Learning when to intervene—or not—if you find a baby animal in your garden
An American robin (above) and young eastern cottontail (below) appear vulnerable, but animals found in yards during spring may have attentive parents nearby and, if uninjured, should probably be left alone.
AS SPRING ARRIVES and young birds, rabbits and other new creatures emerge, well-meaning humans often make the mistake of thinking an unattended baby animal needs to be “rescued.” But that good intention often ends in tragedy.
One infamous case in point: In May 2016, some visitors in Yellowstone National Park saw a bison calf wandering alone, thought it “looked cold,” bundled it into the back of their SUV and drove it to a ranger station. Because disturbing wildlife in national parks is forbidden, the tourists were fined and, sadly, the calf was euthanized, as it would not have been “adopted” by the herd.
While that’s an exceptional case, such stories play out across the nation when kindhearted humans remove baby birds, rabbits, fawns and other animals from the wild and bring them to veterinarians or wildlife rehabilitation centers, a move that is happening with growing frequency as parts of the nation become more urbanized, and more people come face to face with wildlife.
“If an animal is injured—especially if humans are the cause, such as by car strikes or cutting down nesting trees—it’s OK to intervene,” says National Wildlife Federation Naturalist David Mizejewski. But absent an obvious injury, it’s best to leave animals alone. “Not all will survive,” adds Mizejewski, “but it’s better to let nature take its course.”
For many wildlife species, it’s completely normal for mothers to leave their young for large chunks of the day while gathering food, according to Hospital Director Ernesto Dominguez of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, a hospital for native wildlife. Rabbits and deer, for example, leave their babies alone and hidden in the underbrush, a strategy to protect the young from predators while parents are foraging. If mom returns and the baby is gone, she may eventually leave the area, making a family reunion more difficult.
Even young birds discovered on the ground may be fine. Many fledglings attempt to fly before their wings can handle the task, so they plop down to Earth. Though these fledglings may spend several days on the ground before they’re able to fly, parents continue to bring them food, so they should be left alone.
On the other hand, newly hatched nestlings without feathers sometimes fall out of a nest prematurely, and they are much more vulnerable. If their nest is visible and reachable overhead, gently putting these grounded chicks back in the nest isn’t a bad idea. Contrary to popular belief, birds or squirrels won’t reject their young if they smell a human’s touch, though it is “a persistent myth that people associate with birds in particular,” says John Griffin, senior director of urban wildlife programs for the Humane Society of the United States.
In many cases, people can’t resist intervening, so it’s no surprise that the rescue problem blooms during baby season. Last year at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, for example, the number of calls from people concerned about wildlife hit 1,337 in June compared to just 459 in September. While some animals definitely did need care—having been orphaned, hit by cars, attacked by cats or having nests destroyed—nearly 40 percent of the calls in June required no intervention. Indeed, according to Dominguez, about half of the roughly 1,150 baby animals brought to the center each spring don’t need medical attention and should have been left alone.
On occasion, intervention does have a happy ending—but it often depends on quickly returning the young to their parents. Kathleen Handley, clinic director and rehabilitator at Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, recalls a day in 2015 when someone brought in five baby southern flying squirrels that a neighbor had evicted from the bluebird nesting box where the animals had been born, leaving them on the ground. The “rescuer” saw them and rushed them to Second Chance, where Handley’s staff fed the “cold, dehydrated” babies and kept them overnight in a warm box. The next day, they moved the box to a spot under the bluebird house where the squirrels had been found and soon saw the mother picking up her babies one by one and moving them to another nest—a happy ending indeed.
Educating people about the best course of action when finding baby wildlife is critical, says Griffin. Here are some pointers on what to do—or not do—if you find a baby animal.
• Before doing anything, try to assess if there is a problem. If an animal is not clearly injured or orphaned, and if a grounded bird has its flight feathers, leave it alone, as the mother may simply be hunting for food.
• If an animal has visible injuries or you saw the mother killed, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to get professional advice on whether to touch or move the baby.
• If you do move an animal, wear gloves to minimize risk of disease or injury to you or the animal. Place it in a well-ventilated box where it’s not too cold or too hot, and keep it away from children or pets until you can take it to a wildlife rescue professional.
• Don’t feed a baby animal without guidance since the wrong food, such as baby formula or pet food, can “do more harm than good,” Griffin says.
To survive, animals need to get back to the wild as soon as possible—or not leave it in the first place. Hard as it may be, leaving a baby alone often gives it the best chance of growing up to have babies of its own.
Joshua Rapp Learn is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.
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