Before You Rescue That Baby Animal, Make Sure It Needs Your Help
For wildlife rehabilitators, spring is the time for orphaned and injured babies. But, as Alicia DeMay learned when she worked at a wildlife center in Virginia, spring can also be the season when well-meaning people show up with rescued baby animals that don't actually need help.
"We would get hundreds of baby bunnies — perfectly capable and ready to be on their own, and people would bring them in and we'd just turn around and release them again," she says.
Those situations are the easy ones, for both rehabbers and babies. The bigger problem is when healthy young animals that aren't yet ready to be on their own are "rescued," because even the best rehabilitator is no substitute for mom. Rehabbers can feed them and keep them safe, but they can't teach them how to live in the wild.
Not All Babies Need to Be Rescued
"Mom knows to teach them which trees to go to, where to get the best nuts," says DeMay, who's now clinic director at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C. "Mom knows that stuff. We don't know that stuff." This means that bringing a healthy baby to a wildlife rescue may actually make its chances for survival worse in the long run.
Rehabilitators suggest that before potential rescuers take action, they carefully ascertain if that baby animal really needs help by surveying the surroundings.
When you find a baby animal, you'll often discover that the parents are actually nearby and you're just getting in the way.
"Look around. Do you see a mom squirrel chattering at you? Is a mockingbird dive-bombing you? Those are clear indications that mom is there and you may actually be hindering mom trying to rescue or continue to feed that baby," DeMay says.
The first thing to do is back off and wait. "Unless you see an obvious wound — a broken leg or some kind of bloody wound — the best thing to do is to leave it there and keep an eye on it," DeMay recommends.
Squirrels are probably the most common baby mammals that people encounter. Because they're born with their eyes closed and aren't very mobile, when they've fallen out of their nests and are lying at the base of a tree, they may look injured when they're perfectly fine. Chances are, the mom is going to take care of the situation, as long as you keep your distance. "Mom's not going to come down if there are predators around, and that's what they consider us," DeMay says.
That doesn't mean you can't help, though. "Make sure there are no cats or dogs around, and give mom the space to come down and take the baby back up into the tree."
If you're concerned, most rehab centers will talk you through it on the phone, like one case DeMay recalls of a woman who encountered some babies in a way that was hard to ignore. "We had a lady who was jogging and some squirrels fell out of a tree onto her head," she says. After talking to DeMay, the woman called in to work to say she'd be late and settled down to watch. "She called me hysterically happy about an hour later saying mom had come down and gotten them one at a time and taken them back up into the tree."
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."
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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