A Bird in the Hand (Will NOT be Abandoned by its Parents!)


The other day Tom pulled down a House Sparrow nest lodged in an outdoor electrical box, assuming the birds were done with it.  But many resident birds, those that don’t migrate, will attempt a second brood of chicks later in the summer.  These birds first nested in a corner of our gutter, but their nest was destroyed (and their nestlings presumably eaten) by a Steller’s Jay.  There was enough summer weather left for them to try again.  I blocked off their gutter, hoping to discourage them (there are enough House Sparrows on the planet already), but they just moved a few feet away.  Tom was surprised to find four tiny birds huddled in the bottom of the nest, and called for Claire and me to see.


I love how the nest was made entirely from my yard–grasses, mosses, and feathers from my chickens–our two nests, human and avian, truly tangled.

It’s best to ignore wild bird nests–hovering over them can attract the attention of predators such as cats, crows, and jays, plus it makes the adult birds crabby, and can prevent them from tending their chicks.  But this nest belongs to a House Sparrow–a scrappy introduced species that thrives alongside human habitations–and a quick little educational peek at the nest and its inhabitants won’t hurt a thing.  I gently lifted one of the nestlings out for Claire to hold.


Have you heard the pernicious myth that birds will abandon their young if you touch them?  It’s not true!  Most birds do not have highly developed olfactory sense–they certainly can’t sniff “human” on their chicks.  And even if they could, birds are devoted parents; they would never abandon their young for such a silly reason.  If you find a bird that has fallen from its nest, just pick it up gently and put it back.  If you can’t find the nest, put the chick out of harm’s way on a nearby branch.  If the bird is an active almost-fledgling, cover its eyes after you set it on its branch to calm it, then walk slowly away. (You don’t need gloves, just wash with soap after.)  Resist the impulse to check on the bird every few minutes to make sure the parents are caring for it–your presence, no matter how well hidden you think you are, will worry the adults.

Pretty darn cute. I love the "gape" on nestlings--the colorful fleshiness about the bill and inside the mouth that serves as a target for adults with food. If you "cheep-cheep" like a mother bird and tickle their chins, they'll open up like this.

These little nestlings are about 6 days old, and will be ready to fledge in another 12 days or so.  At this stage their feathers are still covered by sheaths, and they keep warm in part by huddling with their siblings.  The inside of a songbird’s nest is remarkably clean. The young poop in handy fecal sacs that are removed or eaten by the adults.

Not everyone was allowed a close look at the chicks, no matter how badly they wanted one...
Not everyone was allowed a close look at the chicks, no matter how badly they wanted one...

We observed the birds for just a few minutes, then Tom tucked the nest carefully back in its spot.  It was fun to study and enjoy these chicks, but we try to minimize the number of non-native species nesting in our yard.  Next year I’ll try to block off more House Sparrow nest-spots, and keep providing nest boxes for birds that need them, such as the migratory Violet-green Swallow.


  1. Nancy Stillger

    Enjoyed this story and the pictures. Veronica and I are enjoying our Nat’l Geographic Bird Journal with New Mexico bird sightings. We saw 2 wild turkey hens today with 55 (!) babies/teens?

  2. Hi,
    Is there a scientific evidence behind the fact that Birds don’t abandon their chicks if someone touches it. Because I had 2 House Sparrows that were taking care of 3 chicks. As soon as I touched the chicks, the adults stopped feeding them and 2 are already and one is crying for food. If possible, Please send me some more info. Please search for hitjay2002 in youtube and you will see the video of the 3 birds chirping happily.

    1. lyanda

      Thanks for your comment, Ajai. Yes, there is scientific evidence–birds cannot “smell human.” The hard part is to truly leave the nest alone, resist the urge to “check on it,” etc., even if you think you are hidden. That’s what really keeps adult birds from their nest/young. Good luck!

  3. Lyanda,
    What a lovely website you have my dear!
    As soon as I finished reading it and enjoying the great photos I called my Niece, Melissa to give here your web address! I knew it would be a perfect site for her! You are such a blessing to us all! Thank you again !


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