Sometimes people find an egg on the ground*, or come across a nest they believe is abandoned, and want to know if they can "rescue" the egg(s) and incubate them. While they usually just want to help or learn, and their intentions are good, here is why the answer is no.
Is it legal?
No. It is actually illegal to possess the eggs of a native bird (under the Migratory Bird Act) without a permit, in part because people used to collect eggs.
Is it a good idea?
No. The nest may not be abandoned.
Most cavity nesters lay one egg a day, and wait until they have a full clutch before they start incubating the eggs, so they will all hatch at the same time. After laying an egg, the parent(s) may stay away from the nest to avoid drawing predators to it. Other birds are very secretive during nesting.
Some birds actually nest on the ground, and intentionally lay their eggs there.
Would it hatch?
The parent may have begun incubating the egg already. If incubation is interrupted for any length of time, the embryo dies, and would not hatch anyway (and a rotten egg smells really nasty after a while.)
The egg may be damaged (e.g., if it fell from a nest, or was removed by a predator), and would not hatch anyway, or would hatch a deformed chick.
The correct temperature required for hatching for each species is often not known, and the eggs must be turned constantly in order to hatch a healthy chick.
How would you care for the chick if it did hatch?
If the eggs were to hatch, which is unlikely, the young have to be fed every 5-15 minutes with a special diet, from daybreak till dusk, and kept warm. If they are not fed an appropriate diet, they may not develop properly.
Only a bird can properly teach their young to hunt for food and find water, and defend themselves from the dangers of the natural world. Wild birds should really be raised by members of their own species, in order releasable into the wild. They are not pets.
Only a licensed rehabber is allowed to raise a wild bird. They don't incubate eggs unless they belong to some endangered species.
Would the chick be able to be released into the wild?
The hatchlings of some species will 'imprint' or bond with the first caregiver they encounter, making it less likely that they will be able to fend for themselves in the wild. (Professional rehabbers and zoos know how to prevent imprinting when rearing wild birds.)
The young may rely on their natural parents to learn how to survive and hunt. A human is ill-equipped to do this.
The good news is that if the parents are alive and they lose a nest, eggs or young, they often go on to nest again.
What CAN I do instead?
If you find an egg on the ground, it is unbroken and you know where the nest is and can safely reach it, you can try to gently place it back in the nest (note that eggs are very fragile.)
Do not "foster" eggs into another nest. This can overload the parents, and if incubation has already begun in one nest, they will be out of synch for hatching.
For people interested in experiencing what it is like to raise birds, a domestic bird like a duck or a chicken is a much better, legal choice.
People who want to help wild birds should offer or help preserve suitable habitat, offer sources of food (e.g., by planting native plants that produce berries), offer water (e.g., a birdbath) and proper, safe housing (i.e., nestboxes) for birds that nest in cavities.
If you really want to see eggs hatching, monitor bluebird boxes and maybe you will get a glimpse of chicks hatching in their proper venue.
Consider donating to your local Wildlife Rehabber. These people are usually volunteers who spend large sums of their own money to help injured or orphaned wildlife. You might also ask if they do educational tours.
*Where did the egg come from?
If you find an egg on the ground it may have been:
Removed from the nest by a predator. House sparrows will remove eggs and drop them on the ground. They usually break. House wrens will remove eggs, but they will have tiny peck holes in them. Cowbirds will remove an egg and replace it with one of their own, but again, there will be holes. Any eggs with holes in them (that were not created by the chick pipping it's way out of the shell) will rarely hatch anyway.
The nest the egg was in could have been blown or knocked down by a storm.
The parent bird may have removed the egg because it was infertile.
Some birds lay their eggs on the ground! They may or may not build a nest underneath the egg, so it's important not to disturb a clutch you find (and it's also illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to disturb the active nest of a native bird.)
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