Some birds are quite comfortable building their homes right next to ours. It’s not uncommon to see Mourning Doves in an air-conditioning vent, Eastern Phoebes on a windowsill, American Robins in a wreath, or House Finches in flowerpots.
If you find one, what should you do about it?
Leave It Be
If you find a surprise nest, leave it be. “You’re not supposed to mess with it,” says avian ecologist Caren Cooper from North Carolina State University. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a federal law, protects roughly 1,100 native bird species, including eggs and nests. The list includes wrens, finches, phoebes, hummingbirds, doves, killdeer, and robins—all species that often nest around homes.
Invasive species, such as House Sparrows and European Starlings, are exempt from the law. But you should still let them be, says biologist Robyn Bailey from NestWatch, a community nest-monitoring program run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. While you could legally remove their nests, it’s difficult to distinguish a sparrow’s nest from a warbler’s if you are not an expert. “They can look very similar,” Bailey says, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Protect the Area
Be patient, Cooper says; young fledge about a month after egg laying. During this time, hang a warning sign near the nest to warn passersby of its presence. Raising chicks takes a lot of energy, so help birds by protecting them from disturbances. Keep cats indoors, and avoid visiting the nest too frequently for photos or videos. “That Instagram feed is not as important as that nest being safe and protected from predators,” Bailey says. Nest raiders, such as raccoons and crows, can observe your movements to discover nests.
Don’t worry about the mess—most bird species are very clean. Chicks poop into a diaper-like fecal sac that parents carry and dispose of far from the nest. But if you have to clean up any fecal matter or feather dust, Cooper suggests wearing a mask and thoroughly washing your hands with soap.
Call an Expert
Sometimes, birds will build their nest in an unsafe place—for example, in a car tailpipe or gravel driveway. In such extreme cases, don’t try to remove it yourself. Instead, call a wildlife rehabilitator to relocate it, Bailey says. “Often those nests are so delicate and fragile that you’re going to either damage the nest or potentially any eggs or young in it.”
However if a chick has fallen out of its nest, it’s safe to put it back without worrying about the parents rejecting it. “The parents aren’t all that tuned into smells,” Cooper says.
Hang Nest Boxes
Birds love to nest in dark crannies. They’ll happily set up house in any pocket-like nook, even a little-used baby stroller or bike helmet. To encourage better choices, hang nest boxes and nest shelves to lure birds to safer areas.
Enjoy the View
If you are excited about a nest around your house, consider helping scientists study nesting behaviors by joining programs like NestWatch. You could install a nest camera to watch, from a distance, all the drama that unfolds. “If you enjoy birds,” Cooper says, “it’s the best close-up way to do so.” And, of course, with binoculars you can while away the hours watching parents bring up chicks from a distance.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.