There are many examples of animals carrying their babies in nature. Crocodiles carry their babies in their mouths, while opossums and even scorpions carry their babies on their backs.
But can birds carry their babies? Can they move them to a new nest?
Most birds cannot pick up or move their babies. Songbirds, for example, produce altricial chicks that spend their first few weeks in the safety of the nest. If they should fall out of the nest, they are unlikely to find their way back in. Some birds can pick up their babies, however, and some waterbirds like loons and swans even carry their chicks around on their backs.
Most birds are not built to lift heavy weights, especially not while flying. Birds of prey like eagles are an exception, but they have not been recorded carrying their live young around.
While many waterbirds can give their babies a ride on their backs while swimming, few can do the same trick on land. There are always exceptions and surprises in the bird world, however!
Read this article to learn all about how birds move and carry their babies.
Whilst most birds cannot carry their young, it's not uncommon for species like swans to allow their chicks to hitch a ride on their back
There are many species of birds that are known to carry their babies from time to time. It is a pretty rare behavior in the bird world, however. Read on for a few examples of birds that carry their chicks and when they might do it.
Baby common loons and eared grebes often hitch a ride on their parents' back. The parents are able to brood (warm) their chicks this way while out on the water. In the case of the common loon, this happens most frequently between the first and second week of the chick's life, and it is more often the male who carries the babies.
Baby eared grebes spend the first week of their lives being carried continuously on the back of one of their parents. The other parent will bring morsels of food and feed the baby as it is carried around.
Trumpeter swan cygnets have been known to climb up on their parents' backs too, but this is not a common behavior for them. It is more common in the introduced mute swan and the black swan of Australia.
Birds will occasionally remove sick or dead babies from the nest to avoid attracting predators or allowing an illness to affect the other chicks. In some cases, parent birds will even kill and remove the youngest, weakest baby to ensure the survival of its siblings.
The African jacana is one of the few birds that can physically lift its chicks and carry them for any distance on foot. The father jacana, who takes care of the chicks alone, is able to collect his young under his wings and carry them to safety when danger threatens.
An African Jacana protecting its chicks
Very few birds are able to physically move their babies from one place to another. Songbirds, for example, typically use only a single nest for any given clutch. If the nest should fail for any reason, they will often build a new nest or reuse the old one to attempt another brood of babies.
One interesting exception comes from the bird family known as the Caprimulgidae. Some members of this group of nocturnal birds, which includes whip-poor-wills and nighthawks can move their eggs short distances if their nest is disturbed. It is thought that they move their chicks by calling them, rather than physically lifting or pushing them, however.
Grebes, which carry their babies on their backs, make use of nests only for incubating their eggs. These amazing birds keep their chicks warm and dry by carrying them, so you could say the parent’s back is the new nest for the first few weeks!
Close up of a perched Whip-poor-will
Young baby birds are not usually able to get back into their nests if they have fallen out. Most birds do not have the strength to carry their babies back up into nests in trees or anywhere else above the ground. Birds of prey like eagles do have the strength to carry heavy weights, but they do not usually carry their own live chicks.
Fledgling birds often leave their nest long before they are able to fly properly. They usually end up on the ground or clamber up into bushes or the branches near their nest.
This is normal behavior and they do not need to get back to their nest because their parents will continue to feed them wherever they end up.
Fieldfare fledgling on the ground nearby to the nest
Birds often throw babies out of the nest when they have died for some reason. Allowing the poor chick to decompose in the nest could attract scavengers or spread disease. It is not always possible for the parent bird to remove the unfortunate baby, however, particularly for cavity-nesting species like bluebirds.
Sometimes parent birds will kill their own babies and push them out of the nest. This behavior is well documented in the white stork of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In a three-year observation of 63 nests, researchers confirmed 9 cases of this behavior which is known as infanticide. It was usually the male that killed the last-born chick of larger clutches. He does this to ensure the survival of the older, fitter babies.
Bizarrely, some baby birds throw other babies out of their nests. The various American cuckoo species all do a great job of building their own nests and raising their own chicks, but in Africa, Europe, and Asia, most cuckoos have a devious way of raising their young.
The mother cuckoo will lay her eggs in the nest of a different bird species. Once hatched, the cuckoo chicks will push the rightful babies out of their own nest and then be fed by the unknowing host bird!
Marsh Warbler feeding a cuckoo chick in their nest
It is very rare for birds to carry their babies while flying, although this behavior has been reported in at least 16 different bird species. The woodcock has long been believed to carry its young to safety, although there is no real concrete evidence for this.
If they can, it is not exactly clear how the parent bird would hold onto the chick while in flight!
Birds do occasionally lift their babies into the air briefly when they get stuck to the feathers of their undersides. This is purely accidental, however, and the chick will not be moved very far at all.
Close up of a Eurasian Woodcock chick
Robins do not have the strength to pick up and carry their babies. If you find a baby robin outside of its nest, place it back if it is young and featherless, or leave it to learn to fly if it has grown all its feathers.
Mother birds do not abandon their chicks if they are lifted back into their nests. This behavior can do more harm than good sometimes, however, because many baby birds are caught and interfered with when they are already old enough to leave the nest.
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