What You Should Do If You Find a Bird Nest

Here’s what to do when you come face-to-beak with a feathered family.

Birds gather twigs, twine and anything they can get their beaks on to create a cozy home for their families this time of year. With an increasing loss of natural habitat, it’s only a matter of time until a budding brood moves into your backyard. Here’s what you should do if you find a bird nest or an abandoned baby bird in your backyard.

“There’s a bird nest near my door or entryway!”

Where a bird chooses to build a nest is not always convenient for its human hosts. But remember, it isn’t every day that you’re given a front-row seat to one of the most exciting cycles of nature. If possible, be hospitable and find another way to enter your home. Your feathered visitors stay only for a handful of weeks. Alert anyone who might frequent the door, and keep pets away from the nesting area. (Read more: Get Ready for Baby Birds! 7 Tips for a Successful Nesting Season)

If there’s no alternative way to enter, contact your local wildlife agency to ask for assistance. Moving a nest on your own may technically violate the law, and although some birds, like house sparrows and starlings, aren’t protected by these laws, most bird species are covered.

“I found an abandoned bird nest with eggs!”

It’s unlikely the adults have left their eggs. Many birds don’t start incubating until the last egg is laid, which is why you might not see the parents for some time. Or maybe you’ve lingered too long and they’re waiting for you to scram. Even spooked birds most likely will return within a day or two.

On the off chance that the pair does not return, it probably means the eggs are not viable. Give yourself plenty of time to come to this conclusion, however, and don’t discard any nest or its contents without first reaching out to your local wildlife agency. Most birds and their nests are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which states that it is illegal to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase or barter any part of a nest or eggs unless you hold a valid permit. (Read more: 8 Extraordinary Facts About Bird Eggs)

“A bird fell out of its nest!”

If the little one you’ve found has feathers, it’s best not to interfere. That bird, called a fledgling, most likely left the confines of the nest on purpose. While it can’t fly yet, a fledging spends a couple of days wandering around, hiding in shrubs or low branches. Rest assured its folks are waiting in the wings nearby. In fact, you may even hear their scolding calls if you get too close to their little one. (Read more: Meet the Best Bird Dads Around)

However, if you find a hatchling, which is a very young bird with no feathers, it probably fell out by accident. In this case, gently place the youngster back in the nest. If the nest is not accessible, set the nestling in a small container filled with shredded paper towel. Fasten it to the tree trunk or place it in a nearby shrub in hopes its parent will care for it. It’s a common myth that birds abandon their babies upon human contact. But be sure to wash your hands after contact.

Want to do more? Become a certified NestWatch monitor; visit active nests every three to four days and report your findings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Get started at nestwatch.org.

Rachael Liska
Rachael Liska is a freelance writer and editor specializing in birding, gardening, food and family.