Why do Mother Birds Abandon Their Babies?

why do mother birds abandon their babies

There are a lot of discussions out there about nasty habit of mother birds abandoning their babies.  Some of those stories are myths, and some a reality- will, and why would a mother bird abandon their babies?

It’s not much of a habit as much as wrong circumstances and mishaps. The most common case of mothers leaving their babies is if a baby bird falls out of the nest onto the ground. The parents will likely not feed it, as they would find it as a waste of energy and time.

There are several reasons for abandoning, and the one that says “if you touch a baby bird with your bare hands, your smell will make mother bird leave her babies” is completely wrong. Birds don’t have a keen sense of smell and therefore don’t abandon their young just because they interacted with humans.

According to Frank B. Gill, former president of the American Ornithologists’ Union: “If a bird’s nest is disturbed by a potential predator during the nesting or egg-laying stage,” he says, “there’s a possibility that [it] will desert and re-nest

Anyway, once babies are hatched, this possibility goes to 0.

Nature is basically cruel, and there is no thing called justice in it. Therefore, some birds parents are forced to abandon their babies due to an insufficient amount of food.

Once they see that there will be not enough food for all of their babies, they simply funnel all of their energy and time to make sure that at least a few of them survive, rather than risking all of them starving to death.


Brood Parasitism

Brood parasitism is a well-known phenomenon in the birds’ world. It’s basically about birds relying on other organisms to raise their own children. Shortly, they abandon their own babies by manipulating the host to raise its young as if it were its own.

They often use so-called brood mimicry. Brood mimicry is a resemblance between two species. So, once you climb the tree to peek into the nest, you shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there is one strange-looking egg, laying down and acting as it belongs there. Simply, it’s a camouflage.

But it’s not only the case with the similar species. There are numerous examples of shiny cowbirds being fed by a rufous-collared sparrow. And their eggs are pretty different.

Needless to say, this pretty much damages the host as often results in an evolutionary arms race between parasite and host as the pair of species coevolve.

So, regarding birds, there are several species that are used to brood parasitism. Those are indigobirds, honeyguides, ducks, cowbirds, and cuckoos.

What’s the most interesting- these birds often do not even build their own nests. Ironically right? How can they abandon their young when they have no home to abandon?

They completely rely on brood parasitism.

One good example of brood parasitism can be seen in cowbirds motherhood. They are masters of this job- statistics say that more than two hundred species, including Yellow Warblers, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Red-eyed Vireos, are unwitting surrogate parents for these chicks.

Some species keen to the cowbird’s plan build over her eggs or boot them out of the nest, but most simply don’t know what’s happened until the cowbirds hatch. Surprise!

List of “Bad” Mothers



This is definitely the most famous (at least when it comes to birds) bad bird mother out there. I remember the story of cuckoos since I was a little boy. My parents always presented me this as a bad example of parentship.

So, this wouldn’t be such a sad story if it ends on just laying eggs inside others’ nests. Nope, the problem with this one lies much deeper. The cuckoos hatch much earlier and grow really fast. And then, as big bully, cuckoos often force smaller “brother” birds outside of the nest.

Black Eagle

black eagle

Back eagles are really cruel birds, especially when it comes to females. They are not directly cruel to their babies, but their actions might be considered as abandoning babies. Namely, black eagle females will often just watch a fight between her babies, even if it ends with a couple of deaths.

And that is often a case. Until the last one standing… or flying.

It’s simply the law of nature- the stronger one wins.

House sparrow

house sparrow

To be a house sparrow means having a really strange life. Basically, males are casual males- they make some kids and then leave with another female. Nothing strange over here… but then, females are jealous. And as you know, jealousy leads to some killing…  I mean, literary. Females are keen to seek out nests of other females that mated with her partner and kill the resulting chicks.

Why is that? Well, for the father to spend more time with the rest of his kids.

This one can hardly be called the bad mother of a year. She abandons her nest only briefly- to remove the competition. A father is the one doing the abandoning part.

Why mothers throw their baby birds away?

There are several reasons for mothers throwing their babies away. Neither of them is justified, but that is how it goes in nature’s world. So, basically, this happens not only in the birds’ world but throughout the different animal species.

There are 2 main reasons for throwing baby birds away, abandoning them, or even killing.

  1. If the baby bird is carrying some infection, a mother will most likely discard it from the nest, or kill it in order to protect the rest of it.
  2. The second reason is more like China’s population policy- once the mother figures out that the number of the babies is too high, she eliminates the weakest ones.
    Also, if there is some baby in the brood with deformation, needless to say, it’s destined for elimination.

Now, there is a difference sometimes. It happens that the babies get nudged out of the nest by their siblings, and it happens because the parents are trying to feed more babies for which they can easily find food. If the food was easier to get, they’d be watching the nest more carefully, and babies shoving would be replaced by napping. It might be a nature’s way of limiting populations to sustainable levels.

Sometimes, it can happen that (due to wind) babies fall out of the nest. In that case, mothers will probably try to carry it back to nest.

Baby Birds Out of the Nest

Wherever you live, you have probably come across a lonely baby bird on the ground.  If not, you will surely do. And once you come across, you will have to decide whether you should rescue it or leave it be.

In most of the cases, I advise not to interfere. Well, unless the little birdy isn’t harmed. Keep in mind that its natural parents will do a much better job at raising than the human could possibly do. On average, a baby bird should eat every 15-20 minutes 15 hours daily.

In other words, you won’t have time to eat your own food due to a commitment on the part of the foster parent.

Back to the topic, there is a good chance that the parent bird is hiding somewhere, or is just outside of your sight.

So, unless it’s obviously injured, the fledgling baby bird should be left exactly where it is. The only thing that you can do is keep all other predators away so its mother can peacefully keep feeding it. Interfering here will most likely cost that little bird a family life.

Either it won’t be able to find a path to its nest again, or its mother will definitely abandon it for good. Neither would be a good idea to return it to the nest.


In the light of everything aforementioned, we may conclude that the mother bird needs a really strong reason for abandoning her babies. So, kids, if anyone tells you that your touch can result in a mother bird leaving their babies, he is ultimately wrong.

The only reason why mother birds would completely leave their nests if you are around it, is not because of a smell, as some may conclude, but because they are afraid of predators (you).

We have seen that the most common “abandoning” happens when a baby drops out of the nest. Of course, if we exclude the case of brood parasitism. Other than that, there are sibling fights (resulting in accidental dropouts of the nest, or killing) in which mother stays aside and watches and the cases of deformation, where mother herself eliminates the deformed baby.

Hopefully, this article helped you realize why mother birds are abandoning their babies and myth busted a lie about birds sensing your smell. However, this “not-touching strategy” helped (subconsciously) in a lot of cases, as sometimes the best thing to do when you see a baby bird on the ground is to leave it be.

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