Why You Should Never Touch A Birds Nest

When I discovered a blackbird building a nest in my back garden I was so happy. I stood at the window for ages watching her come and go, wishing I could get a closer look. The nest site was just a few metres from the patio doors but I knew if I went over for a look the mother bird may not return. We were always told as kids not to approach or touch a bird’s nest because if we did, the bird would not return. But is there any truth to this, or is it simply a myth?

If you touch or disturb a bird’s nest there is a real risk the mother bird will abandon it. This is not due to human scent being detected, as we are led to believe. Birds actually have a poor sense of smell and cannot detect the scent of a human if we touch their nest. The more likely risk is that the mother bird sees you near the nest, which is more likely to scare her off.

There can be any number of reasons a mother bird chooses to abandon her nest; predator or human activity nearby, another nest  proves more viable and so on. While there are stories of people who have handled a bird’s nest without jeopardising the brood, the general advice is to simply leave them alone. Even when you see a baby bird seemingly abandoned and vulnerable on the ground, advice from the RSPB says to leave it. The mother is likely to be close by and will know how to help.

Do Birds Abandon Their Nest Or Young If Touched By A Human?

It is unlikely but it really depends on what we mean by touch. A simple poke around in the foliage to get a closer look will probably not cause a mother bird to abandon her nest. The issue is whether she sees you doing it – this may make her think twice about the chosen nest site. If by touching we mean move it or realign it in some way, intentionally or not, then the mother bird will know the nest has been disturbed. It is highly likely the adult bird may abandon the nest and any young in it.

Adult birds invest a lot of time and energy into building their nests and are not likely to throw it away on a whim. There is an account I read recently, which tells of how someone found a nest with a chick on the ground. It had been blown out the tree in a storm.

Having replaced the nest in the tree the mother bird soon returned but appeared unhappy with the nest and started to throw parts of it to the ground. The writer of the article re positioned the nest and the adult bird seemed content and raised the chick successfully. Here is the article.

Should You Move A Birds Nest?

The first question is why you would want to move a bird’s nest. Certainly in the UK and probably most other developed countries, it is illegal to move a bird’s nest. But, there are exceptions.

If you come across a fallen bird’s nest you could try to re site it. However, the best advice is to leave it well alone, as hard as this is to accept. The story I mentioned above is an example of moving a nest can be successful but probably inadvisable. The most obvious reason for wanting to move a bird’s nest is due to inconvenience – above a bedroom window (noise), in a hedgerow that needs cutting, maybe tree felling.

In these cases I can refer you to the Wildlife & Countryside Act of 1981. Section 1 of the act states that:

if any person intentionally takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird, he shall be guilty of an offence.

As most birds nest between March and July, sometimes a little later, any ground clearance, hedge trimming, tree felling should take place after October time and prior to March. This allows enough certainty in most cases that birds will not be actively using a nest.

This doesn’t apply to all birds’ pigeons for example, who nest all year round. So, the best advice is to call either the RSPB or your local Police to check before starting such work.

Should You Pick Up A Baby Bird?

There should be only one, maybe two reasons to pick up a baby bird – to return it to it’s nest or to to protect it from harm by taking it to a recognised vet or bird specialist. Do not pick up baby birds for any other reason.

If you come across a baby bird on the ground you should take the advice given by National Geographic in this article. Also citing advice from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the article describes how to tell the difference between nestlings and fledglings. A good way to tell the difference is if they’re cute or not.

A fledgling will have feathers and appear fluffy with the ability to hop and grip your finger. A nestling will not be blessed with such looks just yet and will just look a bit weird. It won’t hop or grip on to anything.

Fledglings will often leave the nest and remain on the ground for some time before it is ready to fly. It may look helpless but the adult bird will probably be near by. As long as there is no human interest, which may also attract predators, nature will take its course.

Nestlings should still be in their nest. If you can see the nest and it is in reach, you should quickly and safely return the bird. To dispel the myth once again – a bird will not be able to smell human scent. It is unlikely to abandon their nest or baby bird if touched by a human.

Can You Get Sick From Touching A Baby Bird?

Short answer – yes you can but not always. The rule of thumb is that most baby birds or chicks will harbour parasites, bacteria of some kind or disease. Some diseases are carried by birds but not harmful to them. Others may only be transferred from bird to bird. There are some can be passed on to humans, though, as we are seeing currently with the Coronavirus pandemic.

Find out more about disease in garden birds in this article – Garden Bird Feeders Spread Disease : Fact or Fiction?

Common diseases carried by bird, which can be passed to humans include E. coli and Salmonella. Both are quite nasty to humans, especially to children. Only handle baby birds only if you have to. Show care not only to them but to yourself as well. After touching a bird of any kind the advice is always the same – wash your hands with soap and warm water. You can also use a good hand sanitising gel. Remember though – there is no alternative as good as washing your hands with soap and water.