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dxs's avatar

What does Mama bird do if one of her chicks dies?

Asked by dxs (11690 points ) June 10th, 2014

A few days ago I found a baby bird on the ground. I didn’t think the bird had made it with the big fall he took. He fell about ten feet down but was also a few feet away from the nest. I didn’t want to leave the little guy there so I picked him up and put him back in the nest. Now, a few days later, I see some chicks stirring in the nest. I hoped one of them was the chick I saved but I couldn’t tell.

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22 Answers

Bill1939's avatar

Handling a fallen chick is often a bad idea because one may give the bird a human scent that will cause it to be ejected from the nest. When fledglings prematurely leave their nest, its parents will encourage it to find cover in which to hide and will continue to feed it. If potential prey approaches their prodigy’s location, the parents will attempt to distract it.

dxs's avatar

@Bill1939 I didn’t pick it up directly, I used a napkin. The chick’s wings didn’t look developed. He didn’t even look like he had feathers yet and his eyes were closed. So you think the chick could’ve been there on purpose? He fell onto a concrete parking lot, where he was certainly doomed to be hit by a car. I noticed the nest was falling into a hole in its perch, so I figured it was an accident.

gailcalled's avatar

With a baby bird that young, his chances of making it are not-so-good. But you never know.

Often, the babies are so crowded in the nest that one or two inevitably fall out. Most songbirds have several rounds of babies, often as many as five per hatch, and yet the earth is not carpeted with songbirds. There is always, for many reasons, lots of attrition.

Some birders agree with the human-scent theory, some debunk it. Using a napkin was a very good idea, both for the bird and you (they carry viruses).

I have watched an adult barn swallow who had built her nest on an open beam in a boat house over the water. When the babies were old enough to fledge, she sat on a beam across from them with an insect in her beak and encouraged the babies to fly. Two fell into the water. We were able to rescue one; the other drowned. The mother seemed impervious.

(@Bill1939. I think that spellcheck morphed your progeny into prodigy.

dappled_leaves's avatar

This is why they have multiple offspring. They’re not counting on all of them to make it, and yes, sometimes individuals will be pushed out of the nest. If the chick you put back into the nest died, you did no favours for the remaining chicks, which must now live with a dead sibling if they’re not strong enough to remove it.

wildpotato's avatar

@dappled_leaves I think most bird mothers clean the nest of dead babies, though I agree that the best course of action would have been to make sure the baby was alive first.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I always believed that too @Bill1939. Then, just the other day, while perusing Snopes, I learned that apparently that is a myth.

Glad this is in Social. The other day there was a bird harassing my husband and me on the deck. Then we realized there was a baby bird trapped in a large plant pot by the deck. We happened to have a large pile of limbs in the drive way. Rick took the plant pot over to the limbs, tipped it over and the baby disappeared in a flash. Mom soon discovered where he was and we watched for a long time as she kept coming back and back with food. At one point, in the evening, he’d made his way to the top of the pile and was sitting on a limb just checking things out. Then something startled him and he dove back inside. He pretty much had a 30K Mansion Nest! Within a couple of days he was flying, and we got to see him “fly the coop.” First successful baby bird rescue for us.
I told Rick that we needed to have a big pile of limbs around every year in the spring, just for this.

dxs's avatar

Before putting the baby bird back into the nest, I threw him in the trash because I couldn’t think of anything else to do. I was almost sure he was dead because he wasn’t moving. But then I thought that he may be too young to have much movement, so I thought I’d give him a chance and put him back in the nest. When I replaced him in the nest, I could see his position well. When I came back a few minutes later, I noticed his position had changed, but didn’t know why. I couldn’t see the nest well enough to see if he was still in it.
@dappled_leaves So you think that the bird was dead and thus pushed out of the nest? That seems rational based on the bird’s distance from the nest. But one thing I was wondering is where would the mom bird would put the baby bird? Do you think she would take the dead chick and just chuck him onto the parking lot ground? I’m in a developed area with lots of buildings, so there are no forests nearby.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I don’t think the bird would have the mental capacity for the kind of “empathy” you’re thinking of. I mean, she probably couldn’t carry the bird, for one. She couldn’t “put” him anywhere. It’s possible that an animal got ahold of him and carried him away from the nest.

dxs's avatar

@Dutchess_III What empathy am I thinking of? I figured the mama bird would do something with the dead chick because it’s not a productive offspring.
And as I said, I’m in an urban area so there’s really only birds here. It’d be highly unlikely that an animal would find the lofty nest (which is in a courtyard whose only open side was a locked gate) let alone just take one chick away from the nest only to drop him after a few feet.

