Q: An acquaintance of mine recently boasted to me that he had happened upon a bird’s nest and seized the opportunity to perform what he considered the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, scaring away a mother bird before taking the eggs. This mitzvah is intended to teach compassion, so that a bird should not have to watch the devouring of its young, but I find it hard to believe that it is meant as a mitzvah to be done in ordinary circumstances if one is not in dire need of the eggs. I even saw an email posting once listing the location of a bird’s nest so that anyone who wants to do the "mitzvah" can do so. To me, this seems like a mitzvah “haba b’evera”, cruelty to animals in the name of doing a mitzvah.
A: Your suspicions are correct: this strange commandment (Deut. 22:6) is not trying to teach kindness to animals. A number of other Torah and rabbinic narratives do that. This particular mitzvah has confounded sages for centuries. Since the Torah promises to grant whoever performs it long life (plus other goodies, including possibly hastening the arrival of the Messiah), it has become almost an obsession to explain it – and perform it. In one famous Talmudic case it drove a rabbi to madness when he witnessed a boy performing this mitzvah who then fell from a tree and instantly died.
Dozens of rationales have been posited, some insisting that compassion for the mother bird should be the last reason for performing this mitzvah. I agree.
Still, note that you can fulfill the commandment even if you simply lift up the eggs (about 12 inches) and then return them to the nest. Since studies show that the mother bird will likely return to the nest, that would be the most humane thing to do.
Last month I went on Safari in Africa and was confronted with a similar situation. We were driving in the bush at night and as we directed our spotlight to the left of the car, we saw three small lion cubs huddled together near a small cave. Their mother had left them to hunt, so we were free to exploit the moment and could have tarried to take lots of pictures of the terrified cubs. But our guide instinctively redirected the light away from the cubs, knowing that the light could attract the attention of would-be predators, like hyenas, male lions – and more callous humans. We elected to leave the cubs be, so that they would stand a fighting chance of still being alive when their mother returned.
The next morning we revisited the spot and saw the cubs again, but this time they were huddled safely alongside mom. We may not be rewarded with longer life, but we got much better pictures along with the satisfaction that we had made the ethical choice not to upset the normal rhythm of nature.
I wish I could say that the mother birds of Deuteronomy might find maternal bliss upon their return to the nest, as this lioness did. But in a strange way, the mother bird commandment does teach us to be more compassionate to living beings; not in our fulfilling it so much as our debating it. Maybe that’s why it was put there in the first place – to pique our sense of moral outrage.