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Illinois Department of Natural Resources
May 2019
May 1, 2019
Photo by Jared Duquette

Resist Helping Baby Wildlife

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By Laura Kammin

Wait! Take a moment to assess the situation before you pick up that cute baby rabbit or the tiny ball of feathers masquerading as a baby bird. There’s a good chance that wildlife young’un isn’t abandoned and doesn’t need your help. Every spring and summer biologists and wildlife rehabilitators get calls from people who’ve found baby wildlife they thought were orphans. In many of these cases, the young were still being cared for by their parents. So, unless the young animal or bird is in imminent danger, it is best to leave it where you found it.

If you aren’t sure whether the animal or bird is abandoned, watch from a distance so that the parent(s) will not be afraid to return. This might take a while. Many animals only nurse their young near dusk and dawn, and most birds are hesitant to approach their nest or young if people are nearby. Northern cardinals and American robins are two notable exceptions. Both species will make it very clear to you that they’ve got eyes on their little birds by loudly calling to them and sometimes even flying at your head if you’re too close. 

But most encounters aren’t so obvious. So how do you know for sure? A good rule of thumb is that if the baby looks well-fed with bright eyes and clean fur or feathers it is probably not abandoned. Knowing some basic life history information about the most common “orphans” can help you figure out whether or not your help is really needed.

Fawns

Very young white-tailed deer fawns often are assumed to be orphaned because they are found alone and do not try to flee from danger until they are about 14 days of age. At this stage they do not forage with their mother; the fawn’s job is to lie motionless and wait for her to return. While the fawn may look helpless and abandoned, rest assured that the doe is nearby, even though you don’t see her. If the fawn must be moved, try to find cover nearby so that the doe can easily find the fawn when she returns to nurse it. Unlike a fawn that is being nursed, a fawn that is truly orphaned is easy to recognize. It will wander around bleating continuously for two or three days searching for the doe. 

Rabbits

A nest of baby rabbits.
Photo by Jhansonxi, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Rabbits nest in shallow depressions in the ground. Since the female only returns at dusk and dawn to feed her young, you probably won’t see her visiting the nest. As long as the young are in the nest, they are just fine where they are. Young rabbits are weaned at around three weeks of age. At that time, they leave the nest and do not return to it. Though they may appear to be too young to be on their own, small rabbits that are hopping around do not need your help.

Song Birds

A baby song bird.
Photo by Willowbrook Wildlife Center.

Very young birds that do not have their feathers yet are called nestlings. Nestlings that fall out of their nests are vulnerable to the elements and predators. Put the nestling back in the nest if you can find and safely reach it. Call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice if the nestling is cold, wet or injured. 

Fledglings are larger and have feathers, but they are not yet able to fly well. They often are seen hopping around on the ground calling loudly for their parents to feed them or making short, awkward flights. These birds usually don’t need your help. Their parents will care for them until they are ready to be on their own.

Tree Squirrels

A baby squirrel.
Photo by Brian McMahon.

Young tree squirrels can fall from their nests during storms or attacks by crows or other predators. Sometimes their nest is destroyed when a tree is cut down. Wait a few hours to see if the mother retrieves her young if you find a young squirrel on the ground. If the squirrel is cold, put it in a box at the base of the tree with a hot water bottle or a closed jar full of warm water. Use a small cloth to make a barrier between the bottle and the squirrel so that its skin doesn’t burn. 

Ducks or Geese

Ducklings or goslings sometimes become stranded on roofs or in vertical-sided waterbodies. Amazingly, they can survive falls from significant heights onto grass. For roofs three stories tall or less that have a raised surrounding ledge at the edge of the roof that ducklings or goslings cannot climb, place a ramp from the roof to the ledge to allow them to climb the ledge and jump off the roof. For taller roofs, or buildings surrounded by hard pavement, ducklings or goslings can be captured and immediately released on the ground at the base of the building. For young waterfowl trapped in a retention pond, or similar vertical-sided waterbody, place a ramp from land into the water so the ducklings or goslings can climb out. The adult ducks or geese should be nearby and able to locate their young. As a general rule, ducks and geese do not leave their young unattended. Leave the young alone if there are adults nearby.

Four goslings nestled together.
Photo by Michael Ward.

Young wildlife that are severely injured or orphaned aren’t likely to survive on their own. The choice then is to either let nature take its course or call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. You can find wildlife rehabilitators at the Wildlife Illinois website. 

If you are sure the animal or bird needs help, here are some basic tips:

  • Keep children, cats and dogs away from young wildlife so that they don’t stress or injure them. 
  • Do not try to feed young wildlife. Most require special diets and it is easy to accidentally get food down their airway if you haven’t been trained how to feed them.
  • Always wash your hands with warm, soapy water after handling wildlife. They can be carriers of parasites or disease.

Although many people don’t realize this, Illinois law makes it illegal to keep wildlife as pets or to raise young wildlife yourself. If you decide that cute wildlife baby really does need assistance, it is best to call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. They can provide the animal or bird with the proper care and then release it back to the wild where it belongs.


Laura Kammin is an Educational Programming Specialist with Lewis and Clark Community College. She formerly held positions at Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, University of Illinois Extension, Prairie Rivers Network and the Illinois Natural History Survey. She received her master’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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