If you handle baby birds, will their parents shun them?

August 31, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Cece, give it to me straight. Is it true that if you touch/handle baby birds, their parents will abandon them? I was forced to evict two little birdies from my garage. I built a new home for them and hoped mom and pop would find them. It appeared that the family had a reunion within about an hour. Is this an old wives' tale to prevent kids from hassling birds? I will trust only your answer on this and not some kook with a nature show on TV.

Sure, as soon as we clear out that warehouse full of the last one. What's with you guys, you don't read the newspapers? You think the world ignorance situation is abating?

The common belief is that if you handle a wild baby animal, it'll pick up your scent, which will cause its parents to reject it. Whether or not this is true for mammals, it's not true for most birds, which have a poor sense of smell. (One exception is vultures, but most people don't have baby vultures nesting in their garages--and if you do, I ain't hanging at your hacienda.) My assistant Jill reports, "I've placed baby birds back in nests and watched their parents come back to feed them. Once I found a baby bird while backpacking and set it on my sleeping bag, and the mother landed on the bag and fed her baby right on my stomach." That's Jill for you--one part Annie Oakley, one part Francis of Assisi. 

Bird nests are a different story. "Birds will abandon nests if disturbed early in the incubation process," says my friend Barb, a former zookeeper (no kidding) and bird expert. "It's not the scent of stinky Homo sapiens that keeps them away, it's the stupidity of Homo sapiens for having disturbed them in the first place. Later in incubation, birds have a stronger bond to the nest, which increases when the young have hatched. However, some species are more sensitive than others. So please tell your readers to stay the hell away from all nesting birds, especially because they could be arrested if I ever catch them." 

You think she's kidding? You wouldn't if you saw the look in her eye. Disturbing birds' nests or messing with birds is, with some exceptions, a federal crime--specifically, a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which, according to a U.S. government brochure (www.faa.gov/arp/birdstrike/chapter4.pdf), protects "almost all native bird species in the United States, with the exception of nonmigratory game birds such as pheasants, turkeys and grouse." Other species not protected include "exotic and feral species such as mute swans, graylag geese, muscovy ducks, European starlings, house (English) sparrows, and rock doves (pigeons)." In case you're not getting the message, the latter group are all nonnative, i.e. foreign, species. Isn't that a pistol? For years people have been griping that federal protection doesn't cover illegal immigrants, and now we find this discrimination extends even unto birds. (Some states may protect exotic species.) 

The brochure cited above refers to birds near airports, which obviously are major public facilities, and you're probably thinking the law doesn't apply to those birdies in your garage. Ha. Federal regulations allow you to "scare or herd" birds. But, unless certain species (e.g., blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, crows, and magpies) are "committing or about to commit depredation [against] agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife," etc, you can't kill or trap them without a permit.

And get this: neither can your cat. Strictly speaking, hardcore bird lovers say, you could be prosecuted for failing to control predation by your pets. "That's an outrage!" you say. "My cat [German shepherd, tankful of piranhas] is only doing what comes naturally. You can't hold me responsible for that." Tell it to the judge, pal. Cats kill an estimated one billion birds a year in the U.S. (seriously--they've done studies), and some say it's high time we put a stop to it. Offhand I don't know of any cat owners being prosecuted, but somebody has to be first. 

Well, I'm not letting the gummint tell ME what do, you're saying. Fine, but there are practical reasons not to mess with these critters. You've heard of West Nile virus, which can cause fever, head and muscle ache, rash, and in extreme cases death? Know what the primary hosts are? Wild birds, muchacho, so keep your mitts to yourself. (And yes, I know there has to be an intervening mosquito or tick bite to transmit the disease to humans, but as always with me, it's the principle of the thing.)

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