I Found a Bird Nest in a Bad Location – What Can I do to Help?

Your quick guide to bird nest conflicts across the Great Lakes

Picture this: you’re getting ready to take out your camper van for the weekend and you find that a bird has nested on the tire or windshield. Or perhaps you’re walking up to your home and you spot a nest tucked away in your door wreath. From gutters to mailboxes, birds can choose inconvenient, silly -- and sometimes dangerous -- places to nest.

What can you do? It’s important to recognize that birds will often abandon their nests and eggs when they are moved. It’s also important to be aware that outside of a few exceptions (noted below) most species are federally protected, and so are their eggs and nests. While it can be inconvenient, the best and recommended course of action for the majority of cases is to leave the nest until the eggs hatch and the young fledge from the nest. This quick guide will explore the different rules and regulations protecting bird nests, and help you determine what to do if you stumble across one in a bad location.

Identify the Bird Species

When determining whether you can relocate or remove a nest, the most important step is to correctly identify the bird species, either by observing the bird directly, or identifying the bird by its nest. Not confident in your bird or bird nest identification? Download Audubon’s Bird Guide App, or Merlin Bird ID app on your mobile device for help with bird identification. If you need assistance, snap a photo of the bird or nest and contact your local Audubon chapter or State Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division (IL, IN, MI, OH, WI).

Some of the most common species that nest around buildings and people are house sparrows, European starlings, American robins, mourning doves, barn swallows, mallards, and Canada geese.

Protections for State or Federally Threatened or Endangered species

Each Great Lakes state maintains a list of state and federally threatened or endangered species that are protected by law. Protections by state and species may vary, but at a minimum, prohibit moving, removing, or damaging active nests that have eggs or chicks in them. Hazing or harassing birds to encourage them to abandon their nest is also prohibited. The current list of threatened and endangered species for each Great Lakes state can be found below.

Contact your local Department of Natural Resources or the Endangered Species Region 3 Midwest office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services for additional guidance.

Protections for Migratory Birds

Migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). Active nests with eggs or young cannot be moved or removed without a federal permit. The hazing or harassing of birds so they abandon an active nest is also prohibited.

A federal permit can be obtained from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or with the assistance of the USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Service. Permits are only granted by USFWS in instances where public health, safety, or property damage are at extreme risk. Due to processing timelines, it is not unusual for young to leave the nest before a permit is granted.

Inactive nests with no eggs or young can be moved, removed, or destroyed but cannot be kept for personal possession. It’s also legal to haze and harass birds that are building a nest as long as the birds are not harmed.

Following are common issues with migratory bird species nests and recommendations on how to manage problems with them. You can find a full list of birds protected under the MBTA online.

  • Osprey. This fish-eating species often nests on communication towers or power line poles. Utilities may conduct maintenance on towers with inactive nests or remove inactive nests. The removal of active nests requires a permit from USFWS.
  • Hawks and owls: These species can display aggression in backyards, which is often due to defense of their nest. If you are able to find the nest, it is recommended to avoid the area until the chicks fledge or the nest fails and to keep small pets indoors or ensure that they are leashed and accompanied. Contact your local Department of Natural Resources for further recommendations.
  • Mallards:  A common backyard visitor, Mallards have been known to nest in flowerpots, near doors, on boat covers, or in and on buildings. It is recommended to avoid the area until the ducklings hatch and leave or the nest fails. Incubation lasts 3-4 weeks and ducklings immediately leave the nest upon hatching. Moving eggs is a violation of MBTA.
  • American Robins: The bright-blue egg of the American Robin is usually a welcome sight, unless they’ve nested in high-traffic areas around your home. If you spot them above front doors or garage doors, it is recommended to avoid the area until the chicks fledge or the nest fails.
  • House Finches: Their nests are made up of fine stems. You might spot House Finches nesting in front door wreaths, eaves, and hanging planters. Avoid the area until the chicks fledge or the nest fails.
A House Finch brings food to its young in a nest which sits within a front door wreath.
House Finch. Photo: Susie Kelly/Audubon Photography Awards

Species of Note

The following bird species are generally managed differently than other birds, due to their individual legal protections and the specific issues that cause them to come into conflict with people.

Protections for Eagles

Eagle nests are typically big and hard to miss (you won’t find a Bald Eagle nest in your wheelhouse!). If you’ve confirmed that the nest does indeed belong to an eagle, take special precautions. Under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, damage, destruction, and removal of any Bald Eagle or Golden Eagle nest, active or inactive, is prohibited without a federal permit. There are prohibitions against nest disturbance as well.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has guidelines for avoiding disturbance from different activities. If you are aware of or concerned about possible eagle nest conflict or disturbance, reach out to them to speak with an expert in Eagles and Eagle Permits. 

Protections for Mute Swans

One of the world’s most aggressive waterfowl species, especially while nesting and raising their young, Mute Swans drive out native breeding waterfowl and other wetland wildlife with their hostile behavior. An invasive species, Mute Swans were brought to North America from Europe. Despite being invasive, Mute Swans are still protected in most Great Lakes states, as state law does not differentiate between native and non-native swan species. Permits are usually, but not always, required in the removal of a Mute Swan nest. Learn more about the rules and regulations by contacting the local DNR in your Great Lakes state.

Protections for Canada Goose

The Canada Goose is abundant in many parts of the Great Lakes region and can exhibit aggressive protective behavior around nests and goslings towards people during nesting season. A migratory bird and game species, its population and range has expanded across the region. The Canada Goose has also adapted to living in more urban environments and is a year-round resident in parts of the Great Lakes. Each state manages Canada Goose nuisance complaints differently. Learn more about the rules and regulations in your Great Lakes state by contacting the local DNR.

House Sparrow, European Starling, or feral Rock Pigeon

Due to their invasive status, House Sparrow, European Starling and feral Rock Pigeon nests, eggs, chicks, and adults are not protected by state or federal law. Nests, eggs, and chicks can be moved, removed or disposed of at any time.

House Sparrows, European Starlings, and the feral Rock Pigeon are non-native to the Americas and can be invasive, outcompeting and displaying aggressive behavior towards our native bird species. House Sparrows in particular can be very aggressive towards native bird species, and may kill adults, young, and eggs of other cavity-nesting birds such as Eastern Bluebirds, chickadees, and Tree Swallows, to establish their own nesting territory.

We hope this guide has been helpful in guiding you through what you can and can’t do if you discover a bird nest in a bad location. While it can be inconvenient, the best and recommended course of action for the majority of bird species, except for the few exceptions listed above, is to leave the nest be until the eggs hatch and the young fledge from the nest.

*Please note this is not a comprehensive guide to dealing with all bird nest problems. Contact your local Department of Natural Resources for guidance and local regulations information.

This blog is brought to you by the MI Birds program, a public outreach and education program by Audubon Great Lakes and the Michigan DNR. MI Birds aims to bridge the divide and deepen all Michiganders' engagement in the understanding, care and stewardship of public lands that are important for birds and local communities.


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