Kidnapping Alert! “Rescuing” Wildlife Babies

by Lisa Wolling, Executive Director

Spring is in the air, and along with wildflowers, tree pollen, and the return of mosquitos, wildlife babies are arriving as well. We get literally hundreds of calls every spring from well-meaning people who worry about wildlife babies they think require assistance. This month’s article will clarify some common myths and misunderstandings about “rescuing” wildlife babies.

In our experience, the two most commonly “kidnapped” baby animals (meaning they were needlessly removed from their wild parents) are fledgling birds (including raptors) and fawns. These are followed, in varying degrees, by baby rabbits, baby raccoons, baby skunks, and baby squirrels. While truly orphaned or injured babies do need help, understanding what is normal is crucial in deciding when to intervene.

All birds, whether they are songbirds, raptors, or even wading birds, hatch from eggs and are called hatchlings. Hatchlings have no feathers and are completely helpless. After the hatchling stage, baby birds are called nestlings; these are birds that are beginning the get their feathers (many times they have “pin feathers”, which look a little like toothpicks sticking out). Any birds found on the ground at either of these stages need help. Sometimes it is possible to put them back into their nest, or to put up an artificial nest. It is a myth that once touched by human hands the parents will reject the babies; in fact, almost all birds have little if any sense of smell. When baby birds are ready to leave the nest, they are called fledglings (or sometimes with raptors, they are called “branchers”). This means they are almost fully feathered, they may retain a little of their baby fluff, and they have a little stubby tail. Generally, if you can easily identify a baby bird by its plumage (as in “that’s a baby blue jay”), that means it has enough feathers to be a fledgling. Fledglings leave the nest TO learn how to fly, not WHEN they know how to fly. While in the fledgling stage, they may wind up on the ground, but if they can hop and flit around a bit, they should be left alone while they learn to fly. The parents are still tending to them at this stage, and the fledglings will learn to follow their parents to forage for food. The #1 reason we get from people that want us to take in fledglings is that callers tell us “there are cats in the area, so the baby needs rescuing”. While it is unfortunate that free-roaming cats may put birds at risk, wildlife centers cannot take in birds for this reason. Our permits allow us to intervene if animals are injured, orphaned, or sick. We cannot and should not take them away from their wild parents as a preventive measure. If in imminent danger, fledgling birds can be moved a short distance to the closest low tree or bush.

From smallest wildlife babies to the largest in our area, let’s learn a little about normal behavior for mama deer (does) and fawns. Does choose a spot to give birth that they perceive as safe. Since they often give birth at night, this safe spot may be your yard, or a school playground, or by the side of a busy road (a place which was quiet at 3 am). So when the world wakes up some time after dawn, fawns may be found, all alone, in some odd places. THIS IS NORMAL. For the first two weeks of the fawn’s life, the doe is not with her baby. She beds the fawn down in a safe, quiet spot, and then goes off to graze. She may come back every few hours to check on her fawn and nurse it, but the older the fawn is, the less frequently she will check on it. If the doe has twins or even triplets, she will likely place all the fawns in separate locations, moving from fawn to fawn. This is to increase the chances of survival for the fawns. When fawns are very young, they are too slow and weak to keep up with their mother if she should need to run away from a predator. Also, a newborn fawn has no scent, so the mother doesn’t want to spend too much time with the baby as she might lead predators to it. Normal behavior is for the fawn to lay curled up, motionless, with head either tucked down on the ground, or head up for short periods of time. A person would most likely be able to walk right up to the fawn and the fawn wouldn’t move or attempt to run away; that is normal too. If a fawn in found this way in an unsafe spot (too close to or on a roadway; in a drainage ditch now taking on water; in imminent danger from dogs), the fawn can be picked up and moved a slight distance away, but still in the same general location. Again, it is a myth that the doe will reject the fawn if it has human scent on it. Does are very wary animals, and don’t want to draw any danger to the fawn, so they will be very cautious about coming around if someone is watching, so be sure to give them their space. Some signs that a fawn MAY need assistance would be: fawn is wet and/or cold; fawn is laying on its side with legs straight out; fawn is constantly crying; fawn has fire ants on it; fawn has fly eggs or maggots on it; fawn is found by its deceased mother; fawn is obviously injured/bleeding; fawn’s mouth is cold on the inside. In any of these instances, please call us or the closest wildlife center for assistance as soon as possible. Even in some of these circumstances, it may be possible to intervene, but then still reunite the fawn with its mother. As with fledgling birds, a fawn that MIGHT BE in danger (due to dogs in the area, or cars nearby) cannot simply be removed from its mother. Mother deer are very protective, and she chose the spot she did to have her fawn for a reason. Leave her to care for her fawn(s) as she knows best.