Dutchess_III's avatar

You said Do you think she would take the dead chick and just chuck him onto the parking lot ground? I mean, why wouldn’t she? Why would she chose woods over parking lots? Pretty sure they just shove them out with their heads and they just land where they land.

And a cat could get through all of that and get to the bird. Is there more than one bird in the nest?

Coloma's avatar

It is a myth that handling baby birds cause the parents to reject them. Completely false. Birds have a very poor sense of smell short of vultures and seabirds. Putting a fallen nestling back in the nest is the best thing to do. If it was injured and dies the parent birds will remove it’s remains to not attract predators in the same way they remove the fecal sacks of the nestlings

dappled_leaves's avatar

@dxs I would guess it was dead or weak and pushed out. But even falling out by accident, splat onto the pavement, probably damaged it so badly that it couldn’t survive. Or perhaps it couldn’t eat for a day, causing it to weaken further.

And as @Coloma said, of course no thought is put into where to drop it. It sounds like you are anthropomorphizing the event a bit.

dxs's avatar

I guess it’s human interaction that confused me, too! I mean, she could’ve at least held a service for the poor birdy, right?

ibstubro's avatar

I tend to believe the “human touched the egg/baby and the bird abandoned” falsehood simply because the birds have several nests a year, and it’s survival of the fittest. I think if a bird saw a snake in the nest, it would abandon the nest. If it notices a distinct difference (human interaction or presence) , it shies from that nest to ensure the future nest?

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro Not that many species make several nests per year… I think most of them make one per season, and many reuse the same nest year after year.

As others have already said, the idea that birds abandon a nest solely because of human scent or touch has been shown to be a myth. Birds do abandon nests for a variety of reasons. Adult swallows will certainly migrate on their own if the season ends too early for their young to follow them, for example. An accumulation of parasites is another reason.

Bill1939's avatar

Many years ago my family was visiting a park in California when a child came over to us and said that a bird nest had fallen onto the ground under a tree and that there was one baby bird still alive. We reasoned that the nest had been attacked by another bird or a squirrel.

My mother picked it up and we took it home in a folding paper cup. It still carried its egg sack, its eyes still closed and had few pin feathers emerging. The sparrow kept crying out, “cheep, cheep.” She made some baby food and began feeding it with an eye dropper, which it consumed with gusto.

Our bird, now named Cheep grew into an adult and lived with us for many years. Cheep would fly to the sink and drink water slowly flowing from the spout. The Oakland Tribune published a story complete with photos of Cheep drinking. Sadly, an accident resulted in Cheep’s death.

@gailcalled, you are correct. Either my auto spell checker changed progeny into prodigy, or I made the mistake.

@Dutchess_III thanks for debunking my long held belief that the scent of a human would cause it to be ejected from the nest.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I was glad to hear that it was a myth too, @Bill1939. When you hear things when you are really young you tend to accept it without question, and the belief follows you into adulthood.

My husband used to have a black bird named Cheep. He tells a story of how Cheep got out during a thunderstorm and Rick was driving around in his car, in the pouring rain, bellowing, “CHEEP!! CHEEP!! CHEEP!!” out the window. :D

ibstubro's avatar

Well, we have a bird house behind the house with a hinged top and the S/O opened the top and reached in to see if there was an active nest. There was, and the parents never returned.

If you handle bird eggs while the mother is away from the nest, mama bird will usually notice upon her return that the eggs were disturbed during her absence, and some species of bird will take Bird this as an indication that a dangerous intruder is present and may temporarily or even permanently abandon their nests as a result.

My guess is, if mama bird is watching from a distance and sees you disturb the nest, she might not return. The birds now nesting behind my house (2 nests) don’t leave the area when I go outside, but sit in the tree and curse me until I leave.

gailcalled's avatar

^^^ What kind of birds? Some are fussier than others.

dappled_leaves's avatar

@ibstubro That quote, which you appear to have taken from Snopes continues:

“Such behavior is relatively rare, however, and in these situations the mother birds are reacting to visual warnings, not olfactory ones”

The title claim for that article is, “Handling a baby bird will cause its mother to reject it.” Snopes’ answer is: False.

Coloma's avatar

My Scrub Jay family are feasting on red grapes and Taste of the Wild cat kibble right now. haha The parents are running themsleves ragged keeping up with their screeching fledglings in the cherry tree here.

ibstubro's avatar

A behavior being “relatively rare” does not make something “False”, @dappled_leaves. What Snopes debunked was the ‘smell a human’ story.
As others have already said, the idea that birds abandon a nest solely because of human scent or touch has been shown to be a mythIS disproved by the Snopes story.

I don’t remember, @gailcalled. It was a couple of seasons ago, but I was really mad about it. Right now we have two nests, one built of mud and moss on the porch light (insect vacuuming machines!) and one in the bird house that looks similar to a chickadee.

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