can’t reach. If we don’t rescue them by Thursday AM they’ll be power hosed down! They are little baby birds who have been singing for weeks. We thought they were gone, but I think they are still there. Can I call someone?”

Anyone have good solid advice on this one?

They’re most likely Starlings. If not, they’re English Sparrows. These two species share two things with Pigeons: they are the most numerous birds, generally, in any urban setting (in the U.S., at least), and they are not native species. Three things: they’re all three, of course, obnoxious pests.

I say this as a devoted, lifelong birdwatcher, and specifically, a corvid fan from way back.

As non-natives to the U.S., they’re uniquely vulnerable to human intervention: it’s perfectly legal to keep them in captivity in the U.S., for example, while for any native species you need (as has been mentioned previously in this thread) a permit.

If they’re Starlings (glossy black; stubby tail; long, pointed beak) they make great pets, if raised from a young enough nestling to imprint on a human. They’re in the mynah family and are better talkers than most parrots. I worked at a pet store for six years when I was in school, across the street from a major city zoo, and people would bring de-nested baby birds to us and to the bird house at the zoo in the spring. There was always a waiting list as long as your arm for people looking to adopts baby starlings.

If they’re English Sparrows (which is technically neither: it’s an African bunting), kill 'em all. English Sparrows have pushed many native songbirds out of their territories. Hate 'em. Nasty, ugly, brown little song-less vermin.

Neither bird, of course, should ever have been released on this continent. They’ve wreaked havoc with native species ever since.

While I don’t wish to appear unappreciative of the general education given, could I get some tips for a softie who doesn’t want to be responsible for needless death(s)?