Last year we watched the Eastern phoebes fledge from our window ledge. This year, the female checked out last year’s nest but decided on a nest inside our garage. Perhaps the existence of the cat deterred her from her normal location. In any event, the nest is a cozy mess of small branches and bits of mud, covered with green moss.
When my middle daughter ran into the house to tell me the phoebe nest had fallen and the babies were still alive (and that she had picked them up, carefully put them back in the nest, and could we keep them to raise???), we got our Care of the Wild book to research what the best recourse would be. Having been through this before with a nest of orioles last year, I knew the female would not have immediately left the area and that she would take care of the babies at all costs. It is a myth to think that the human smell will cause a mother bird to abandon her babies. One thing I have learned from bird watching is that the maternal instinct is powerful across species and that mother birds, especially, will work hard to save their young. In this case, one of the babies still had eggshell attached to its head like a crazy hat, and they were still unfeathered.
The best action when coming upon an abandoned or fallen nest, as long as it is still intact, is to put it back as best you can, or find a high location where the parent is likely to see and hear her babies, but out of the way of predators like domestic cats. Leave the area for an hour before coming to check on the nest. In our case, Mother Phoebe was back on the job within 30 minutes. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It is a big undertaking to attempt to save baby birds. They need to be fed at least every half hour between dawn and dusk and their fecal sacs must be removed from the nest with tweezers, as the parents would do with their own beaks. Fortunately baby birds open their mouths at the slightest movement, so they are likely to be easy to feed, as long as you know what to feed them, but the responsibility would be overwhelming unless you were a bird rehabber. Phoebes are insectivores, and Care of the Wild has specific recommendations on newborn bird feeding techniques.
The girls and I regularly have conversations about when to intervene. When is it acceptable to interfere with the cycle of things? When is the probability of success greater than failure? And perhaps most importantly, when does that probability matter? All tough questions for a nine-year old.
The first photo, from July 2010, shows an Eastern phoebe feeding her young. The second photo is a phoebe minutes after it fledged.