Ask Your Weird Animal Questions: Is It True Bird Moms Abandon Babies?

I always heard that if you touch a baby bird or other baby animal, the animal’s mother will reject it because it smells like humans. Is that a myth or actually true? —Tristan, Winter Park, Florida

This is an old wives’ tale: Birds don’t have a keen sense of smell and therefore don’t abandon their young based on human contact, said Bret Stedman, manager of the California Raptor Center at the University of California, Davis.

A great horned owl parent with two chicks in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Photograph by Bob Smith, National Geographic Creative

Also, what might appear to be an orphaned baby might just be a fledgling learning to fly, Stedman cautioned: Young birds will make practice flights to the ground while the parents watch. (See National Geographic’s backyard bird identifier.)

For instance, great horned owl fledglings may be on the ground for up to three weeks. During that time, people will often mistakenly think the owlets are orphaned and end up taking them away from their family.

An animal’s feathers is the best indicator of whether it’s a fledgling: If a bird is still downy, it’s “probably out of the nest prematurely” and can be put back in the nest or taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center, Stedman said. If its wing and tail feathers are pretty much grown in, then it’s likely a fledgling and should be left alone. (Also see “New Report Highlights Dire Situation of Many U.S. Birds.”)

Overall, unless you see a baby bird in danger—that is, surrounded by heavily trafficked roads or in an otherwise urbanized area—it’s best to leave them be.

What about mammals?

I took the author’s prerogative to ask Clinton Epps, conservation ecologist at the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, whether young mammals are affected by human touch.

Not that he knows of, Epps said. It would be “maladaptive” for animals to put so much energy into having and raising offspring and then throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

“There are lots of studies where we handle young animals and collar them and return them to their mothers, and they go right away,” he said. (See pictures of animal mothers and babies.)

For instance, since mother white-tailed deer can’t bring their babies with them foraging, their strategy is to hide the fawns, which have little or no scent. Unfortunately, people sometimes find the fawns, mistake them for orphans, and take them in.

In addition to accidentally separating an animal from its parent, a well-meaning person can introduce the animal to diseases and care for it improperly.

What should you do if you see a turtle by the side of the road?

Awhile back I spoke to U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Jeffrey Lovich about turtles that I often see—and worry about—on the roadside. Are they lost?

Turtles—at least those you see in the spring in the eastern U.S., particularly in Florida—are “usually females looking for nest sites,” Lovich said. (Also see “Climate Change Will Test Turtles’ Mettle.”)

“So if you pick them up and put them back in the water, you’ve just aborted their mission to find a good place to lay eggs and safely get back in the water. They’ll just have to do it all over again,” Lovich said.

So if you see a turtle moving in one direction across the road—and it’s safe to pull over—you can “put it on the side where it was headed and leave it alone.”

Overall, though, “leave it the heck alone” is the best policy in most cases when it comes to wildlife, Epps said.

Do puss caterpillars still have stinging spines when they become an adult flannel moth? —Jarrod, Nashville, Tennessee

Readers loved our story about the puss caterpillar, which looks like a killer mustache. University of Florida entomologist Don Hall said via email that the moths don’t have venomous spines.

The university’s website has great photographs that show these furry-looking moths, which are covered with harmless setae, or hairs. The moth mom covers her eggs with the setae, likely to protect against predators.

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Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com