Before You Rescue That Baby Animal, Make Sure It Needs Your Help

baby opossum
Photo by Alicia DeMay
A baby opossum snuggles up to keep warm.

Rabbits

Another mammal that's good at living among us is the rabbit. People often find a rabbit's nest and assume the babies have been abandoned because they don't see the mother. But the mother goes out to feed and comes back to take care of her babies — and, in fact, if you return to the nest later, the babies may be gone, too.

If you've waited and you're still concerned that the mother hasn't returned, DeMay suggests laying a ring of flour around the nest; you'll be able to see if the mother rabbit has walked through it when you weren't around.

And if you see a tiny bunny hopping around by itself, don't assume it's an orphan. "People will think, gosh, they're so small, they can't possibly be on their own, but a lot of times they are," DeMay says. If their eyes are open, their ears are straight and they're about the size of a baseball or a little smaller, leave them be. According to DeMay, "That's not a lost baby. That's a juvenile."

Birds

If you find a baby bird with no feathers, it needs help, because birds can't carry their young back to the nest. But taking it to a rescue isn't the first choice, DeMay says. Again, check to see if the parents are around — there's a good chance they're reacting obviously to your unwelcome presence. "Nine out of 10 times, you're going to see that mom flying around, perching, making lots of noise, alerting everyone else that there's a predator around and the baby is on the ground."

It's a misconception that birds won't care for their young once you've touched them and they smell like humans — most birds, especially songbirds, have no sense of smell. Rather, DeMay says, parents may kick the returned baby out of the nest because it's cold, so you may need to warm it up before returning it to its home. Consult your local rehabilitation center for the safest way to warm the bird.

If you can't reach the nest, DeMay recommends that you take something like a plastic butter tub, punch holes in the bottom for drainage and line it with leaves and grass. Nail or strap it to the tree and put the baby bird inside. The mother will most likely resume feeding and caring for the baby.

Later in the spring you may see baby birds with most of their feathers flopping around awkwardly on the ground. These are fledgling birds that are learning to fly — again, look around and you'll see they're actually being carefully supervised.

"Mom and dad are going to be around constantly feeding that baby," DeMay says. "It's kind of tough love — it's time for you to get out of the nest and learn how to fly and do your own thing — but they're watching, and the babies are learning."

When Help Is Needed

If an animal is clearly injured or doesn't appear to have parents attending it after you've patiently observed from a distance, call a rehabber for instructions. If you can't get one on the phone immediately, DeMay says that one important thing to know is not to try to feed the animal.

"That does more harm than good," she says. "If it's been without food and water, the best thing to do is give it subcutaneous fluids."

And don't try to give it water either, especially when you're transporting it. Water that spills when you're driving will get the animal wet and possibly cause hypothermia.

If you do find a baby in need of help, put it in a dark, warm, quiet place and get it to rescue as soon as you can. But always call first to make sure that's the thing to do, DeMay says. "Leaving them alone and letting mom do her thing usually works out best for the babies in the long run."

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