For other small mammals, here are some quick guidelines:

  • Any baby animal that is bleeding, has an open wound, has an obvious broken bone, is cold and/or wet, has been in a dog’s or cat’s mouth, or has fly eggs (looks like dried baby cereal or tiny grains of rice) or maggots on it needs assistance. Please call us or closest wildlife center for help.
  • For baby squirrels, if their eyes are closed, or eyes open but their body size (not including tail) is under 6” long, they are still dependent on their mother for milk. It is possible to reunite, so refer to our website or call for assistance. Young squirrels that have body size over 6”, whose tail is beginning to fluff out, and can sit with their tails in the shape of an “S”, are old enough to be independent. At this young age, they may approach people or even pets, so scare them off by making loud noises such as clapping or blowing a whistle. They need to learn that people or domestic animals are not their friends (even if you do like them!).
  • For baby opossums; if their body (not including the tail) is roughly the size of your hand from base of palm to tip of your middle finger, and their ears are almost all black (with just the tips being white), they are old enough to be on their own. For any younger opossum(s) found, they need assistance as mom seldom comes back to retrieve them.
  • Baby rabbits are almost always left alone in their nests; the mother rabbit does not stay with them. Mama bunny will return for as little as five minutes in a 24 hours period to check on and nurse her young. Never assume baby rabbits are orphaned; if they are warm and their bellies look rounded, they are being fed. You can always sprinkle a little flour around the nest to check for mom’s footprints. Baby rabbits are completely weaned and independent when they are as young as 3-4 weeks old; if they are roughly the size of a tennis ball, eyes are open, and ears are erect, they are old enough to fend for themselves.
  • For baby raccoons, foxes, or skunks, they are sometimes found out in flower beds, yards, etc. One reason for this is that the mom may have been moving her young from one den to another and either ran out of time before dawn, or something may have scared her off. During heavy rains especially, moms are sometimes scrambling to try to find a new, dryer den; she may remove all the young from the den that is flooding, but she can then only move one at a time to the new location. Unless danger signs from above are seen, it is best to try to give at least one night to try to reunite moms and babies. Again, in these circumstances, please call us or the closest wildlife center for advice on how to go about reuniting.
  • In any wildlife emergency if babies need to be rescued and you cannot get in touch with a wildlife center or rehabber, the most important thing is to keep the animal(s) warm, dry, and quiet. Baby birds do not need to eat or drink after dark, and any mammals can be given warmed Pedialyte to hydrate them. Use an eye dropper or very small syringe and give fluids very slowly. Please never feed any formula, milk, cereal, milk replacer, or any other foods. Animals that are dehydrated, cold, or otherwise stressed cannot digest anything, so giving them any food can be very harmful or even kill them.

When first coming upon any wildlife you think may need help, understanding what is normal and what is cause for concern is vitally important. Take a few moments to fully assess the situation before doing anything and, if possible, call a wildlife center or rehabilitator for advice before intervening.

To learn more about what we do and view pictures of many of the animals we assist, please visit our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SavingTexasWildlife. Our educational visitor’s center is open the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., located at 29816 Dobbin Hufsmith Road, Magnolia, Texas, so the next open house date will be Saturday, March 9. Come on out and visit us, learn a little more about local wildlife, do some fun activities and a craft, and meet some of our non-releasable wildlife educational animals. Similar to Second Saturdays, we will be offering Spring Break Discovery Days on March 12, 13, and 14. Stop by the visitor’s center on any (or all) of those days between 10 and 2 and have some wildlife fun! ($5 per person). We also host birthday parties, summer camps, and educational presentations. For more information about events, birthday parties, camps, or educational presentations for scouts, schools, or other groups, please visit our website or email ftwl.education@gmail.com. There are many other ways you can help support our efforts, too. Details can be found at www.ftlw.org, and then click on “How to Help”.