Each year (especially in the Spring), many people call us who have found a baby bird or mammal. People usually think the animal needs their help and want to bring it in. These well meaning individuals usually assume the babies are orphans.
Most babies are still under the watchful eye of their parents and are taken from them by people only trying to help. Unlike human babies, wild babies are not constantly watched by their parents and spend large amounts of time alone. (This is especially true of mammals.)
In most cases, wild animal babies should be left alone. The following is what we recommend to do in specific situations.
1. FLEDGLINGS: People often see baby birds that are partially feathered sitting on the ground below a tree and automatically assume that they fell out of the nest and need to be helped. At this stage in a birds development, they are considered "fledglings". Fledglings NORMALLY will jump or fall out of the nest. This is their "flight training" stage. The mother bird will then continue feeding the bird on the ground until the bird is able to fly (usually only takes a few days). Unless injured, these birds should be left where they are. Efforts should be made to keep cats, dogs, and curious children away from the bird so the mother can continue to feed it.
Cat or Dog Danger? If a dog or cat is threatening the baby animal, do not instantly bring the baby in. Rather, keep the pet restrained the short time the baby is there. However, if the animal has already been attacked or picked up by the family pet and is injured, please bring the baby in as soon as possible.
2. NESTLINGS: Baby birds that are naked for the most part (featherless or feathers just starting to come in) are considered to be "nestlings". These birds stay in the nest and the parents come to feed them there. These babies, when found, are usually on the ground directly below the nest. This occurs either because the baby fell out, blew out (common after wind storms), or was "pushed" out by a sibling. One must realize that this last behavior is actually adaptive for some species. This way, only the strongest of the brood survive and go on to raise young themselves.
What to do if you find a nestling that is out of the nest:
The best thing to do is to try to place the bird back in its nest if at all possible. If the nest cannot be reached for some reason, the following works very well. (This is also the procedure to use if you find the whole nest on the ground.)
Make a "makeshift" nest out of a clean Cool-Whip container or margarine dish. Make holes in the bottom of it to allow for water drainage. Line the bowl with paper towels. Then tack the makeshift nest back up in the tree as close to the original nest as possible. Finally, place the baby bird(s) into this and leave. The parents will usually come back in a short time and will feed the babies in it just like it was the original nest. (Often, you will see the mother going back and forth between each "nest", feeding both sets of babies.)
The only time we recommend bringing the baby birds in is if you KNOW that the mother is dead or if the babies are injured in any way. The natural parents do a much better job at raising their young than we could ever do. A baby bird that is featherless must be fed every 15-20 minutes from about sunrise to 10 pm! This obviously requires a large time committment on the part of the foster parent.
What if I already touched the birds, the mother won't come back, will she?
People often believe this to be true and therefore think they need to keep the babies. This is simply NOT TRUE and is just an old wives tale. Birds in general have a very poor sense of smell (vultures are one exception) and will not mind the fact that you have handled them (but will be bothered by your presence by the babies). If you do find a REAL orphan or injured baby bird, please do the following:
1. Get it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator AS SOON AS POSSIBLE; the longer the delay, the less chance it has of surviving
2. Keep the baby bird WARM and in a quiet, dark place until you can bring it in (a small cardboard box works well)
3. DO NOT give the baby bird any liquids (they get all they need from their food and very often will inhale any liquid)
These animals are usually found when the nest has been destroyed or disturbed in some way. Mentioned here are the two most common species we receive calls about.
1. BABY COTTONTAIL RABBITS
Cottontail rabbits make their "nests" in small depressions in the grass. The nests are lined with fur from the mother and loosely covered with grass. They are frequently disturbed by people when they are mowing their grass or raking. In addition, dogs and cats find these nests and often kill or injure the babies.
If a nest is found or distured, please do the following:
Replace the baby rabbits back in their nest and leave them there unless they are injured or if you KNOW that the mother has been killed. Many people just assume the mother is dead because they "have been watching the nest all day and have not seen the mom come back at all". This is normal. Female cottontails only come to feed their young early in the morning and at dusk. This decreases the chance of alerting predators to the nest's location. If you are not sure if the mother is coming back to feed them, try placing a string over the nest. If the string has not moved by the following morning, she has not been back. If the babies are cool and appear very hungry, bring them to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. In the meantime, keep them in a warm, dark box in some toweling in a quiet location.
