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As spring rapidly approaches, the arrival of countless adorable baby animals is about to breathe life into landscapes across North America. In the coming weeks and months, many people may find themselves encountering young wildlife, and instinctively may be concerned for the well-being of baby animals who may appear to be abandoned or in distress. While there are times that wildlife genuinely needs our help, more often than not, human assistance does nothing more than disrupting the natural process of a baby animal’s growing and weaning. Every spring countless baby animals are “kidnapped” from their parents by well-intentioned individuals who believe they are abandoned, sick, or in need of help. This overwhelms wildlife rehabilitation facilities, which are already full beyond capacity during baby season, diverting their resources away from caring for animals truly in need of help.

As the urban wildlife aficionado who cares deeply about animals and wants to ensure the safety of every bird, squirrel, opossum, and raccoon in your neighborhood, it is critical for you to understand the difference between “helping” and “harming”. Based on extensive hands-on experience with orphaned wildlife rehabilitation and educational material from the experts, this article will serve as your guide to coexisting with spring wildlife, determining whether to keep your distance or step in and assist. Plus, it will help you keep yourself and the animal safe in the rare event that human intervention is necessary. 

First, a few helpful things to know about wildlife mothers and their young…

Just because a baby is “alone” does not mean the animal needs help.


Source: Evelyn D. Harrison/Shutterstock

Wild animals leave their young for extended periods of time during the day to forage or hunt for food. A baby animal’s mother may not appear to be around upon first sight, but chances are, she’ll return! 

For baby mammals…

Source: AnimalWonders Montana/YouTube

Does (female deer) leave their fawns for up to twelve hours a day. Mother rabbits leave their young for the majority of the day, only returning briefly to nurse their young – possibly never even being spotted by humans. Squirrels leave their young for 3-4 hours at a time. Raccoons leave newborns for up to four hours per day, increasing intervals between feedings as their babies age.

If you spot a baby mammal in a nest without a mother present, the best thing you can do is give it space and inform neighbors and family members to do the same. Keeping dogs and cats contained and away from the nest is crucial. As baby animals age, they may wander from the nest, exploring on their own while mom is out foraging. This is completely normal for many species. To tell whether or not a young animal needs help, wildlife rehabilitators often use “The five C’s“: 

  1. Is the animal crying? Briefly calling out before a parent returns to the den or nest is normal, but as a general rule, loud, excessive, ongoing crying means an animal is likely in distress.
  2. Is the animal coming toward you? Approaching or following humans is a sign that a baby animal could have become separated from his or her parents.
  3. Is the animal covered with blood or insects? Any visible injury, wound, or bleeding should be an immediate cause for concern as are insects such as ants crawling on an animal. 
  4. Has the animal been caught by a dog or cat? Domestic animals can injure and spread disease to wildlife, but cats are especially notorious – the deadly bacteria present in a cat’s mouth can kill an animal within days if not started on a rigorous treatment plan immediately. Even if you cannot spot a visible wound, any animal that has been caught by a dog or caught should immediately be taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility. 
  5. Is the animal cold? Well-cared-for babies are regularly tended to by their parents and should be warm to the touch. Cold skin could be a sign the parent has not returned to the nest in a long time. Of course, you should not touch wildlife with your bare hands and should not resort to handling wildlife at all unless you are certain an animal is in distress.

For baby birds…

Every spring, wildlife rehabilitation facilities receive countless calls about baby birds who have “fallen out of the nest”. Worse yet, sometimes people simply arrive with young birds without calling to verify whether these animals were actually in need of rescue. More often than not, the baby birds you see on the ground are called “fledglings” and are not in need of human assistance. Thus, it’s crucial to learn how to tell the difference between a “nestling” and a “fledgling” bird. 

Nestling birds.

