Wildlife in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods is a fact of life. As human populations have grown and communities have spread, many species of wildlife have adapted to living in urban and suburban settings and are not just surviving but THRIVING. Landscaped back yards with trees and shrubs, houses with decks, porches, attics, and chimneys as well as urban green spaces with ponds, fields, and wetlands have created ideal habitats for wildlife. It is not uncommon to find higher densities of certain species (like raccoons) in urban areas as opposed to rural areas. This close proximity to people leads some residents to discover unexpected wildlife in their yards and neighborhoods. This intersecting of human and wild animal populations can create a lot of questions and concerns from the public, local businesses, and even public agencies.
Restrict their Food Sources
Unintentional or not, anything edible left unattended is an attractant to critters. It is much easier to eat at a fully stocked buffet than it is to search for a morsel. Feeders in the back yard put out to attract the brilliant cardinal during the day also attract the intelligent raccoon and adaptable rat at night. Just because they’re called “bird feeders”, doesn’t mean birds are the only ones who eat there. Trash needs to be secured in a can with a tight fitting lid, preferably stored in a garage or shed to prevent access. Garbage in bags should be put out the morning of garbage day, not the night before. Pet food should be available only when the pet is present. Fallen fruit from trees should be removed from yards. Never feed wild mammals. It is actually illegal to feed deer in Illinois.
Don’t Invite them In
To prevent the possibility of wildlife utilizing your home as theirs, all outside holes must be covered with ¼″ heavy gauge wire (on vents) or aluminum flashing to prevent their entry. Fan vents, dryer vents, and chimneys, all possible entry points, need to be secured. Check under the shingles by the gutters for possible gaps and cover them with wire. If water has rotted wooden boards, replace them. All holes larger than ¼″ need to be sealed to keep the critters out of your home.
Relocation of Wildlife
Please understand that the relocation of a “nuisance” animal to a “more suitable” habitat is not truly humane. Taking a raccoon from the familiar streets of a subdivision and putting him in the woods, is not doing him any favors. Besides invading the already established territory of his rural cousin, this city raccoon doesn’t know where anything is in these unfamiliar surroundings. He has no home and no knowledge of food or water supplies in the area. Because of this, if he stays in the area, his chances of survival are greatly reduced (minimal). If he decides to move on, due to the insistence of the current inhabitant, he may try to return home and attempt to cross numerous roads in the process. It is also important to remember that if an individual is removed, chances are excellent that another animal will move in to claim the now vacated territory. In the long run exclusion and deterrents are better solutions for dealing with nuisance wildlife.
Please note: Wildlife trapping requires a special trapping permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Regulations exist as to what can be done with the animal once you trap it. For example, it is illegal to relocate a raccoon off your property. Also, animals cannot be released on private or public properties without the land owner’s permission. Contact your local IDNR office for more information or visit the U of I Extension Service.
Attic Noises—Raccoons, tree squirrels (gray, fox, flying), and mice are the most common inhabitants of the attic. Noises heard during the day probably mean a gray or fox squirrel has taken up residence. But if the commotion is at night, chances are it’s a raccoon or if the noises aren’t quite as loud, it could be flying squirrels or mice. Attics supply a warm, quiet place out of the weather. In order to evict these unwanted guests, make their new found home inhospitable. It’s dark. Turn on the lights and leave them on. If you can get the lights to flash (strobe), that’s even more annoying. Try using a flashing head lamp. It’s quiet in the attic. Play a radio loudly. If you know the area where they’re hanging out, soak some rags in ammonia and toss them in the vicinity. If you tie a string around the rag, you can retrieve it and soak it again the following day. If young are present (May-August), avoid using the ammonia since babies could be harmed or killed by the fumes. Dead animals in the attic cause other problems. Think decay and smell. Using mothballs is not recommended because they are ineffective in a large area and are toxic to people as well.