It is crucial with cottontail babies to bring them in only as a last resort. Baby rabbits have a high death rate when hand raised, due in great part to the stress of handling by humans. People are NOT doing the babies any favors by attempting to raise them themselves. It usually only ends in sadness and frustration. Again, they need special diets, care, and antibiotics if they are to have any chance at survival.
Also, when baby rabbits are about 5 inches long, they are totally on their own and away from their mother. These rabbits do not need to be brought in unless they are injured. (If you have to chase the rabbit to catch it, IT DOES NOT NEED TO BE RESCUED!!)
2. BABY SQUIRRELS
These are often found after a nest has blown down from a storm. They are best placed into a box set at the base of the tree. The mother will usually come retrieve them when people are not around. Keep dogs, cats, and children away. It may be necessary to keep them overnight and try again the next day. It is best to call your local wildlife rehabilitator for instructions and advice as to if the baby needs to be brought in. If you are requested to bring in the baby, make sure you keep it in a warm and quiet area (usually in a box with toweling) until you can get it in.
Always remember the following:
1. A young animal's best chance for survival is to be raised by its natural mother. It is important to make every effort to try to return the young to its mother. ONLY after all efforts to reunite them have been exhaused should the orphan be removed from the wild. DO NOT try to raise the baby yourself.
2. All birds (except Pigeons, European Starlings, and House Sparrows) and most mammals are protected by law and it is illegal to have them in your possession without proper permits from the federal and state government.
3. Proper care and nutrition are crucial to the survival of the baby and any deficiency will more than likely cost the animal its life.
4. Baby animals easily imprint onto whoever is feeding them and steps are needed to prevent this. An animal that is imprinted on people cannot be released back into the wild and usually must be destroyed.
NOTE: We frequently have people bring in babies they have been trying to raise themselves that are now having problems. These animals often have metabolic and nerve problems from an improper diet. Wildlife rehabers can save many more if they get abandoned animals in right away.
Every spring and summer hundreds of young, orphaned animals are brought into licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities. Often these animals are not true orphans. Here is some information on identifying, caring for and transporting orphaned mammals. Be sure to contact a licensed facility for instructions, or to answer your questions before proceeding.
An orphaned animal is a young animal whose natural parents are known to be dead and is too young to survive on its own. Before rescuing an animal, make sure it really needs help. If you have witnessed the death of its mother, it obviously is an orphan. However, a dead rabbit in the street doesn’t necessarily mean the infant rabbits in your yard belong to that rabbit.
Many species have hiding techniques to protect their young. Cottontail rabbits only visit their nest at dawn and dusk to feed their offspring. They stay away form the nest during the day because they don’t want to attract the attention of predators.
If you find a nest of infants and believe the mother is missing, lay sticks in a specific pattern around the nest. Come back the next day to see if the sticks have been disturbed; if they have and the infants appear to be fine, the mother has probably made a visit to the nest and the young animals are not orphans. The best thing to do for them at this point is to leave them alone.
If you find a healthy, young animal out of its nest and you think it is an orphan, leave it where you found it (as long as it isn’t in immediate danger) and try to locate the nest yourself. If the animal is in immediate danger from pets or predators, place it in a safe spot while you look for the nest. Once the nest is found, retrieve the animal and return it to its nest.
Some nests, such as squirrels are often high up in trees and are difficult to reach. In such cases, leave the young animal in a shallow, open box at the base of the tree where the nest is located. If you cannot find the nest, place the orphaned animal in a safe and shaded spot away from the danger of pets, then watch from indoors to see if the mother comes to claim it. This may take several hours or overnight. If you cannot watch from the house, remain at least 200 feet away from the animal.
The mother will accept her offspring even after humans have touched it as long as you haven’t kept it away from the nest too long (a few hours) or have handled it excessively. Avoid having the orphan come in contact with heavy human scents such as perfumes, hairspray, or towels with laundry softener scents.
Keep the orphan away from contact with pets or children; there is a potential of disease. In the event the mother does not claim the young, contact Wind River 920-982-6825 immediately. Try to assess whether orphans appear to be injured, thin or cold. If they are they need to be carefully warmed and require veterinary treatment as quickly as possible. Some injuries require immediate attention, such as cat bites, which can be lethal to a young animal if not given proper medical attention.
Remember: a young animal’s best chance of survival is to be raised by its natural mother. It is important to make every effort to try to return the young to its mother. Only after all efforts to reunite them have been exhausted should the orphan be removed from the wild.
