QUICK TIPS: If an intervention has an obvious chance of harm but a less certain chance of benefit, let nature take its course. If you are unsure about whether to interfere – don’t.

My criminal career began at the tender age of five. I was excited to find an unbroken robin’s egg on the lawn in our backyard. I got a shoebox, fashioned a nest from grass, and placed the beautiful blue egg inside. I put the shoebox underneath a desk lamp and eagerly waited for the egg to hatch. Of course it never did, which was a good thing. I had neither the ability nor any idea how to raise a baby wild bird. Nestlings must be fed a specialized diet every 15 minutes or so, and then taught to fend for themselves by a member of their own species.

I also had no idea that I was committing a criminal offense. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal to have in your possession live or dead non-game native birds (adults or young), feathers, nests or eggs, or to keep nests or eggs even for “show and tell” educational purposes without a permit. And those permits are extremely hard to get.

But I REALLY wanted a baby robin! Unfortunately, what humans want and what is best for wildlife do not always intersect. In fact, at times they are diametrically opposed. Sometimes in an attempt to help, and despite our good intentions, we end up doing more harm than good.

An incident at Yellowstone National Park highlighted what can happen as a result of inappropriate interference. A pair of well-meaning tourists “rescued” a newborn bison shivering by the roadside. They put it in their SUV and drove it to a ranger station. Park rangers then spent two days trying to reintroduce the baby bison the herd, but it was rejected, and would not eat. The calf also repeatedly returned to the roadway, apparently having become imprinted on cars and people. “The calf was either going to starve to death, get sick, get hit or cause an accident, so we had to make the difficult decision to put it down,” said Charissa Reid of the park’s public affairs office.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I hear questions like this all the time:

  •  I found a baby bird on the ground – can I raise it?
  • It’s going to get really cold tonight. Should I bring the eggs/baby birds inside my house to keep them warm? Or can I put a heater inside the house?
  • The baby nestlings are so cute – is it okay to pet them? Can I put bands on them?
  • The eggs were supposed to hatch yesterday and they didn’t – should I throw them out so the parents can try again?
  • I haven’t seen the parent birds lately, so I think the nest has been abandoned – should I bring the babies inside the house and take care of them?
  • There is a tree swallow nesting in my box, but I want bluebirds – can I throw out the swallow nest?
  • A bird built a nest in my gas grill – can I move it so we can have a summer cookout?
  • There are wasps inside the birdhouse – can I use hornet spray inside the house?
  • A male bluebird keeps hitting my window, and it’s driving me crazy – can I shoot it?

The answer to all of the above questions is NO. Even if these actions were not outright illegal (most are), such meddling would still be bad for the birds. There is a line between helpful intervention and harmful interference and micromanagement.

This doesn’t mean you should do nothing. Inviting birds to nest in your birdhouse comes with responsibility. As a bluebird landlord, you can and should do what is reasonable and legal to increase the likelihood that a nesting will be successful. Examples include:

We all know helicopter parents who hover over their children. Overcontrolling and overprotecting is not in the best interest of children, nor is it good for wildlife. The reality is that nature can be harsh. Losses are a part of the ecosystem. As much as you might like to, you cannot control the weather or eliminate predators or disease. So, even though you may love wild birds, you need to avoid being a helicopter bluebirder.

The Bottom line: If an intervention has an obvious chance of harm but a less certain chance of benefit, let nature take its course. If you are unsure about whether to interfere – don’t.

More information:

Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference.
– William S. Burroughs


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