If you invite wildlife into your backyard, you also open the door to their related day-to-day dramas and adventures. You’ll soon learn your creatures’ routines, habits and quirks, and many struggles to simply survive another day. Springtime in New Jersey brings lots of baby birds to my backyard. Hand-in-hand comes the threat of hungry predators, the competition amongst brood parasites, nest damage, and orphaned eggs and nestlings. As a responsible backyard birder, it’s essential to know what to do (and what not to do) if you come across baby bird eggs in the wild.
It’s illegal to try to hatch most species of wild bird eggs in the United States by yourself. So scrap any plans of purchasing a chick incubator and bringing those eggs to life. If you discover an egg in your backyard, do a little detective work before you touch it or try to put it back in a nest. See if you can determine what type of bird the egg came from and where its nest may be located. Look carefully to see if a nest is nearby. Don’t always assume that a nest is in a tree or birdhouse, either. Many species of birds nest on the ground or in unusual cracks and crevices around our homes. Check the egg carefully for any damage. If the egg appears whole and you’re confident where it came from, quickly and carefully place it back in the nest. Don’t hang around too long as parent birds may think you’re a predator and be permanently spooked away from the nesting site. If you’re unsure about what to do, always contact your local wild bird rehabilitator for help.
Know the Law About Bird Eggs
In the United States, most species of wild birds are federally protected under a special law called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (MBTA). More than a century ago, forward-thinking policy makers recognized that many bird species were on the brink of extinction. Hunting, consumption as gourmet food, and the use of bird feathers for adornments was causing this growing crisis.
The MBTA provides essential protections for most migratory bird species. Simply put, it is against federal law to kill, capture, keep, sell, trade, transport, or care for wild birds, their eggs, or nests unless directed by the Department of Interior United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
While you can contact a wild bird rehabilitator and transport an injured bird or orphaned egg (when practical) into their skilled care, taking care of a wild bird or trying to hatch wild bird eggs yourself is illegal.
Don’t Incubate the Egg Yourself
You already know that keeping a wild bird egg is illegal, but take a moment to think of the practical implications of trying to incubate an egg and then raise a chick on your own. Eggs need special care to hatch. You must maintain the right temperature, humidity and regularly turn the eggs to produce a viable chick.
While incubators might allow an egg to hatch, would you know what to do next to keep the bird alive? Babies need specialized nutrition on a regular basis for up to 16 hours a day for the first few weeks of their lives. Feeding is almost a surgical process requiring a careful hand and eye to make sure the hatchling is eating enough and digesting properly. If the baby survives and grows, it will socially imprint on you as its caregiver. This bird will never have the chance to learn proper behavorial or survival skills and live in the wild as it should.
There is a high probability that the bird egg you find outdoors is already damaged, infertile, or likely not going to hatch even under ideal incubation conditions. Don’t try to do what is both illegal and inhumane to a creature that should be free.
Identify the Bird Egg
Bird eggs end up discarded from nests for many reasons. They may have been knocked out of their nests in a storm or during a fight with a predator. Some may be infertile or never hatched and were nudged out by a parent. Others could be plucked out by a brood parasite like the Brown-headed Cow Bird that replaces native bird eggs with their own and relies on the foster bird to raise their young.
Don’t assume that a bird egg only falls from a nest above your head. That egg may be right where it’s supposed to be. Birds can nest in bushes, fields, grasslands, brush piles, lawns, flower baskets, decks, driveways, beaches and other flat spaces. That’s why it’s really important to try to identify what type of bird egg you’ve found and what type of nest it may come from.
There’s a great tool to do this at NestWatch.org from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Click on the Nest and ID feature to view different birds from your region, their egg types and in what kind of nests they raise their young. Googling search terms related to your egg, like its size, shape, color, and unique markings may also help give you more information about the egg you’ve found.
Identify the Type of Nest
Once you know what type of egg you’ve found, try to identify the type of nest it may come from. We tend to think of a traditional round nest made of grass or straw that’s located in a tree. But birds nest with all kinds of materials in all kinds of places. There are the traditional bird houses and trees, of course, but there are also the non-traditional dryer vents, store signs, flower pots, light fixtures, holes in houses, electric poles and nesting spots for our feathered friends. These may not be convenient or aesthetically pleasing spots for us humans, but they’re perfectly acceptable for raising a bird family.
Rely on the NestWatch.org tool to help identify common nests found in your region of the United States.
Take Extra Care with Ground Nests
If you’ve discovered the egg you found is from a ground nest, your best bet is to leave the egg where you found it and let nature take its course. If the egg has been laid in an area where it could easily be stepped on or crushed by a vehicle, try to block off the area. Don’t hover near the nest, especially if the babies eventually hatch.
Gently Check the Egg for Damage
Before you return an egg to a nest, check it first for damage. Cracks or oozing liquid could indicate the egg wouldn’t be viable even if you found a nest for it. The exception to this is if you see any indication that a hatchling is actively pecking its way out its egg.
Carefully Re-Nest the Egg
If the egg appears whole and undamaged (or if you see a hatchling trying to emerge from an egg), quickly and carefully return it to the nest you’ve located. If you’re not sure what to do, stay calm and reach out to a wild bird rehabilitator who will walk you through the correct and humane steps to take in this situation.
Don’t Believe the Human Scent Myth
There is a widely-held belief that if you touch a bird egg or a baby bird, its parents will detect your human scent and abandon the nest. Birds simply don’t have the same olfactory or smelling senses that humans possess. Birds will become spooked by human activity around their nests, however. They will become very protective, attacking any perceived predator, or abandon a nest full of eggs or babies, if they feel threatened.
Stay Away from the Nest
Like eager relatives, we want to check on the new babies in our backyards and see how they’re growing. But Mother Nature kindly requests you give new bird parents and their hatchlings lots of privacy. Although it’s hard to do, and baby bird photographs are just so cute, avoid the temptation to hover around an active bird nest. If you want to take a very quick peek, do so when you’re confident the mama and papa birds are out doing chores. Too much activity around a nest triggers defensive behaviors including dive-bombing visitors or even the total abandonment of a nest.
Questions? Contact a Wild Bird Rehabilitator
The best resource for help in any situation involving a bird, their eggs, or nests, can be found in your local wild bird rehabilitator. Every state has professionals who are specially trained to care for our wild birds, and most are only a phone call or email away. Don’t be nervous about reaching out for help. These folks have big bird hearts just like us!