MYTH: Touching baby birds will result in rejection by the parents.
FACT: This old wives’ tale is unequivocally false, and wildlife rehabilitation experts have been trying to show this to the public for years. The majority of common non-predatory birds have little to no ability to smell, as they are seed/insect eaters and it plays no role in food sourcing. They do not have olfactory senses designed for scent like their cousins who rely on scent to find food/prey — vultures, seabirds, etc. have well-developed scent capabilities. Robins, crows, sparrows, finches, etc. do not.
If you find a nestling that has fallen, just put the baby bird(s) back into the nest, and the parents will resume caring for them without hesitation.
With that preface, I add to the burden of proof debunking this myth and present the following:
PREPARE FOR A LONG STORY (WITH A HAPPY ENDING)!
BACKGROUND: We have had a pair of house finches nesting up in the corner of our front porch for many, many years. Probably at least 10. The nest is old and VERY well built, and the pairs that use it keep it very well cleaned and maintained. It has been the same pair for the 4 years I’ve lived here, and Shane believes they are likely the ones that have used it at least for the past 6.
I’ve gotten to know this pair and their specific behaviors very well. Daddy is a very handsome dominant male with fantastic vibrant red coloration on his head and upper body. He’s definitely a looker over most of the males in the area. He and Mama are wonderful, experienced parents who successfully raise 4-6 clutches of babies every year. The first eggs are laid usually starting in April, and the last clutch fledges around September/October. It takes 4 weeks from laying to fledging for each clutch, and Mama lays usually 3-4 eggs in the first clutch, then 4-5 eggs in subsequent clutches. The last clutch is usually 2-3. Both parents work VERY hard at obtaining enough food for their babies, and literally never stop — especially when the babies are close to fledging and have become extremely demanding. Daddy is also super sweet and will bring snacks to Mama when she sits on the eggs. They make me laugh because it reminds me of human pairs in pregnancy. 😊
House finches are one of the very rare species who feed their babies ONLY seeds and plant material, no insects. So they do not get significant protein as other species’ nestlings do, and the parents must work much harder to make sure the babies get enough nutrition to properly grow. Mama and Daddy are badass professionals at this task, and their babies always have full crops and grow at fast, chubby rates. I love watching how well they do. They are both very tolerant of us and do not mind me climbing up on the rail to take pics of their eggs and babies each year, just to keep an eye on them and enjoy their growth. I never touch them or the nest, but I take pics in order to see since it is in the corner of the porch overhang. Mama often sits on the gutter when I’m checking the babies, not showing any signs of stress or defensiveness, and “talks” to me when I talk to her. Sometimes I leave little presents on the rail for the pair if I find some yummy seeds or berries that I know they like. House finches are also different than many songbirds in that their offspring stay with them for quite some time in a family group. Mama and Daddy keep their fledgelings with them for around 8 weeks for each round, well after they’re flighted and perfectly capable of taking care of themselves— which means at any given time, they have a nest of babies to feed AND teenagers hanging around that still demand some attention. The teenagers sometimes hang out on the porch near the nest, sometimes (rarely) helping to feed their younger siblings. They’re easy to tell apart from the parents. It’s quite interesting to watch. Daddy amazes me with how tolerant he is with his sons each year, and he allows them to stay significantly longer than I would expect. They stay well after they’ve begun developing their adult male coloration.
When these two lay their first clutch each year, that’s when I know Spring is here and I thoroughly enjoy their family adventures.
So needless to say I’m extremely attached to this pair and their offspring, and very heartbroken at the thought of leaving them behind when we move to our new home. I hope whomever buys our house will leave the nest there and take over their stewardship.
Which now brings us to this event…
Yesterday I had a pretty awful scare. We have painters working on the exterior of the house to prepare it to sell, and I told the guy on day one about the birds and asked him to please not spray anything in that corner or bother it as they had eggs in there and those birds mean a lot to us. He agreed and was really great about it. Since then, the eggs hatched yesterday and we were blessed with 4 healthy fuzzballs.
Well, apparently the guy didn’t tell his workers (or they didn’t care)…
BECAUSE THEY YANKED THE ENTIRE NEST OUT, BABIES AND ALL. 🤬
*inhale slowly…exhale slowly…*
I took Holly, my 2-year-old, outside with me yesterday afternoon to get some fresh air (I currently have pneumonia and it’s been rough). When I looked up to check on the babies, the nest was gone. In that moment, I had an absolute heart attack. If I hadn’t gone immediately into rescue mode and had the adrenaline surge, I probably would have passed out from lack of oxygen as my breathing is difficult right now with around 30% lung function.
Nevertheless, I started running the options in my head — where could they have thrown it? Garbage can? Under the porch? Woods behind the house? I grabbed my 13-year-old son Noah to watch Holly, and ran barefoot through the wet grass checking every possible place. Low and behold, after 30 minutes of searching, I finally found the nest tossed in a bush, still mostly intact. It was lying on its side and somehow it had 2 babies in it, still alive but barely. Their crops were empty, which meant the parents hadn’t found them or couldn’t get to them, and they were very hypothermic.
I ran the 2 up to Noah on the porch and told him to tuck them into his shirt to get their temperatures up while I searched for the other 2. Not long after, I found #3 about 2 feet down from where the nest was, tangled in twigs and branches. I added him to Noah’s shirt-nest, and she promptly pooped on him. 😆
Tucking neonate animals into bras/shirts is my #1 rescue tactic. Young altricial (helpless) babies cannot thermoregulate very well yet, so they absorb warmth from their parents — and during rescues, from our body heat. Chests are often one of the warmest places on our bodies, and at 98 degrees, we offer enough warmth to boost most neonates and help them reach their necessary 101-104 degree natural body temperature. It is also dark, quiet, and safe, which helps babies feel secure, as does the sound of our heartbeat. I often joke about all the species I’ve walked around carrying in my boobs.
It took around 45 minutes, but I finally found the last tiny half-naked fuzzball amidst the huge, prickly, pokey bush. I was starting to give up, but I just couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving him somewhere to die. When I found him, he was hanging from a branch by just his head and neck, poor thing. He was ice cold and pretty listless so I thought for sure he was going to die, but I put him with his siblings and hoped anyway. After 20 more minutes, all 4 babies were warmed up and begging for food — GREAT sign!
I put the nest back into place, and put a 40-hour heat pack that I use for reptile shipments between the nest and the porch wall, in order to help keep it warm with the sun setting and temps dropping. Then I got the babies all settled back into their home. I had no idea if the parents would come back and keep checking for their missing babies, so they needed to stay warm while we waited.
To my surprise, although it shouldn’t have been, Mama came looking for her babies within 10 minutes of everything getting settled back into place! I have a feeling she was watching me from her favorite perch on the neighbor’s roof and saw me find them. Daddy soon followed, and they immediately fed all 4 of them and have been with them ever since. I am so elated!
So to prove the myth is wrong about rejecting babies who “smell like humans”…
Neither parent noticed or cared that the babies smelled like us, after spending all that time tucked in Noah’s shirt against his chest, in our hands, etc. They just wanted to take care of their offspring!
Needless to say, I am LIVID with this painting company and will be having a conversation tomorrow. I don’t care how common and “insignificant” an animal is to someone, it still deserves respect and the right to live. Chucking 4 helpless newborn chicks into a bush is absolutely cruel and heartless.
I will be watching the babies closely for the next few days to make sure they are all OK — particularly the two that I found last. Love these little fuzzbutts!