Enjoying Songbirds Without Interfering With Nature
Many people enjoy bird watching. These jewels of nature are fascinating to observe, and even with little to no yard people can attract them to their homes by simply hanging up a feeder or providing birdhouses. When we offer yards with adequate landscaping (which usually means irrigation and mulched areas, which in turn can lead to higher numbers of insects) that attracts even more songbirds to our properties as they need these insects to feed themselves and their offspring. From spring through summer and even early fall, we are therefore often rewarded by having birds nest and raise their young in very close proximity to us.
This can be a blessing for us, but not necessarily for the birds if we interfere too much. By not understanding natural behavior, well-meaning people often interfere when they should not. Nests and baby birds are very seldom truly abandoned or in need of help from us, so this month’s article will try to clarify what is normal or what may indicate a situation that needs intervention. It’s good to remember that almost all songbirds and other migratory birds are protected under the Federal Migratory Bird Act, which means the birds, their nests, their eggs, and their young are all protected and cannot be taken, molested, or destroyed.
• If you happen to notice that a bird is building a nest in a spot that isn’t safe or convenient for you (such as in a wreath hanging on your door…honestly it happens more often than you’d think), as long as there are no eggs or young in the nest yet, the nest can be moved or removed.
• Once there are eggs in a nest, it cannot be disturbed. Egg laying can occur over several days, and generally brooding (sitting on the eggs) will not begin until the last egg of the clutch is laid.
• During brooding, generally the female (and for some species the male as well) will stay in the nest to keep the eggs warm and protected. Disturbing the parents at this point may cause them to abandon the nest if they perceive it is not a safe location. Try not to disturb them much, if at all.
• Most songbird eggs will hatch ten days to two weeks after brooding begins. Both parents will tend to the young.
• Not all songbird babies will survive. The average survival rate for all songbirds hatched is only about 30%; this is normal and natural. The smaller the bird, generally the lower the overall survival rate will be. The size of the clutches and the frequency of nesting assures the survival of each species.
• Baby birds sometimes die due to natural causes while in the nest; roughly 25% may not survive the nestling stage. Again, this is normal; there may have been something physically wrong with the bird, or it was too slow to develop and got overpowered by its healthier siblings. Sad as it is to observe, nature will naturally select the strongest and healthiest animals to survive. If you happen to find a deceased baby bird under an active nest, this is likely what you are observing. The parents will dispel the deceased baby to protect the other young (assuring no disease or insect infestation occurs in the nest due to the deceased bird).
• In our climate, since it is generally quite warm during nesting season, the parent birds may not return to the nest to sleep at night once the babies hatch. It’s just too hot! This is not any cause for concern; trust that the parents know what they are doing.
• Nesting birds will do their best to not attract predators to their nest; if they observe a nearby predator, they will generally not fly to their nest and babies (not wanting to draw attention to it). To birds, people look like predators. If the parents see YOU around their nest, they may stay away. Please always try to observe from a distance and don’t indulge in frequent urges to “just take a peek” at the babies.
• If an entire nest is found down on the ground with eggs or babies still in it, please refer to the flowchart for instructions on how to provide a makeshift nest for the parents. They will almost always resume caring for the young if they are given the opportunity to do so. If a live baby is found on the ground, please return it to the nest if possible. If not, please follow the re-nesting instructions on the flow chart.
• Most songbirds in our area are only in the nest for a very short time. Many of our backyard birds, such as mockingbirds, cardinals, and robins, may leave the nest (fledge) when they are just 11 or 12 days old.
• Please remember that baby birds leave the nest TO learn how to fly, not when they CAN fly! At this stage, they are referred to as fledglings. These babies are almost fully feathered, they can hop around and take little “flitting” flights, and they have just a little stub of a tail (maybe only 1”). This is a dangerous time for the birds, but their parents will do their best to keep them fed and protected. Again, not all are meant to survive. Nature isn’t always pretty to watch, but some baby birds will provide much-needed sustenance for other animals that are also probably raising young. The fledgling stage for baby birds generally only lasts for a few days.
• Domestic cats that are allowed to roam are a great danger to baby birds; however, it is not possible or feasible for wildlife centers to take fledgling birds in due to free-range cats. There are never enough rehabbers to go around, and the law states that we can take birds that are injured or orphaned only. If you do own a cat and allow it outside, you might consider not putting up birdfeeders or especially birdhouses. This is somewhat of a conflict of interest, so please consider not inviting the birds to dine or nest where a cat may endanger them.
• If you are ever unsure if a nest or baby bird needs help, please reach out to a rehabber for advice before intervening. The pictured flowchart has a lot of helpful information. If you need to rescue a baby that is in imminent danger, keep it warm and quiet; handle it as little as possible. Stress alone can kill them, as can improper feeding or temperatures that are too cold or too hot. Birds that are under 5 days old cannot digest most foods, and older birds that are cold or dehydrated cannot digest either, so feeding them can be very detrimental. Baby birds also do not drink water and they can aspirate quite easily, so they should not be given water.
To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Details and more specifies-specific flowcharts regarding how to help found animals can be viewed on our website at www.ftwl.org (click on “Help and Advice”). These charts are extremely helpful to determine if an animal truly needs rescuing or not. If you need assistance with a wildlife animal you have found, please call us at 281-259-0039 or email us at [email protected]. We offer many educational programs (including camps, birthday parties, educational presentations, and Second Saturdays). In 2023, we will be offering several sessions of summer day camp. Our educational visitors center is also open to the public on the second Saturday of every month, so our next Second Saturday will be on May 13 from 10 am to 2 pm. These events are held at our educational facility, located at 29816 Dobbin Hufsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas.