May 2, 2022
Photo by Matthew Schwartz.

Young Wildlife: To Help or Not to Help

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By Laura Kammin
A small young gray and brown cottontail rabbit munching on grass amongst green vegetation.
Photo by Jack Bulmer.

People like to help, especially when it comes to young wildlife. A baby bird out of its nest, a small squirrel fallen from a tree, a fawn resting alone in the backyard—each one might need assistance, but it is also highly probable that human assistance would be detrimental rather than helpful. The trick is knowing if, when, and how to properly assist young wildlife and when to let nature take its course.  

The first rule of thumb is that unless the animal or bird is in imminent danger, it is best to leave it where you found it. You may have heard the phrase “If you care, leave it there.” That is because many species of wildlife leave their young unattended for large blocks of time. People who find young wildlife alone may wrongly assume that the animal is orphaned and “help” it by trying to take care of it themselves (which is in most cases illegal) or by taking it to a wildlife rehabilitator. If you are not 100 percent certain that the young is abandoned, watch from a distance to see if the parent comes to tend it. Be patient—this might take a while as some mammals only nurse their young near dusk and dawn and birds often will not approach if people are nearby. If the parent returns to the young, no further assistance is needed.

A young spotted fawn white-tailed deer laying down amongst ivy and ferns.
Photo by Robert Woeger.

With young wildlife that are clearly orphaned or injured, the next step is to decide whether to leave the animal where you found it or to call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. Most wildlife in Illinois are protected by the Illinois Wildlife Code and cannot be taken from the wild without a permit. Additionally, young wildlife need special care and specific diets that most people are not able to provide. Wildlife rehabilitators have both the permit and the skill to properly care for young wildlife so that they can be returned to the wild. Check the Wildlife Illinois website to find a list of permitted wildlife rehabilitators near you. 

If you do not observe the parent returning to the young, it can be hard to know whether the young is truly on its own. Animals that look well-fed with bright eyes and clean fur or feathers are probably not abandoned, and you should leave them where you found them. Here are more life history tips by species.

Fawns

White-tailed deer fawns are often found alone because they do not flee from danger until they are about 14 days of age. While a fawn this age may look helpless and abandoned, rest assured that the mother is nearby, even though you don’t see her. Leave the fawn where it is and keep dogs away from the area. If the fawn must be moved for safety reasons, try to find natural cover nearby so that the doe can easily find the fawn when she returns to nurse it. An orphaned fawn will wander around and bleat loudly because it is hungry. In that case, a wildlife rehabilitator can be permitted to care for deer can be called.

 A tan, gray immature squirrel in a box with a soft white cloth and blue towel.
Photo by Karan A. Rawlins, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

Tree Squirrels

Young tree squirrels sometimes fall from their nests during storms or during attacks by crows or other predators. Other times their nest is destroyed when a tree is cut down. If you find a young squirrel on the ground, wait a few hours to see if the mother retrieves her young. If the squirrel is cold, put it in a box at the base of the tree with a hot water bottle. Use a towel or cloth to make a barrier between the heat and the squirrel so that its skin does not burn. If the young squirrel is still there the next day, a wildlife rehabilitator can be called. 

Rabbits

Cottontails nest in shallow, grass-domed depressions in the ground and the female only returns at dusk and dawn to feed her young. 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 too young to be on their own, small rabbits that are hopping around do not need assistance. To protect young rabbits keep dogs and cats away from the area and delay mowing until the rabbits have dispersed.

A young gray and tan fledgling bird perched on the top of green plant. In the background is green vegetation.
Barn swallow fledgling. Photo by Sara Hollerich, USFWS.

Songbirds

Very young songbirds that do not yet have their full set of feathers 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 assistance if the nestling is cold, wet or injured. 

Fledglings are fully feathered and out of the nest, but they are not yet able to fly well. These young birds are often seen hopping around on the ground calling loudly for their parents to bring them food or making short, awkward flights. These birds usually do not need help. Their parents will care for them until they learn how to fly and feed themselves. 

Ducks or Geese

Ducks and geese do not leave their young unattended. Leave the young alone if there are adults nearby. 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 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 buildings, or buildings surrounded by hard pavement, ducklings or goslings can be captured and immediately released outside 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. 

An alert black, white, and tan Canada goose and her yellow and gray foraging goslings. The family pauses on a mowed grassy area.
Photo by Mathew Schwartz.

While it is possible that you may discover young wildlife while out for a walk or in your yard, it is increasingly common to discover young wildlife within your home. Due to habitat loss and increasing development near natural areas, wildlife such as raccoons and tree squirrels have discovered that an attic will make do if a suitable tree or den site cannot be found. Striped skunks and opossums will readily occupy the space underneath a porch or deck. Bats and chimney swifts will use seldom-used chimneys to raise their young. In cases like these, if the young cannot be safely left where they are until they are ready to leave on their own, it is best to hire a permitted Nuisance Wildlife Control Operator to remove the entire family. Never make repairs unless you are sure that all young are safely removed first. To avoid having wildlife den or nest in your home, keep buildings in good repair. 

Protecting or creating wildlife habitat on your land is a great way to watch young wildlife from a safe distance. Habitat loss is one of the leading causes of decline in many wildlife populations. Providing the appropriate food, water and shelter can attract many species of wildlife, even in urban areas. If you are interested in supporting wildlife habitat on your property the Illinois Department of Natural Resources CICADA website provides plans for nest boxes and bat houses, tips for growing native plants, guidance for adding water features, and much more.


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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