Tuesday, June 25, 2013

You found a baby wild animal, now what?

‘Tis the season for young wild animals to be out and about exploring the world! Birds are fledging from nests, fawns are getting their legs under them, and other furry babies are becoming more bold and independent from mom. I’m going to make a vast assumption, but I bet it’s pretty accurate to assume that everyone has perhaps come across a baby bunny in the grass, or a partially feathered chick at the base of a tree (or in your garage!), or maybe seen a fawn nestled into tall grass. Newborn, infant, and adolescent wildlife is at its seasonal peak, and readily available for wildlife enthusiasts to observe. I hope to address what to do, should you happen upon a baby wild animal.

Photo credit: http://www.fanpop.com
Some species of wildlife choose to nest, den, or give birth amongst the hustle and bustle of human activity. It’s not always like the famous Bambi, where Mother Deer finds a quiet hollow amongst the bushes in the forest to give birth and allow all the other critters of the forest to meet the new fawn. While some deer I’m sure do find secluded areas to fawn, many others have no problem giving birth trail-side or in the tall grass along the suburban yard or even in the town park. This close proximity to humans allows us to involve ourselves in the “childhood” of whatever animal it is. Personally, as a child, we had multiple Bluebird nest boxes set up on my parent’s property. We would make a point of checking them periodically to see what the eggs looked like, and then what the young was up to. I’ve heard someone say once that “her” deer had birthed a fawn in the backyard. And now she and the kids were getting to watch “their” baby growing up. Sorry folks, just because something passes through your yard, that doesn’t allow you to lay claim to it! It must be our leftover European lineage that makes us think that we own whatever we lay eyes on...

A raccoon family wanders through my backyard.
Photo credit: Alyssa Johnson (September 2012 – Cobleskill, NY)
Many wild animals have been forced to adapt to life around humans. Really, we moved into their backyard, but we’re the top of the food chain, right? So the animals must adapt to us. There are few places truly wild in the Northeast (and I’m not including the Adirondacks), where animals NEVER experience human interaction. But for the rest, they adapt and become to a degree, tolerant of sharing their yards with us. That’s why we find fur-line nests at the edges of our yards in the tall grass with tiny rabbits in them, and we occasionally find fledgling Robins in the barn, or nests of young squirrels in our attics. The animals have just shrugged and said, “Well, let’s get on with it then!” I’m perhaps doing exactly what I’m about advise you, the reader, against. We often anthropomorphize animals. Whether they are our pets or wildlife, we endear them with human emotions and reactions. Although, I do believe animals have personalities and can demonstrate a range of emotions, though not as complex as our own.

Baby Eastern cottontail rabbits – Photo credit: Suzanne DeMuth (May 2012 – Latham, NY)

Baby Eastern cottontail rabbits saved from the pet dog, and released back where found. Photo credit: Matt Phillips (June 2013 – Cobleskill, NY)
When we chance upon a tiny, “defenseless” critter, we immediately, whether we’re cognizant of it or not, we gasp and clutch our chests as if we found a newborn CHILD in the weeds! Of course that would be an unnatural and nontraditional method of raising human children in North America. We find it hard to leave our newborn unattended while they’re strapped into a baby seat in the safety of our living room, so naked and alone on the ground is unheard of! But we cannot confuse wild animals with our own children.

American Robin chicks – Photo credit: Alyssa Johnson (June 2013 – Latham, NY)

American Robin chicks found in a nest on a light fixture. Photo credit: Chip Wood (2011 – Wynantskill, NY)
I personally just came across a small family of Wood ducks while on a walk at the Cobleskill Reservoir. They exploded out of some overhanging vegetation on the edge of a pond, and Mom and 3 ducklings paddled across the pond away from me. I kept walking then almost immediately noticed Duckling #4 in the weeds next to the trail. I gasped, swooned at the cuteness, and thought “oh no! he’s been left behind!” very briefly, until he plopped into the water and paddled as fast as duck-ly possible to join the brood. Then I snapped to, and told myself to get over it. I’m on my way to becoming a professional wildlife biologist, and I can’t be thinking like that anymore! I can take in the sweet features of young wildlife, but mustn’t assume it has been abandoned and that mom or dad isn’t far off. Even though that whole exchange took less than 3 minutes, the whole time mom was squeaking frantically in the distance. Maybe to tell me to go away or maybe to reassure her chick that she wasn’t far off.