Birds Using Holes in the House—Occasionally birds find a hole in the roof or soffit and make their way into the attic or even a dryer vent to nest. Once the babies hatch, the adults fly in and out to gather food and to feed them. For most small birds, incubation of the eggs lasts approximately 2 weeks, while it takes another 2-3 weeks for the young to leave the nest. If you discover the nest before the eggs are laid, just remove the nest and seal up their entrance. If eggs or young are present, wait until the young fledge, leave the nest, then proceed with the clean up and covering the entrance hole.
Critter Under a Deck – Ammonia soaked rags or smelly socks tossed or pushed under the deck or into the burrow work as deterrents. If you tie a string around the rag, you can easily retrieve it to resoak it the following day.
Animal in Window Well—Placing a thick branch diagonally into the window well, usually allows the animal to climb out on its own. Most nocturnal creatures wait until dark before making their way up the branch so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t come running out right away. Occasionally baby animals fall in and can’t climb back out. Place a small wastebasket on its side and allow the youngster to crawl into the container. Then gently lift the container out and place it near a bush or brush pile. Cover the window wells to prevent repeat occurrences.
Chimney Noises—Keeping the damper closed is of utmost importance. This separates you from them. Never light a fire to smoke them out. Infants who are unable to climb out and trapped adults will die from smoke inhalation inside the chimney, which causes other problems (think decay and odor).
Chimney swifts (small black birds) have adapted quite readily to nesting in chimneys. They do no damage to the chimney but use it as a nesting and roosting site. The chattering noise is the nestlings begging for food. The adults arrive in the spring, build their nest using their saliva to glue the twigs to the inside wall of the chimney, lay the eggs, incubate them (about 20 days), feed the young for about 30 days, and then everyone migrates south in the fall. Before they leave on migration, they continue to use the chimney as a roost. They feed exclusively on insects, which they capture during the day. The easiest solution is to wait until they leave the chimney on their own during migration in late September, then have your chimney professionally cleaned and capped.
Raccoons occasionally nest in chimneys. Keep the damper closed. To get mom to move her babies elsewhere, place a radio in the fireplace and in the evening turn it on loud. Once she has vacated the area, cap the chimney.
Occasionally squirrels and birds fall down chimneys and are unable to climb back out. Dropping a thick rope down the chimney allows a trapped mammal to climb out. Birds on the other hand usually have to come out through the fireplace.
Nest Box Alternatives—Give the animals somewhere else to go. Raccoons and squirrels readily use nest boxes (a better alternative than your attic). Plans for various style nest boxes are available online or from District staff.
Birds Damaging Siding—Woodpeckers communicate to each other by drumming, usually on trees but occasionally on siding, metal gutters, chimneys, etc. Woodpeckers also drill holes in siding while trying to excavate a cavity for nesting and/or roosting. Eyespot balloons, manufactured moving spiders (sold in many lawn and garden centers), and long streamers work as deterrents to frighten the woodpeckers away. Attach these near the favored spot.
Occasionally squirrels chew on siding. Commercial repellents are available at most lawn and garden centers to deter chewing. You can also make your own using hot pepper juice with a few drops of dish soap added to help the liquid adhere to the problem areas.
Repair is Important—In all cases once you evict the current resident, if you don’t seal up the entry point, eventually some other creature will find it and you’ll have to start the process all over again.
Something Digging in the Garden – Skunks, squirrels, raccoons are all prone to digging in lawns and gardens, usually looking for various grubs to eat. Chemically treating your lawn for these invertebrates removes this food source. Sprinkling cayenne pepper around the trouble spots may also discourage digging.
Finding an Injured Animal
For many people, the shock of encountering a wild animal can make it hard to determine what to do or what to look for. When coming across any wild animal and wondering if help is needed, the first question that needs to be asked is, “Is this animal sick or injured?” The following are signs of illness or injury: blood, torn skin, missing fur, exposed bone, a limb or wing not working correctly (dragging, drooping, being held at a funny angle), unable to stand, continually falling over, and acting lethargic (lying still even when approached by a human, not opening eyes, can’t lift head). One behavior that is not a definite sign of sickness or injury is an animal, even a nocturnal animal, out and about during the day. Animals can be active at any time of day or night for a variety of reasons: inclement weather may shift their activity patterns, the animal may have young and is spending extra time foraging for food, or the animal could have been startled from its resting place by a human, pet, or predator and is trying to escape. As long as the animal is exhibiting normal behaviors, leave it be.
If someone finds a sick or injured wild animal and is seeking help for it, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed by federal and state agencies. For a listing of Illinois rehabilitators go to http://web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/injured.cfm. The rehabilitator can advise on what to do next. If someone cannot immediately contact a licensed rehabilitator and if it is safe to do so, the animal can be placed into a container (cardboard box, paper bag with top folded over (to contain a small bird), garbage can with lid, pet carrier, etc.) and kept in a dark, quiet place until a rehabilitator is reached. Do not offer it any food or water.
Discovering a Baby Animal
Spring and summer bring baby animals, often into our yards and even our homes. For many people who find a baby animal, their first thought might be to take it into their home and raise it themselves. However, state and federal laws prohibit this, both for the safety of the animal and the human. Wildlife species require very specialized care and without that knowledge even a well-meaning person can cause irreversible damage to an animal. Improper nutrition can cause death or metabolic bone disease—a condition that causes improper growth, deformities, and bone weakness. Being isolated from a wild parent or others of its own species can cause a young animal to either become habituated to humans or to even imprint on humans. This results in an animal that retains its wild instincts but has lost its fear of people, creating a potentially dangerous situation. Even a young, small, wild animal can scratch and bite, or carry a zoonotic disease—a disease capable of being transmitted to humans. For these reasons it is always best to either leave the animal alone or to consult with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator about what can or should be done.
If an animal doesn’t appear to be sick or injured, the next question to ask is: Is it orphaned? This question can be hard to answer simply because wild mothers do not raise their young the way human mothers do. What would seem to be abandonment to most people is actually a tactic used by many wild animals to keep their young safe from predators.
Rule #1: A baby found alone is not always an orphan. If a baby is discovered either alone or in a nest with siblings, do not assume they are orphaned just because a mother or father is nowhere to be seen. If the baby or babies appear alert, warm, and healthy, chances are good that the parents are either out gathering food or staying away from the nest so they don’t attract a predator to their young. Leave them alone! Sometimes a baby either falls out of its nest or is removed by a pet or child. If this is the case and the location of the nest is known, put the uninjured baby back.
Rule #2: Mom will take her healthy babies back. Many people believe that if they touch a baby animal, their human scent causes the mother to reject her young. This is never true. Those young represent a huge investment of time and energy for the parents and they do not abandon them just because they smell funny or the nest has been disturbed briefly. Place the young back in the nest, replace any disturbed nesting material, and leave the area so the parents feel safe enough to come back to care for their young.
Rule #3: Many mammalian mothers are capable of carrying their youngsters to safety or back into the nest. A baby squirrel or raccoon found on the ground can be left at the base of the nest tree so mom can retrieve it. Since squirrels are active during the day, leave the baby out during daylight hours. Since raccoons are typically nocturnal, keep the baby in a warm quiet place during the day, and then place it near the nest tree in the evening so mom can find it.
When in doubt, always err on the side of giving the young a chance to reunite with their parent(s). Not every baby animal is going to survive into adulthood but their best chance of surviving and ultimately thriving in the wild is to be raised by their parents. No amount of human care can compare with their expertise.
Fawns—Many people that come across a fawn alone assume it is orphaned because a mother is not visible. Be assured, that is how a doe protects her young. It is not unusual for fawns to lay motionless for hours at a time. Their spotted coat provides camouflage on the forest floor. A doe returns periodically to feed her young but otherwise keeps away so she doesn’t draw predators to the fawn. If someone finds a fawn, even if it seems like it is in an unusual place, leave it alone. The mother will return for her baby later in the day or during the night. Once the fawn is older and stronger, it keeps up with mom.
