How to Safely Observe Nesting Birds

Learn the best ways to watch nesting birds with these tips from NestWatch.

With the arrival of spring comes nesting birds aplenty! It’s a lot of fun to watch their daily activities and see the baby birds grow and fledge. You can even contribute your observations to citizen science projects like NestWatch. But it’s important that you take steps to protect nesting birds from harm, including parental desertion or predators. As nesting season gets underway, take time to review these tips from NestWatch, and get even more details by visiting NestWatch.org.

Nesting Birds

Choose the Right Time. Nesting birds spend a lot of time coming and going from their nests, and they’re always on the alert. Your presence could alter their behavior or even cause them to abandon the nest. To minimize this risk, don’t visit at dawn or dusk. Most birds lay their eggs in the morning – leave them in privacy to do so. Also, disturbing birds at these times of day leaves hatchlings vulnerable to cooler temperatures and predators. Similarly, avoid visiting nesting birds during bad weather when birds are already stressed. Stay away during early incubation and fledging. If a bird feels unsafe in the first few days after laying eggs, she’ll be more likely to abandon the nest. Later on, while the nestlings are beginning to fledge and try out their wings, your presence could alert predators to them during their most vulnerable time.

Minimize Disturbances. Although you’ll need the parent bird(s) to leave the nest so you can get a closer look at the eggs or hatchlings, be cautious in how you do so. Approach softly, and allow birds to leave on their own. If observing nesting birds in boxes, tap on the box to alert them to your presence. Then open the box and allow the bird to leave. If the parent birds don’t leave on their own, you’ll have to return later. Stay at the nest only long enough to observe any changes since your last visit. When possible, leave by a different route than the one by which you came to avoid drawing predators to the nest.

Follow the Law. Don’t trespass on private property; contact property owners to obtain permission if possible. Do not handle active nests, eggs, hatchlings, or parent birds. Do not attempt to relocate a nest, even if it seems to be in an inconvenient spot. Nearly all bird species are protected by the International Migratory Bird acts, and many also by state and local laws. That makes it illegal to handle, possess, or disturb active nests. If you would like to band or rescue birds, you must first get the proper federal or state permits. (Wondering what to do if you find a baby bird that seems to have fallen from a nest? Click here.)

For much more information on safely observing nesting birds, visit NestWatch.org. Join this citizen science project and help gather data on nests in your neighborhood.

Jill Staake
Jill lives in Tampa, Florida, and writes about gardening, butterflies, outdoor projects and birding. When she's not gardening, you'll find her reading, traveling and happily digging her toes into the sand on the beach.