Source: Max Forgues/Shutterstock

Nestlings are small and typically naked, possibly covered with small tufts of fluff. These newly-hatched babies are incapable of moving about effectively on the ground, and will likely drag themselves with their wings or simply resign to a squatting position. The Audobon Society calls nestling birds “pink little aliens.” Nestling birds should not be on the ground, and if you spot one, something is likely wrong. After checking to ensure the nestling is uninjured, the immediate goal should be reuniting the bird with their parents. If the nest is in sight, you can gently place the bird back into the nest (yes, the tale you were told as a child about birds abandoning their young when touched by humans was a myth invented to keep children from playing with baby birds). If the nest is out of reach, you can create a makeshift nest with a small container lined with bedding (an old T-shirt, straw, etc) and fix it in a high-up, safe place. Watch the “nest” for an hour, and if the parents do not return, you will likely need to take the nestling to a wildlife rehabilitation center.


Source: Nancy Bauer/Shutterstock

Fledglings, on the other hand, do not need human assistance and should not be handled or disturbed. Fledglings are typically still growing their flight feathers, but are mostly covered in feathers and down. These growing babies are generally capable of hopping and walking from place to place, but may not be able to fly at all. This is completely normal, and most bird species go through fledgling phases in their young lives. These birds are being cared for and watched closely by their parents as they learn to fly, forage, and explore the world around them. Unless visibly injured, fledglings do not need help and should be left alone.

What to do in the event that an animal does need rescuing

Before making the decision to rescue injured or abandoned wildlife, always call your local wildlife rehabilitation facility to ask for assistance. Decisions should never be made based on information obtained from Google searches or online articles, as not all scenarios are black and white and sweeping generalizations do not always apply to varying species. Your local wildlife rehabilitation center can guide you through assisting an animal and can make the difference between life or death for the animal at hand. For animals deemed potential rabies vectors, such as raccoons, skunks, bats, and foxes, always ask for help from a professional and never make contact with your bare hands. Even though an infant animal is very unlikely to have rabies, improper handling could sentence that animal to death under regional guidelines. Knowing how to approach these situations is crucial before proceeding. 

When the time comes to rescue an animal, be sure to keep handling at an absolute minimum. Popular videos often show people pet, cuddle, or talk to wildlife while “rescuing” them. This may appear to be heartwarming, but it can actually cause animals to die of stress. Wild animals do not find human presence comforting, and regardless of what that cute Facebook video may read in the caption, an animal sitting perfectly still as a person pets or speaks to them is likely paralyzed by fear rather than enjoying the attention.

Always use gloves or a towel if possible, keep voices silent or at a minimum, and place the animal in a dark box to serve as a visual barrier before immediately driving to a wildlife rehabber. Never attempt to feed wildlife, especially an infant; improper feeding can cause a baby animal to aspirate and quickly die. Goat’s milk, cow’s milk, or human baby formula can kill some species, and a certified wildlife rehabber will have a specialty formula designed for each baby’s species-specific nutritional needs. To recap, keep voices low, do not over-handle, place in a dark box, and drive straight to a wildlife rehabilitation facility as soon as possible. 

Other ways to help spring wildlife

Aside from knowing when you should and shouldn’t step in to help infant wildlife, there are other ways you can help these vulnerable animals boost their odds of survival. 

Domestic cats are the leading cause of songbird declines in the United States, and every year, cats kill vulnerable wildlife by the billions. Keeping your cat indoors with plenty of toys and enrichment is safer for both your cat and native wildlife; your neighborhood birds will thank you! For cats already accustomed to roaming outdoors, building a catio can give our feline friends an opportunity to sunbathe and watch wildlife without inflicting any harm.


Source: Tiago Nunes de Carvalho/Shutterstock

Refrain from trimming greenery and foliage in the spring; it can wait! Every year, countless hummingbird nests are lost to homeowners who weren’t aware of the dangers of early spring trimming. These tiny birds have nests nearly impossible to spot, and you might not realize you’ve knocked down a nest until it is too late. Put the trimmers down and wait a few months- better safe than sorry!

Sign up to volunteer with your local wildlife rehabilitation center. If you have extra time in your schedule, volunteering to help raise orphaned wildlife can be a deeply educational and profoundly rewarding experience. Depending on experience level, volunteers can perform tasks ranging from cleaning cages and preparing meals to bottle feeding, assisting in restraint for medical exams, and more. 

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