Discovering a Baby Animal
Spring and summer often brings baby animals 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 become habituated to humans. An animal that retains its wild instincts but has lost its fear of people creates 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.
When you should and should not intervene
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 usually not 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, immediately 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.
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 lack of movement and spotted coat help to reduce their visibility to predators. 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.
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 both 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. The nest needs to be situated close to the original nest location otherwise the parents won't find their young.
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 standing 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.
Eastern cottontail rabbit nests are frequently encountered in neighborhood back yards, even those with dogs. A rabbit nest is a shallow depression lined with grass and mom's 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.