ORPHAN CARE AND TRANSPORT
Once you determine the found animal is orphaned, you must work as quickly as possible to place it in licensed rehabilitative care. It is very important to call a facility before you begin making arrangements for capture and transport so you understand the best way to handle the situation.
Between the time of rescue and turning it over to the appropriate rehabilitation facility, you must keep the young animal warm and in a quiet place. Poke several holes in an empty cardboard box with a lid, put an unfrayed (so the infant won’t get tangled in loose threads) cloth on the bottom of the box to make a “nest” and place the orphan inside.
If you have a heating pad, turn it on a low setting and set the box halfway on the pad. If the animal gets too warm it can safely move away from the heat source. Keep the box in a dark, quiet room. It is important that the infant have no further human contact. Do not feed the orphan but transfer immediately to a licensed rehabilitation facility to be given appropriate attention.
Each bird and animal species, at different stages of development, has specific and special nutritional requirements. Feeding inappropriate foods or using incorrect techniques can cause the animal permanent harm or death. Wild animals are easily stressed by human contact. Excessive handling of young wild animals often leads to their death.
BABY ANIMAL FACTS:
Eastern Cottontail Rabbits: Eastern cottontails feed their young only at night. You will not find the female during the day. Rabbits leave the nest when they are just three weeks old. A rabbit with its eyes open, ears standing up and approximately five inches long is self-sufficient and does not need your assistance.
Rabbit nest are shallow holes in the ground, commonly in lawns. The mothers line the nests with fur and dry vegetation. If you find such a nest, use a stick as a tool and cover the nest with grass. Try no to touch the nest or the rabbits. If you wish to determine if the mother is still visiting the nest, place a thread across the nest-top in the evening and see if it has been disturbed by morning. Cottontail mothers return to the nest even if the young have been handled or the nest exposed by a lawnmower. If the nest is disturbed, cover it with grass clippings.
Squirrels: Squirrels will retrieve their offspring when they fall or wander from the nest. They also have alternate nest sites if one nest is destroyed. LOOK to see if you can locate the nest site. If there is no evidence of a leaf nest, look for a cavity-type nest. Try placing the youngsters in a box on a branch of the tree to see if the mother will retrieve them. If she does not or if the young are injured, they may be brought to the center.
Virginia Opossum and Skunks: Opossums are marsupials. Their young stay in a pouch on the mother’s belly. Female opossums that have been killed by cars in spring and summer may have live young in their pouch that need to be rescued. The older the youngsters of these species are often seen accompanying their mothers on nocturnal foraging expeditions. If they are found alone, they should be left overnight. If they have not moved by morning, they have possibly become lost or orphaned. While still dependent, baby possums stay near their mothers.
Young skunks, however, often play alone near the den cavity or hole and should not be bothered unless they become noticeably weaker over a period of days. Skunks are a major carrier of rabies in Wisconsin and even the young are capable of defending themselves with their potent spray.
Song Birds and Birds of Prey: Nestling songbirds and birds of prey (hawks and owls) usually lack feathers and are covered with down. They are not yet able to perch. These young birds must be placed back into their nests or new nests must be constructed for them. Contact your wildlife rehabilitation facility so they can assist you in identifying the species and determine the best way to get the bird back into the nest.
When songbirds and birds of prey leave the nest, they are “fledglings” and have feathers covering their body. They leave the nest for short periods of time to hop along branches and often fall out of trees. Place the fledgling on a nearby tree branch out of the reach of domestic animals. Watch from a distance to see that the adult birds continue to care for the young bird.
Waterfowl: Young mallard ducks and Canadian geese are commonly separated from the rest of their brood as they follow parents to food or water. When you find a young duckling, note the location of possible ponds and streams where others of the same species may be, then place the duckling close to some of the same size. The mother will almost always take the “orphan” under her wing. Do not endanger yourself or others by attempting to chase young or adult waterfowl when they are on the road.
Raccoons and Fawns: Their mothers frequently leave these young animals alone for several hours at a time. This is true even when the young raccoons leave the hollow-tree nest to accompany their mother on her journeys. Youngsters of their species found alone are almost never orphans. Leave the animals untouched overnight. If the youngsters haven’t moved and are noticeably weaker, they probably need care and may be brought to the center.
Wind River Rehabilitation provides wildlife rehabilitation and environmental education services throughout northeast Wisconsin. Donations are tax deductible. Contact us at 920-982-6825.