How to Tell If a Mother Bird Has Abandoned Her Nest?

Birds make nests their homes, and there is nothing more important to a mother bird (and sometimes also to a father bird) than making sure eggs stay safe until they hatch.

The mother birds make sure that their baby birds are safe and fed until they can fly away on their own.

Sometimes, however, a mother bird can abandon her nest, leaving behind her eggs and hatchlings without any protection and food.

In this article, we will tell you how to tell when a mother bird has abandoned her nest, or has been injured or killed outside her nest, and when a mother bird is just spending time away from the nest to look for food.

Take a Close Look at Eggs and Chicks

Predators sometimes attack mother birds while they are sitting in their nests.

These predators include raptors, like owls and hawks, raccoons, when they can reach a nest, opossums, rats, squirrels, and even snakes.

Nests at ground level are much more vulnerable than nests that birds build at elevation. Even the nests in birdhouses can be attacked by predators.

When you find a nest without the mother bird, and there are broken eggs or dead chicks, it is reasonable to assume that the nest has been attacked by a predator and the mother bird won’t be coming back.

But if you look into the nest and all the eggs and chicks look OK, then it is more likely that the mother bird is just away looking for food and water.

Feel the Eggs to Test Their Temperature

For proper development of the chick, bird eggs require constant heat. The ideal temperature for eggs is 84.5° to 104,9° F (35° to 40.5° C).

Developing chicks need constant warmth for proper development, and if they are left without heat/warmth for more than 3 hours, it would start to hamper their growth and development.

In most cases, a parent bird would not leave the nest and the eggs for more than 30-35 minutes.

If you pick up an egg, and it feels warm to the touch, that usually means that the mother bird has only been gone for a few minutes and probably will return soon.

Some mother birds will attack you to drive you away from the nest if they see you examining their eggs. That is one sure sign they have not abandoned the nest.

But if you examine the eggs, and they feel cool to the touch, the one thing you know for certain is that the mother bird hasn’t been around to incubate them for a few minutes to a few hours, or more.

Since mother birds have very strong maternal instincts, that is a sign that she might not be coming back.

Since eggs need to be kept warm to develop, it is important to get them into an incubator right away once you have confirmed that the mother bird is not coming back.

But take the following step first.

Watch the Nest for Several Hours

Mother birds feeding their chicks are very busy.

The mother bird (and sometimes the father bird) must catch insects and worms or find seeds and flowers for the babies to eat.

Baby birds need to be fed as often as five times a day. Once their feathers begin to come in, they still need to be fed three or four times a day.

If you hear the cheep-cheep-cheep of hungry young birds but you don’t see their mother coming to feed them after an hour or so, it is highly likely that the mother bird won’t be coming back to the nest.

Of course, you don’t have to hover over the nest the whole time on the lookout for the parent bird to return.

Also read: Why Do Birds Throw Babies Out Of The Nest?

Listen for Sounds from the Nest

Very patient birdwatchers have observed that most birds chirp or warble or sing their songs between 1,000 and 2,500 times per day.

It is harder to hear bird songs and calls when the wind is blowing, and, scientists have discovered, higher pitches in bird songs are harder to hear in dense vegetation.

But if you don’t hear any adult bird songs at all for several hours, it is likely that the mother bird has abandoned the nest or has been killed by a predator.

Also read: Can I Move a Bird’s Nest With Eggs?

When a Nest Has Been Destroyed, Don’t Expect the Mother Bird to Come Back

Birds need from two days to two weeks to build their nests, if all the nesting materials are available nearby.

When wind or machinery destroys a nest, the parent birds don’t know what to do but to start over somewhere else.

They may abandon eggs and hatchlings when their nest is destroyed.

Why Would a Mother Bird Abandon Her Nest?

Let’s look at some of the common reasons a parent bird may decide to leave their nest.

The Nest has been Disturbed

The most common reason that a mother bird would abandon her nest is that the nest has been disturbed. 

If a predator has attacked the nest, but didn’t manage to get away with eggs or baby birds, the mother bird may decide the location is too dangerous to continue incubating her eggs or raising her young, and decide to cut her losses and go elsewhere.

This may sound cruel to you, but it’s really about preserving the life of the mother bird so she can raise another brood.

Small birds like hummingbirds can starve in just a few hours if they are kept away from their food sources.

Birds of any size need enormous amounts of food just to fly back and forth to get more for their babies.

This means that you should not handle a nest, eggs, or baby birds unless you are prepared to take care of them until they can take care of themselves. 

Once you have disturbed a nest, the mother bird may reject every egg and baby bird in it, leaving their care to you.

But disturbing a nest is not the only reason a mother bird would abandon her nest and her babies.