Baby Birds—For most songbird species it takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch and then another two weeks before the young fledge, leave the nest. While in the nest, a young bird is called a nestling. It is either completely featherless, has some fine downy feathers on its body, or has some feathers growing in. Feathers emerge from the bird’s skin covered in sheaths and resemble quills or little paintbrushes as the sheaths flake away. If a nestling bird is found on the ground and the nest can be reached, the baby can be placed back into the nest. Remember, touching the baby does not cause the mother to reject it. If the original nest cannot be reached or found or if the nest and birds are on the ground, a replacement nest can be made. Start with a berry basket, small plastic tub with holes poked in the bottom for drainage, or a small hanging planter basket and line it with grass. Using rope, wire, bungee cords, or even duct tape, securely attach it as high as possible in the tree where the original nest was. Once the new nest is secure, place the baby or babies inside and leave the area so the parents feel it is safe to return. If the nest tree or bush was cut down, a folding ladder can be placed where the tree was removed and a replacement nest can be attached to it.
Most young birds fledge, intentionally leave the nest, before they can truly fly. These birds, called fledglings, are fully feathered and can stand, hop, and flutter their wings. This is a normal part of growing up for a baby bird and is an important learning period for them. The parents continue to feed the young as they learn to fly, forage for food, and escape predators. A fledgling bird only needs intervention if it is in a dangerous situation, like sitting in a road or if landscaping work is being done in the area it is in. In these cases the young bird can be gently picked up and moved to a safer location. It needs to be near the area where it was found so that the parents can still hear it. The parents will find the baby in its new location and continue to care for it. The fear of dogs or cats finding the fledgling is not a reason to remove the bird from its parents—pets need to be either kept indoors or taken out on a leash until the fledgling has learned to fly.
Baby Rabbits—Eastern cottontail rabbit nests are frequently encountered in neighborhood back yards, even those with dogs. The mother rabbit makes a nest that consists of a shallow depression that is lined with grass and her fur. Like white-tailed deer, mother rabbits spend very little time with their young. She comes to the nest to quickly feed her babies in the morning and evening. She keeps her distance so she doesn’t attract predators to the bunnies. For this reason it is very rare to see a mother rabbit at her nest.
It is always best to leave rabbits in the nest and allow mom to continue caring for them. Because the mother is rarely seen at the nest, the best way to determine if the young are being cared for is to lay two sticks, pieces of string, or yarn over the nest in the shape of an “X”. If the mother returns to the nest that night, the X will be moved. If a dog has discovered the nest and keeps trying to get into it, keep the dog leashed and away from the nest or place a barrier over the nest. The easiest way to protect the nest is to place a laundry basket or milk crate (something that allows for air flow—do not use a bucket) turned upside-down over the nest. Remove the basket in the evening and keep it off overnight so the mother can feed her young. It may be necessary to either stake the basket down or place a weight on the top to prevent the dog from knocking the basket over. Cottontails open their eyes in about a week, are weaned at three weeks, and can survive on their own at 4 weeks old. If babies are found in the yard and are able to hop around, they are best left alone. No intervention is necessary. They will disperse from the area eventually.
Ducks & Geese—Ducks and geese have a different natural history than songbirds. Duck and goose eggs take about 28 days to hatch and within hours of hatching the young are able to follow a parent and feed themselves. The nest itself is only used to contain the eggs during incubation. Once hatched, the mother walks the babies to the nearest water to continue caring for them. With most ducks only the female cares for the ducklings while young goslings are cared for by both parents.
Occasionally a duckling or gosling gets separated from its parents. If someone finds a gosling or duckling, the best thing to do is to check all nearby sources of water for the parents. If the parents are seen, the baby can be placed into the water so the parents can call the baby over to them. Geese frequently adopt other goslings as long as they are the same size as their own young. So if the parents are not seen in nearby waters, search other wetlands for families with similar sized young and release it with them. Ducks, on the other hand, generally only care for their own young. If the mother cannot be found, the duckling needs to be taken to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
If you have questions, feel free to contact the staff at the Wildlife Resource Center or check out U of I Extension Service – Living with Wildlife in Illinois for additional answers.
Wildlife Resource Center
Visit the University of Illinois Extension and Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ website for more information on living with wildlife in Illinois.
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