Tis the Season — for my annual birdnapping rant. Every year I post about well-meaning people who pick up fledgling birds thinking that because they are on the ground, they need help. The end result is that the babies are separated from their parents and brought to rehabbers, lowering the chance of survival considerably. Just as human children have to learn to walk, fledgling birds have to learn to fly. If you wouldn’t remove a crawling baby from its parents, don’t take a fledge from its Mum and Dad.

Today I received a call from a contractor who had found a mourning dove’s nest in a garage he was building. He removed the nest (a bad plan, starting with the fact it’s illegal to do so) but kept it in one piece and moved it to a bush about 20 feet away before calling me. He sent me a photo of the two fledges in their new location (see above), providing an excellent case study in when to walk away when it comes to baby birds. To review:

  • Are the chicks feathered?
    • Yes! That means that they can keep themselves warm and thus can be separated from their mother for a longer period of time. It also means they are older and close to heading out on their own.
  • Are the chicks begging for food?
    • No! Fantastic. That means that they are not desperate for food but are rather doing what smart chicks do — hunker down, keep quiet, and hope that the predator/person moves on so Mom and Dad can come back with a snack.
  • Do the chicks appear injured?
    • No! Hooray! It’s always a good idea to look for bleeding, drooping wing, or something else amiss but in this case, we have two normal baby doves.
  • Are the chicks in a safe place?
    • Hmmmm, debatable. They are in a bush only about 3 feet off the ground, making them vulnerable. On the other hand, it turns out that mourning doves generally build their nests in foliage and are ground feeders, so this is probably not a big deal unless there are cats in the area. The chicks are supposed to fledge in 12-15 days, so these two should be heading out sometime soon anyway.
  • Do the parents appear to be in the area?
    • Yes! Awesome. My caller saw the mother on the nest when he removed it and observed the father shortly thereafter. Given the effort they have made to get the chicks this far, they are not going to give up now. Birds don’t have a sense of smell, so the idea that they will abandon a nest because they smell humans is nonsense. The only slightly tricky part is that the parents won’t come back if people are around, but without hanging out, it’s hard to know if the parents are taking care of the chicks. The easiest way to solve this conundrum is to leave the nest alone for a while and then return to check for droppings. Peristalsis is Our Friend. If food is going in one end, it has to be coming out the other. Where there is poop, there is life.

So the final score in the “intervene or not” game is 4.5 points for walk away and .5 points for take the birds to rehab. Not even close. Of course, not all calls are this easy, but the moral of the story is that doing nothing is more often than not going to be the right answer.

See you again in 2019 for the next installment of our ongoing “No Birdnapping” series.