EthicsWhy petting nestlings is not a good idea

Why petting nestlings is not a good idea

Okay, admit it, maybe you’ve done it, at least once – petting or stroking a beautiful baby nestling. Or you are showing a nestbox to a child, and they ask if they can pet the babies. The nestlings sit quietly in the nest and seem almost tame. We feel close to them and love and care for them so – it’s like they are “ours”. And it’s amazing and tempting to get that close to a wild creature. Bluebirds (but not necessarily other cavity nesters) are remarkably tolerant of humans, and normal monitoring will not cause the parents to abandon the nest. But is petting baby birds a good idea?

I think there are a couple of concerns.

  • One is transmittal of disease, especially if you have pet birds you have handled, or if you are coming from checking another box where you touched nesting material/nestlings.
  • Another is stress. Imagine how GARGANTUAN and alien we look to a bird. Yes, the babies may look calm, but is it because they are terrified and are instinctively pretending to be dead? Notice that the older babies are, the more likely they are to hunker down in the nest, pretending to be asleep or dead or trying not to attract attention.
  • It can also stress out the parents, as they might think their babies are being attacked (although some parents are so used to monitoring they just observe). You wouldn’t want the parents to choose to nest elsewhere next time because of too much interference.
  • Some folks might view it as a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act because it could be considered harassment. (Although lots of other things responsible bluebird landlords do, like changing out a nest when it is wet/infested with blow flies, could technically fall into this category.)
  • It’s harder to maintain an even temperature inside the box when it’s open. The babies could get chilled, especially younger nestlings that are unable to maintain a constant body temperature. The longer the box is open, the bigger the threat.
  • Newborn nestlings are extremely fragile.
  • Wild birds can carry viruses.

It’s a gift that birds nest in the boxes we provide. They are wild creatures – they are not pets, and they are not really “ours” – we are just blessed with an opportunity to observe them. Their welfare should be our primary consideration. I know that responsible bluebird landlords would never want to harm or stress nestlings. Thus, I recommend minimizing any handling of babies. Conduct monitoring quickly but carefully.

Some bluebird monitors handle babies to protect their health and well being – e.g., to do a nest change, check for blow flies, remove an unhatched eggs egg or dead nestling, or bring a bird to a rehabber. During these activities, it is best to put the bird(s) in a covered shoe box or paper grocery bag rolled shut at the top, with a paper towel on the bottom so they don’t slip. The darkness will help calm them. Of course it is also acceptable to handle young and adults for the purposes of banding.

On another note, it’s NOT a good idea to handle eggs unnecessarily! Eggs are so small and fragile that they can crack just from being picked up. Chickadee eggs can break if you just touch them lightly to see if they are warm or to count them. If a brooding female is picked up to count eggs, she may grab an egg with her feet and when it drops, it can break. The oil on our hands could prevent eggs from hatching (by interfering with respiration.)

I don’t mean to yell at anyone or make folks feel bad – I just want to provide some information and share my opinion for your consideration.

See nestbox monitoring tips for some more information on how to check nestboxes. For example, if you have a nest that’s high up or difficult to see inside of, Ace Hardware carries a great extendible auto inspection mirror that will allow you to see what’s going on inside the box.


The Bluebird is a Cut Above all others. He seeks nothing in return for his superior being. For his unique color and personality he ask not for special favors. He appreciates your admiration and thanks you for your help.
The fact, that in his world, you cared for him is the only fact that mattered.
– Wendell Long, 2005


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