In springtime wild critters emerge from their winter hideaways and before you know it, baby animal season is here. When you go out to enjoy the warmer weather, you may hear the peeps of baby birds high up in the trees, or the little chirps of baby rabbits hiding in their nests of grass.
But, wait! You see no sign of the mother. You begin to worry about the helpless little ones. You sit on your porch, waiting for the mother to return. After several hours with no sign of the mother, you conclude that these animals must be orphaned. What can you do to save them?
According to Anne Rivas, a veterinary student and co-manager of the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, approximately half of the "orphaned" animals brought to the wildlife clinic are perfectly healthy. Some of these animals have been removed from their nest to avoid such dangers as the family pet or tree removal. But unfortunately, well-meaning people often "kidnap" baby animals that are being cared for by their parents.
Why don't you see the mother? It's because mothers in the wild instinctively try to protect their nests. That means not drawing attention to the area where the newborns lie. If the mother detects that her nest is being watched by a potential predator (even a human standing at a distance), she will stay away from the nest completely until the coast is clear. If you would like to ensure that the mother visits the nest to feed her babies, it is best to watch from afar (completely out of sight) for 4 to 6 hours. In fact, even without the prospect of danger, mother rabbits normally spend no more than 5 minutes at their nest per day.
If you find a baby animal out of its nest, however, this is a time when you can take action to help the newborn! What to do depends on the age of the animal.
Young birds with feathers are likely fledglings that may be ready to leave the nest even though they are not yet fully able to fly. If the bird is featherless, it needs to go back to its nest as soon as possible.
For baby mammals, age is more difficult to estimate and depends on the species. The most commonly found baby mammal is the wild rabbit. If the rabbit is about the size of a tennis ball, looks just like a miniature form of its adult counterpart, and is able to hop around, then it is old enough to survive on its own.
If the baby animal appears too young to survive on its own, it is very important to remember that any baby animal's best chance for survival is with its mother.
"Even in the best possible scenarios, humans will be nowhere near as proficient in care for these delicate little animals as their mothers will. Survival rates for animals raised in captivity can be significantly lower than those raised in a natural setting," Rivas says.
There is also a risk that the baby animal will "imprint" on humans, meaning that it will no longer have a fear of humans. In order for the animal to have a good chance of being successfully returned to the wild, it needs to maintain a healthy fear of humans to avoid harm to itself and to people. This is particularly true for raccoons, deer, and birds, who may pose a risk if they approach people once they are returned to the wild.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the mother won't feed a baby that has been touched by human hands. If a baby animal has fallen or been removed from its nest, you can certainly pick up the baby and return it to its nest if possible. If you are unable to find the nest or the nest is no longer intact, you can place the baby in a shallow box with grass and place it near where the baby was found (in a tree for birds, on the ground for baby mammals). Then, out of sight, you can once again monitor the make-shift nest for the mother to return.
Unfortunately, you may also find a baby animal that is injured. According to Rivas, "If the animal appears to have broken a bone, is very cold, is bleeding, or has been attacked by a predator, the baby animal needs medical attention."
There are many wildlife rehabilitators throughout the country who know how to care for an injured baby animal and ready it for release back into the wild once it has healed. To find a wildlife rehabilitator, you can call your state wildlife agency, a local veterinarian, humane societies, Audubon societies, animal control officers, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
If you are unsure whether an animal is old enough to survive on its own or needs medical attention, then it is best to contact a wildlife rehabilitator before removing it from the area where you found it.
"Remember," Rivas stresses, "any baby animal's best chance for survival is with its mother in the wild." If you have any questions about orphaned animals, contact your local veterinarian or visit the website of the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic at vetmed.illinois.edu/wmc/.
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, email@example.com.
Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine