There are over seven hundred species of birds in North America. These birds will search for a mate during mating season, lay their clutch, and incubate them as they wait for their arrival. But how long do birds incubate their eggs?

This can vary from species to species. Many factors come into play when determining the incubation period for eggs, including species, weather, environment, and more. If you’ve purchased a bird house for your yard and you’re lucky enough to host a young family of birds, you’ll find the process of laying eggs, incubation, and finally, the arrival of the hatchlings, very fascinating. However, many people don’t know much about the incubation process, how long it takes or what to expect in the coming days or weeks after the eggs have been laid.

Average Clutch Size

Incubating eggs is a very diligent process that can involve the mother or the father, or both. Once a nest has been built, a mother bird can lay anywhere from two to fifteen eggs. The number of eggs that are laid can depend on predation and available food sources.

Nest Building

Before a mother can lay her eggs, she will need to build a nest. Some birds will use nests that were built by other birds, and others will revisit the nests they had built the previous season. Most backyard birds will build their nest from scratch. The length of time it takes to build a nest depends on the materials available and weather conditions.

Backyard birds will use the following materials to build their nests:

  • Bits of trash
  • Shredded paper
  • Floss
  • Old spider webs
  • Small rocks
  • Pine needles
  • Lichen or moss
  • Cattail fluff
  • Feathers
  • Fur
  • Human hair
  • Thread, string, or yarn
  • Dead grass or grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Sticks
  • Straw
  • Cotton balls
  • Mop string

Birds can find many of these materials available in their environment. If you want to encourage birds to nest in your yard, you can provide these nest materials and leave them out in the open.

Incubation

American robin in a nest

The length of incubation can vary and often depends on the size of the bird. Larger bird species take longer to incubate compared to smaller birds. Typically, most backyard bird species have an incubation period of fourteen days.

Some types of birds, such as ducks, are born with all of their feathers, have their eyes open, and are fully mobile, but many songbirds are basically helpless. Birds that are born with feathers have a longer incubation period compared to birds that are born without them. For example, while most songbirds have an incubation of ten to fourteen days, the duck has an incubation period of twenty-eight days.

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The mother isn’t always the only one who will sit on the eggs during the two to four-week period of incubation. With some species, such as the grosbeak, the males and females will take turns incubating the eggs and searching for food. Most soon-to-be parents are very on edge at this time, keeping an eye out for predators who love to steal eggs from nests. Avoid checking the nest during this time, since this can cause stress to both the mother and father.

The Arrival of the Hatchlings

Most hatchlings arrive helpless, featherless, and blind. Right after hatching, a baby bird can’t do much more than open its mouths and cry for food. The hatchling will remain in the nest, constantly waiting for their parents to feed them. Typically, one parent will stay behind to protect the hatchlings while the other parent goes out foraging for food.

During their first week of life, the hatchling is unable to control their own body temperature and must be kept warm around the clock by one of the parents. By the end of the week, their feathers will start to emerge, and their eyes will open.

During this time, the hatchlings experience amazing growth, doubling their body weight several times over.

Food Demands

To keep up with the hatchling’s food demands, one of the parents must constantly forage. This can be dangerous for both the young birds and the parent since the begging cry of the hatchlings can draw attention to the nest. After a period of two to three weeks, most hatchlings are ready to leave the nest. Some birds, such as raptors, will stay in the nest for as long as two months.

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Time to Leave the Nest

Most birds will nest once a year, however, some species, such as the Robin, can have up to five nests per breeding season.

After the fledglings leave the nest, they usually remain close to the parents for a short period of time. During this time, the fledglings will learn how to survive on their own. As they learn the ropes, they are very vulnerable to starvation and predators. The first year of life is often the toughest for all types of bird species. Unfortunately, over 50% of these birds will die. The birds that do make it to adulthood will have a better chance of surviving another year.

Final Thoughts

How long do birds incubate their eggs will depend on the species, size of the bird, weather conditions, and other environmental factors. On average, the incubation period will take two weeks, although, some species of birds can require three to four weeks of incubation. During this time, both parents are on high alert, watching for predators and trying to prepare for the arrival of their hatchlings. If you have a birdhouse in your yard, try to avoid disturbing it during this time, since this can cause significant stress to the parents. Instead, make sure your birdbath and/or bird feeders are fresh, clean, and full, providing the food and water sources the parents desperately need to raise their young.