If the mother bird is not around and you check out the nest or touch her eggs, that should be alright. Unless you disturb the nest enough that the parent bird may find it dangerous, it would come back (unless it has been abandoned already). It’s a misconception that birds leave their nests and eggs when humans touch them. Birds don’t have a strongly developed sense of smell to detect human scent, so a quick checkout of the nest is fine.

Not Enough Food

Food is not limitless. The mother bird may decide not to waste precious energy on a nest and offspring if it appears she will only lose them later.

She will save herself when it is not possible to save her babies,

Or she may choose to feed just a few of her chicks and let the rest of them starve to death. This sounds cruel, but the alternative could be that all of her chicks would starve, or be so weak that they are easily caught by predators,

This is a situation in which you can help. Put out some bird food. Make it possible for the mother bird to feed all of her babies.

And you don’t need to put bird food in the nest itself. Just scatter some close to the nest so it’s easy for the parent bird to find it.

The only thing you need to remember about putting out bird food is that you need to start before the mother bird faces a crisis.

Mites, Ticks, and Insects

Another reason a mother bird will abandon her nest is if there is an infestation by mites, ticks, or insects, such as fire ants.

Bugs may be feeding on the chicks, or they may infest the mother herself.

In this situation, the mother bird will seek a new home so it can deal with its own insect or mite infestation.

There is not a lot you can do in this kind of situation, although it will help to keep the grass mowed and to pick up loose trash around the nesting area, so mites and ticks have fewer places to breed.

It also helps to let opossums wander through your yard if they live in your area. That is because opossums eat ticks.

Nesting Season is Over

And finally, it’s also possible that the nest has served its purpose and it was time for the birds and their hatchlings to move out anyway.

Birds leave their nest when the nesting season is over, so if you know that for sure, it’s safe to remove the nest if you want. Or you can leave it there for some other bird to find shelter.

Also, some male birds are known to make multiple nests during the breeding season. This increases their chances of attracting more mates.

Once they mate and decide on what nest to live in, they will leave the other nests they made.

Frequently Asked Questions About Abandoned Bird Nests

Q. When do mother birds typically leave their babies?

A. Birds are usually capable of taking care of themselves two to three weeks after they hatch. A mother bird may stay in the nest with her young for as long as 25 days after they emerge from their eggs.

After that time, the mother bird may visit her offspring occasionally, staying close by to defend them and direct them to food.

But in a month or two, she will stop visiting them individually and only interact with them as part of the flock.

Q. How do you save a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest?

A. The best thing you can do for a baby bird that has fallen out of its nest is to put it back in the nest. 

Wear gloves or at least make sure your hands are clean before you pick them up, so as little scent as possible will be transferred to the baby bird.

A healthy hatchling will not be injured by a fall from the nest. It should not be quivering, shaking, obviously injured, or weak.

If you can’t reach the nest from which the baby bird fell, you can create a substitute nest where it may survive if it is old enough.

Line a small basket with cotton balls or several layers of a soft cloth. Make sure there is a supply of food and water in the nest.

Place the basket and the bird in a shady location, out of reach of cats and other potential predators, protected from the hot sun and from the wind.

Q. How long does it take for a bird to learn how to fly?

A. Birds can’t fly until they grow specialized feathers known as flight feathers. These feathers don’t come in until the bird is 21 or 22 days old.

Before then, if it steps outside the nest, it will fall to the ground.

The first few times a bird tries to fly, it will only be able to go a few feet, but in a day or two, it will be able to keep up with its parents.

Q. Are there certain birds that are more likely to abandon their nests?

A. Yes, Cuckoos often lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, expecting those birds to take care of their babies.

Sparrows are prone to abandoning their nests when they cannot find food.

Q. If I touch the nest or the eggs, would the mother/parent bird abandon it?

A lot of people believe that birds have a highly developed sense of smell and would instantly know if their nests and eggs have been touched by humans or other animals.

This is not true. Birds don’t have the ability to detect the human scent on their eggs and nests.

If you end up touching the nest or the eggs (but not destroying the nest), it’s unlikely that the parent bird would leave their home.

Having said that, you should try not to disturb the nest and everything in it. If the mother bird comes back to its nest and things look fine, she will stay.

But if she finds that things are very different than what she remembers, she may consider it dangerous to stay in the nest and may leave it.

Q, What can you feed an orphaned baby bird (and should you)?

A. It is only natural to want to feed a baby bird that you have found abandoned in a nest without the mother.

It is always better to let your local wildlife rehabilitation center take care of this task (and they are also a great source of information if they cannot take your bird).

Baby birds must have food put directly into their mouths. You can feed birds that don’t have any feathers yet with a pipette or a syringe.

Four or five times a day, give them a moistened commercial songbird food mix.

If that is not available, give them finely minced liver, ground mealworms, moist dog or cat food, or softened dog biscuits.

Never feed milk to a baby bird.

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