If You Touch a Baby Bird, Will Its Mom Abandon It?

MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images
MikeLane45/iStock via Getty Images

When I was a kid, our living room opened out onto a back deck through a set of French doors. A pine tree stood over the deck, providing a home for countless birds. Baby birds would regularly fall from their nests onto the deck, and would lie there crying in full view of my brother and me as we sat on the floor watching TV. Our parents always told us that we should never attempt to rescue these birds, no matter how long they were out on the deck, because our scent would cause their parents to reject and abandon them.

Some of these babies would get their act together and find their way back into the nest. Some would get dragged off by neighborhood cats. A few got plucked off the deck by hawks (and, once, devoured as I watched). Whatever happened to the birds, though, my brother and I dutifully listened to our mother.

These days, I feel bad about that. It turns out my mom is full of baloney.

Scent of a Human

Birds will not readily abandon their young because they “smell humans.” For one thing, birds don’t have a great sense of smell. Their olfactory bulbs are small and simple compared to other animals (although this wasn’t always the case, and there are exceptions to the rule, like the turkey vulture, albatross and kiwi), and they’re not going to be able to pick out your scent from all the other smells hitting their beaks at any given moment.

Even if they could detect your scent, and make a negative association with it, they’re not just going to up and leave. You wouldn’t abandon your kids and home at the first sign of danger, would you? Even if you didn’t love either all that much, you already went through the trouble of painting the living room and changing all those dirty diapers, right? Birds will make that same simple economic decision. They’ve invested a lot of time and energy in those babies and they’re not going to give them up for nothing. Mess around with a nest before the eggs are laid or before they hatch, and a bird might re-nest elsewhere, but once the kids are in the picture, they’re no push-overs.

Rescue Mission

So, my mother is obviously no ornithologist, and she’s not your mom, so feel free to ignore her advice. (Sort of. Let me explain.)

There are two types of baby birds you’re likely to encounter on the ground: nestlings and fledglings. Nestlings are featherless or fuzzy and are too young to leave the nest. Fledglings have their feathers and are old enough to leave the nest and be on the ground, making their first bold steps away from home under the watchful eye of mom and dad.

Fledglings you should leave alone. They’ll usually sit around for a few days outside the nest before their flight skills develop enough that they don’t need their parents. If you’ve got a fledgling near your home and are worried about predators, ask your neighbors to keep their cats inside. Hawks? Well, that’s just the circle of life.

Nestlings, though, could probably use a helping hand. Pick them up and put them pack in the nest, and their parents will not think any less of them if they smell a little bit like a human. What you should not do is take the little guys inside and try to care for them yourself. Sure, you’re at the top of the food chain. You’re smart and civilized and have dominion over the natural world. But you are not a bird. You will make a lousy bird mom.

Could Gigantic Coconut Crabs Have Played a Part in Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance? At Least One Scientist Thinks So

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Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's disappearance during her attempt to fly around the world has captivated historians and conspiracy theorists for more than 80 years. One organization is now suggesting that her fate may have been sealed by giant crabs.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) believes that Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan may have landed their plane on Nikumaroro Island when they couldn't find their target, Howland Island, and that Nikumaroro's endemic crustaceans may have played a part in the ensuing mystery.

According to National Geographic, there are several clues supporting TIGHAR's theory. The large reef that hugs Nikumaroro’s coast makes it conducive to emergency aircraft landings. In 1940—just three years after Earhart’s disappearance—British colonists found 13 human bones beneath a ren tree on the island and shipped them to Fiji, where they were lost. The colony's administrator, Gerald Gallagher, sent a telegram back to England positing that it was Earhart’s skeleton. Then, in 2001, researchers uncovered U.S.-made artifacts around the ren tree including a jackknife, a woman’s compact, a zipper, and glass jars. The plot thickened even further in 2017, when four forensic bone-sniffing dogs all indicated that a human had indeed died at the site, though excavators failed to dig up any more evidence.

If those 13 bones beneath the ren tree did belong to the unfortunate castaway, where are the rest of her remains? Tom King, TIGHAR’s former chief archaeologist, thinks that coconut crabs can answer that question.

Nikumaroro is home to thousands of the colossal creatures, which can grow to a terrifying 3 feet across and weigh 9 pounds. They’re sometimes called robber crabs because of their penchant for absconding with objects that smell like food, and they’ll eat practically anything—coconuts, fruit, birds, rodents, other crabs, their own discarded body parts, and carrion.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to think that coconut crabs may have feasted on Earhart’s corpse and then taken her bones home with them. In one experiment to test the theory, TIGHAR researchers deposited a pig carcass on the island and filmed the aftermath. With the help of small strawberry hermit crabs, coconut crabs stripped the pig down to the bone in two weeks. After a year, some of the bones had been dragged 60 feet from the carcass’s original location, and some were never recovered at all.

King believes Earhart’s missing 193 bones could be hidden in the burrows of various coconut crabs. As in the pig experiment, crabs may have scattered some of Earhart’s bones dozens of feet away, but maybe not all of them—after all, the forensic dogs smelled bones near the ren tree that haven’t yet been located. Right now, TIGHAR is working with the Canine Forensics Foundation to further explore the area.

While we wait for more answers, dive into these other theories about Earhart’s disappearance.

[h/t National Geographic]

The Cat Sanctuary That Sits Near the Ancient Roman Site Where Julius Caesar Was Murdered

ClaireLucia/iStock via Getty Images Plus
ClaireLucia/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Cats will sleep anywhere—even in ancient ruins. Located in Rome, Colonia Felina di Torre Argentina is a cat sanctuary on the site where conspirators stabbed Julius Caesar 22 times outside the Theatre of Pompey, on March 15 44 BCE. Centuries later, in 1929, Mussolini excavated the area to reveal four temples that are 20 feet below the street level. Today, it’s the oldest open-air spot in Rome.

Bystanders can view the temple complex known as Largo di Torre Argentina from the fenced-off street, but according to Conde Nast Traveler, after a $1.1 million restoration process, the sanctuary will open to tourists in the second half of 2021. For now, the only living things allowed in the sacred area (area sacra) are feral cats.

According to Colonia’s website, they are "the most famous cat sanctuary in Italy” and also the oldest in Rome. Many of the cats fall into the special needs category: Some are disabled, missing part of a paw, or are blind; the special needs and elderly cats live in a walled-off area. Volunteers—a.k.a. gattare, or cat ladies—take good care of them, and some cats are available for adoption.

Atlas Obscura reports that “since the mid-1990s, the population has grown from about 90 to a peak of 250” cats and notes that the sanctuary has a spay/neuter program. From the street, visitors can watch gatti like the three-legged Pioppo and Lladrò—known as “poisonous kitten” because of how angry he was when he got there—sunbathe and sleep under pillars.

It’s unclear if the cats are respecting Caesar or disrespecting the fallen leader. However, a gift shop is open to visitors, and people can donate money toward the cats and/or volunteer.

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