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The Aftermath of Cutting Down a Tree With a Nest

Dear Bird Folks,

My landscaper cut down a tree in my yard and when the tree came down so did a nest of baby birds. The birds were pretty small so I put them in a box and set the box in a nearby lilac bush. I checked on the box the next morning and the babies were gone. Do you think the parents came and took them to another nest?

– Eric, Sandwich, MA


Not landscapers, Eric,

Landscapers are my summer nemesis. Not only do their 300-foot trailers block every street in town, but their lawnmowers are so loud I can hardly hear the neighborhood dogs barking, which is my favorite part of summer (not). Stupid lawnmowers. I’ve never understood why anyone would pay to have a company spread fertilizer so their lawn will grow faster, and then pay the same company to cut their lawn because it has grown so fast. That’s like having the pizza dude deliver five pizzas to your house and then having him show up the next day to sell you an extra-large pair of pants because your old pants are now too small. (I’m not sure if that analogy makes any sense, but I think I’ve just found my next business.)

Late spring and early summer is a critical time for birds. Unlike people, who can crank out kids any day of the year, birds only have a short time to get the job done. Unfortunately, nesting season also coincides with our annual yard clean ups. We get calls from people who, while trimming their hedges or bushes, discover a hidden nest (or what used to be a hidden nest). One summer I was cutting the bushes in our yard when a Song Sparrow flew out. I peered into the bush and found a nest with four eggs in it. I thought, “Sweet!” Not only was I glad to have nesting sparrows, but it was just the excuse I needed to stop doing yard work…for the rest of the year. (No sense taking any chances.)

While homeowners can easily delay cutting for a week or two, landscape and construction crews can’t really do that. I’m sure very few foremen are willing to send their workers home until a family of, say, catbirds has finished nesting. (Although, they should.) To save nesting birds from the wrath of the chainsaw, many local towns have imposed 100-foot restrictions against vegetation cutting near wetlands, salt marshes and other important areas during the breeding season. (Maybe someday they’ll make a 100-mile restriction against barking dogs.)

Even with care and precautions, bad stuff happens. This is where wildlife rehabilitators come in. Here on Cape Cod we are fortunate to have two wonderful facilities that take care of orphaned birds. Both Wild Care in Eastham and the Wildlife Center in Barnstable are run by staffs of caring superstars who work long hours for little or no money. If you find a fully feathered baby bird running around on the ground, they suggest you leave it alone. Most of the time the adults will continue to feed and care for their offspring until it is big enough to fly. You should only try to catch a young bird if you know for sure that something has happened to its parents, or if it is in danger from dogs or stupid cats. This rule of thumb does not apply to featherless newborns, however. Helpless birds need to be put back in the nest ASAP. (No, the parents won’t smell you.) If the nest can’t be found, or has been blown down by a storm or chopped down by a landscaper, the babies should be scooped up in a warm towel, placed in a box and taken immediately to one of the above rehabilitators. Those awesome folks welcome all lost and orphaned creatures (unlike the Bourne selectmen).

This brings us to the question of whether songbirds carry their kids to the safety of a new nest, in the event their original nest is lost. The answer is no, that doesn’t happen. Most songbirds don’t have the strength or equipment needed to carrying baby birds, which is why they lay eggs in the first place. But even if birds could carry their displaced young, where would they take them? It’s not like birds have a second home someplace, or a cottage by the sea or know a college buddy who has a guest nest for rent.

Right now you are wondering: If the parents didn’t move the little birds you placed in the lilac bush, what happened to them? Most likely they joined a totally different family…as “dinner” guests. Baby birds are an important menu item to a whole assortment of predators. While you might be sad by the loss of a nest full of baby birds, you’ll be comforted to know that the birds’ parents have already moved on. Their job is to reproduce and thus they have no time to mourn or wonder what they did wrong. The adults will likely re-nest, either with each other or with new partners. Hopefully, this time they’ll choose a tree that isn’t in the crosshairs of a landscaper.

Of course, I’m only kidding. No landscaper, or anyone else, would purposely cut down a tree with nesting birds in it. There are accidents, however. But there are ways to limit such accidents. Parent birds will buzz you, look stressed or squawk if you get too close to their nest. If you see a bird acting strangely while you are doing yard work, Eric, my advice is to discontinue working immediately and never, ever do it again. That’s what I did. And now it’s my wife who is doing the squawking. But not to worry; I’ll just order five pizzas for her and everything will be fine.