Every summer, adolescent birds and humans alike leave the nest to face the challenges and possibilities of the big, wide world on their own.
Many anxiety-filled high school graduates aren’t quite ready to face the world on their own. The same is true of young birds.
You might have noticed that many adult birds would throw their babies out of the nest to fend for themselves.
It seems a bit cruel to me. But the adult birds have their reasons.
Why Do Birds Throw Babies Out Of The Nest?
For the first few weeks, after they are hatched, birds have an easy life. Their parents deliver food to their waiting mouths.
The young birds open their eyes, develop feathers, and start looking a lot like miniature versions of their adult parents
But the bigger and louder young birds get, the greater the risk that some predator will discover the nest.
To avoid losing their entire brood, sometimes the mother bird will give its baby a literal push to leave the nest.
Not every kind of bird does this. Some species don’t get in a hurry to move their offspring along.
The difference, ornithologists reported in the journal Science Advances. has to do with the size and shape of the nest.
Factors Influencing Parent Birds to Evict Babies Out of the Nest
Different species of birds lay very different numbers of eggs.
Albatrosses, which mate only every other year, building their nests on remote, rocky islands in the middle of the ocean, lay just one egg at a time.
A single wood duck, on the other hand, may lay as many as 40 eggs in her nest.
Most songbirds lay between three and seven eggs in each clutch, one egg a day until the nest is full.
They incubate their eggs for two to four weeks, and then they will have one new hatchling a day for a week, followed by a fledgling (a bird ready to fly) a day a few weeks later.
Some birds, like chickadees, excavate a hollow spot in a sturdy tree to build their nest.
These birds usually lose relatively few chicks to predators. Chickadees lose, on average, just 15 percent of their young to predatory animals.
Other birds, like buntings and juncos, usually lose around 70 percent of their young to predators. That has a lot to do with the fact that these birds build flimsy nests lined with grass on the ground.
When a predator discovers a nest of baby birds, it usually eats all of the birds that cannot fly away.
Kicking a baby bird out of the nest increases its chances of not being killed and eaten. But if the bird is expelled from the nest too soon, it won’t have the ability to fly very fast or very far.
Young birds want to stay in the nest as long as possible so they can grow larger and fly faster.
The parent birds want older birds out of the nest as soon as possible so at least some of their young survive.
There are big differences between species.
Juncos nesting on the ground, for instance, push their babies out of the nest just nine or 10 days after they hatch.
Most fledgling juncos can’t fly fast enough to survive an attack by a raccoon, a snake, or a squirrel, but on average one baby bird from each clutch lives to adulthood.
Chickadees, contrastingly, are less likely to be discovered in their nest in the hollow of a tree.
Their parents let them stay in the nest for three weeks when they have 85 percent of the flying speed of an adult. If a pair of chickadees raises six chicks, usually four or five of them will live to become adult birds.
Birds aren’t being cruel to their babies when they kick them out of the nest.
They are just trying to make sure that at least a few birds survive to raise babies of their own.
But if you see a fledgling lying on the ground, should you intervene?
Should You Help a Bird That Has Been Kicked Out of the Nest?
Most birdwatchers give the same advice about helping a young bird you find outside its nest:
Just leave it alone.
The parents kick older birds out to make sure they won’t be there if a predator finds the nest.
But they may continue to feed the bird for several weeks after it has left the security of its nest.
Male robins, for example, continue to feed fledglings while the female is busy laying her second brood of eggs.
Fledgling owls that don’t have a successful first flight have the ability to climb back to their nest. You shouldn’t interfere with a young bird’s difficult lessons in learning how to fly.
“Most of the ‘orphaned’ young birds we see at our shelter have been kidnaped, not abandoned,” says Adam Grogan, scientific officer for the RSPCA in London.
“Our advice would be to observe the young bird from a distance and wait to see what happens,” Grogan says. “Don’t return it to a nest. You could have the wrong nest. Or you could disturb its camouflage, leaving it exposed. You could disturb other young birds, which is illegal.”
Disturbing wild birds is illegal in the UK, and also in Canada, and the United States.
But if you find a hatchling, an obviously immature bird, there are different rules.
Also read: How to Tell If a Mother Bird Has Abandoned Her Nest?
What to Do If You Find a Hatchling Outside of Its Nest?
Just-hatched chicks of birds that build their nests on the ground sometimes wander away even before they have all their feathers.
Their parents are usually eager to steer them back to safety, but they may not come out into the open if they see you watching them.
Stand back to see if the parents reclaim their chick unless it is in imminent danger, for example, from a cat.
If you need to rescue the chick from a predator, return it to where you found it when the danger has passed.
The parents will not reject the bird just because it picked up your scent from your hands. Don’t place it in a nest unless you are absolutely sure you know which nest it came from.
If you think you have found an injured young bird, then you need to take it to a wildlife rehabilitation specialist.
If you aren’t a trained rehabber, it is not legal for you to keep an injured bird. Keep the bird warm in a quiet place until you can get it to professional help.
Frequently Asked Questions About Rescuing Abandoned Birds
Q. How do you tell whether a bird is a nestling (that needs to be returned to the nest) or a fledgling (that may be able to take care of itself)?
A. Nestlings are smaller, and they may be naked except for a few tufts of feathers. Fledglings look like awkward young birds. Nestlings look like little space aliens.
You can also tell the difference between fledglings and nestlings by the way they move. Fledglings usually can hop, while nestlings drag themselves across the ground.
Q. What do I do if I find a nestling whose nest has been destroyed?
A. Make the birds a new nest. Find a small container like the plastic baskets for cherry tomatoes and strawberries.
Line it with soft material, like part of an old T-shirt. Then place the bird and the basket in the highest safe location you can find. The parents will find the bird and take care of it.
Q. What can I do if I find a fledgling that seems lost or confused?
A. Place it in the nearest bush or tree, where it won’t be found by predators or stepped on. Then let its parents take over its care.
Q. If I decide I need to rescue a baby bird, how can I keep it warm?
A. The best way to keep a baby bird warm is to find an old sock and fill it with uncooked rice.
Heat the sock in the microwave, and then place it in a shoebox with the bird. Make sure there are air holes in the top of the shoebox, and then enclose the bird in the box and get it to a wildlife rehabber.
You can also place a towel over a heating pad as a source of heat, but you will need to enclose the bird to keep it from wandering away again.
Q. What is the most important thing you can do to help baby birds?
A. Keep your cat indoors! It is healthier for your cat, and safer for the birds.
Wildlife scientists writing for Nature estimate that cats kill between 1.4 billion and 4 billion birds a year just in the United States.
Most birds are killed by stray cats, but that still leaves up to 1.3 billion birds a year that are killed by pet cats.
Mortality figures in Australia and the UK are lower because their songbirds have developed defenses against wild cats.
But if you live in the United States, you may spare the lives of up to 20 birds a year just by keeping Kitty indoors.
In this article, we covered Why Do Birds Throw Babies Out Of The Nest?
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