What to do if you find a bird nest near your home

If you live in a city or suburb, it can be hard to feel surrounded by nature. But next time you step outside, pause, look and listen — even in the most densely populated areas, birds are almost omnipresent. And no matter where you live, that can be a kind of magic, especially during nesting season.

“Rarely do we get this opportunity to get a front-row seat to a wild organism starting its life,” says Brian Evans, a migratory bird ecologist and project lead at the bird observatory at the Smithsonian National Zoo. “All we have to do is start noticing.”

But having an avian neighbor can raise a host of questions, including how best to monitor a nest, how to keep it safe and what to do in case of nest abandonment.

According to Chad Witko, a senior coordinator of avian biology at the National Audubon Society, the answer to most questions is usually to leave the nest alone. If you feel you must intervene, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area. “[Birds] have enough problems as it is,” he says. “It’s good to not let our good intentions do more harm.”

Here’s what else to know.

Despite the fact that birds are all around us, there’s a reason we don’t see nests everywhere: Parents try to build nests in secret. These hidden homes offer the best chance of survival for their eggs and young during nesting season, which, for many species, begins around April. “It’s a very dangerous time of year for birds,” Witko says. “Parents are doing everything they can to protect their young.”

But there are a few signs that a bird might be nesting nearby. Look out for agitated adults, who may start vocalizing more aggressively if you’re standing near their nest. Adult birds making frequent trips to and from a specific location, especially with food in their bills, is also a telltale sign that they’re feeding young, Witko says.

If you spot a nest from afar, try to leave it alone. Checking in too frequently or obviously can call the attention of predators (more on this below). Consider instead watching from a distance through a pair of binoculars.

What if the nest is in an unsafe spot?

Sometimes, nests are too easy to spot — like when a bird has made one over your garage or front door, or even in a nook of your car (like between the door and mirror). First, consider ways to avoid the nest: Does your house have another point of entry? Can you park on the street for a while? If there’s a nest in your flowerpot, it’s time to accept that your geraniums may need to go about four weeks without watering — roughly the time it takes for eggs to incubate and for young to fledge, according Witko.

Depending on the time of the nesting cycle, mom and dad birds can abandon their nests if they are disturbed by nearby humans. Besides, with just a few exceptions for nonnative species, moving a nest is illegal in the United States under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

If avoiding a nest isn’t an option (there’s no alternate entrance to your home, or the nest is in your mailbox, for example), call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. They probably won’t move the nest far — just a few feet, which will help keep the adults from abandoning it.

How can I protect a nest from predators?

The most common nest predators include snakes, rodents and other birds. But just like nesting birds, many predators are protected, so do not harm them in an effort to protect the babies.

Birds such as jays and crows know that watching human activity can lead them to their next meal. That’s why, Witko says, he’s been instructed during field research to pretend to search for nests in the wrong places, and to cover his tracks after locating an actual nest. If you have a nest near your home, you should also avoid walking directly to it and inadvertently tipping off nearby predators.

Another big challenge for nesting birds, hatchlings and fledglings: pets. Keep cats inside and monitor dogs outside if a known nest is nearby. To avoid attracting predators such as chipmunks, raccoons and other rodents, bring food and food scraps inside.

If you have a nest box, adding a baffle can prevent predators from entering (if you don’t have a nest box, read on!). Make sure your nest box does not have a perch, or a peg right below the entrance — birds don’t use them, but they’re a perfect place for predators to hang on as they eat eggs.

What else can I do to keep a nest safe?

If you know you have a nest, the easiest way you can help is to simply be considerate. Use caution while leaf blowing, for instance, or doing other yard work that could harm nests or dislocate young birds.

“I’ve got a robin nest in the front of my house in a shrub that’s completely unruly,” Evans says. “I totally procrastinated too long in cutting my shrub, and it’s a bummer. But now I’m going to have to wait until probably July to cut it, because it’s really easy to destroy a nest that way.”

He recommends avoiding pesticides or cutting down on pesticide usage during nesting season, too. “A healthy bird community really starts with a healthy insect community,” Evans says.

What if I see a baby bird outside its nest?

First, identify whether the bird is a fledgling or a nestling. Nestlings are about the size of their eggs, usually featherless and often pink, and they sometimes have closed eyes (they may resemble “little aliens,” according to Witko). Fledglings usually have some feathers and can hop around on their own. “It’s the difference between a newborn baby that’s very helpless and a young toddler that can move around but still needs Mom and Dad,” Witko says.

If you’ve identified the latter, don’t move the fledgling — its parent is probably nearby, feeding it and watching from a distance as it learns to navigate its world. If the fledgling is injured (its feathers look wet and matted, there’s an open wound, or there are flies present), contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

But if it’s a hatchling, try to locate the nest and gently place the young bird back; it may have been accidentally thrown out by an adult bird or blown out by a strong wind. And don’t worry that your “scent will ward off the parents.” According to Witko, that’s a common misconception. If you can’t find the nest, fashion a makeshift one from a discarded box or container, monitor the bird for about an hour, and call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if its parent doesn’t return.

What if the nest is abandoned?

Even for experts, it can sometimes be challenging to tell whether a nest is actually abandoned. In the early spring, birds may start building a nest on a warm day, stop during a cold front, then return to building a few days later, according to Robyn Bailey, NestWatch project leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Then there are songbirds, which don’t begin incubating eggs until they’ve laid them all, leading to a few days where eggs are present but adults aren’t. Also a possibility: The adults are away when you check the nest, but they are still attending to their eggs or young.

To determine whether a nest is actually abandoned, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Never try to handle the eggs yourself, take young birds into your home or try to feed them — different species have different diets, and feeding a bird the wrong one could kill it.

How can I encourage birds to nest near me?

First, if you or a neighbor has outdoor cats, or if there are strays in your area, do not try to attract birds. Otherwise, consider growing native trees, shrubs and wildflowers that offer birds food and shelter (the National Audubon Society has a database to help you choose bird-friendly plants for your region).

You can also use feeders, but take care to place them less than three feet from your house so birds don’t have enough space to gain the dangerous speeds that lead to window strikes.

Less yardwork might make neighbors mad, but birds benefit from un-raked leaves and fallen branches, which can enrich soil and provide foraging spots and nesting materials.

How can I discourage nesting in a high-traffic area?

Once a nest is built, it’s illegal to remove it. But if you catch a bird starting to nest, say, over your front door and it’s your house’s only entrance, you can remove nest material as soon as you notice it.

You can also avoid encouraging nests in unwanted spots by providing better alternatives. If you see birds nesting annually between ledges, columns or crevices of your home, hang a nest box nearby, Bailey says.

“If you make an artificial platform or even an L-shaped piece of wood, and put it a little further away from the front door, they’ll oftentimes be attracted to that and move over,” she says.

Can watching a nest in my yard be … science?

Yes! Ornithologists increasingly rely on data collection from amateurs to track trends in migration, breeding and the impacts of climate change. Top programs include Cornell’s NestWatch, spearheaded by Bailey. Participants can sign up, receive a quick virtual training, then monitor nearby nests and record data on the reproductive cycle. The program, now available online and with a mobile app, has been in place for over 50 years, receiving about 3,000 participants per year.

There are also neighborhood programs that observe native birds. Washingtonians can participate in the Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch, tracking birds from youth into adulthood. “That’s how we found out that cats were really taking a lot of our bird population,” Evans says. “The role of the public in making those observations is crucial.”

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