What I definitely did NOT do, was attempt to touch the duckling. We are compelled to “save” whatever it is. Another vast assumption I will make is that I’m sure all people who touch young wildlife, usually have the best of intentions for them. We just want to help and for it to not be hungry, cold, lonely, or sad. Likely, it’s ready to be out in the open, if it is being viewed be you. Of course there are the birds that fall from the nest too soon, or a squirrel nest that was disturbed in an attic that would leave a young one out in the open before it was time. But please, “If you care…leave it there”. This is a mantra that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is famous for using.

White-tailed deer fawn found alone in the woods by a DEC Biologist, and left alone. Photo credit: Art Kirsch (May 2008 – South Bristol, NY)

White-tailed deer fawn discovered on it’s own, and left alone. Photo credit: Mark Cornwell (Spring 2011 – Waterloo, NY)

Mother and fawn white-tailed deer observed in the homeowner’s yard. Photo credit: Michael Fahey (June 2013 – Howes Cave, NY)

White-tailed deer fawn observed on it’s own in the homeowner’s yard. Photo credit: Chip Wood (June 2012 – Wynantskill, NY)
For example, often white-tailed deer will leave their newborns alone tucked in some tall grass, or against a log. They blend in extremely well, and are safer there than trying to follow mom along on wobbly legs. Back to Bambi- we’ve all seen that movie, right?! Mom will often not be too far from her fawn(s), and checks back in often to nurse. A sympathetic hiker happens upon the fawn, and picks it up (they’ll let you, they do not run), and brings it home to try and get it to a rehabilitator. This is essentially kid napping! That mother deer will be back and WILL be frantic when she realizes her incredible investment of energy has been stolen. If you care, LEAVE IT THERE!

Often our well-meant acts have an adverse affect on whatever was being “saved”. Learning to care for wildlife and rehabilitating it takes special licensing and facilities, which most of us do not possess. How many times have you heard of feeding a baby bird wet cat food or offering a milk or formula to young mammals? Surprisingly, Mother Birds do not hit up our favorite pet supply store for Fancy Feast. And humans are the only species to knowingly and actively drink milk from a different species. Weird to think about, right?

Baby gray squirrel that was found in a nest in a homeowner’s attic. The nest was removed, and the babies were brought to a wildlife rehabilitator. Photo credit: Kaley Catlin (2012 – Sodus Point, NY)
So what to do? Just leave it alone. Steel your heart against the maternal and paternal pull most of us possess. The animal will be better off where its true parents can access it and possibly defend it and nurture it. Keep the dog and cats indoors for the day/night, and hopefully by the next morning the young will have been recovered by a parent.

There is a list of qualified wildlife rehabilitators which can be accessed at this website: List of Licensed NYS Wildilfe Rehabiltitators. If you contact the most local rehabilitator to you, or your regional wildlife DEC staff, they may be able to give you advice or assistance on handling the animal if there’s a more serious issue.

Red fox family observed by a DEC Biologist. Photo credit: Art Kirsch (May 2012 – Livonia, NY)

A young red fox is lounging on this homeowner’s lawn. Photo credit: Chip Wood (May 2012 – Wynantskill, NY)
The birth of wildlife is an annual event, and is bound to occur next year as well. There’s no ending the interactions between us and them, but becoming educated and learning tolerance will only help both sides. I hope you enjoyed viewing the young wildlife in this article- from a safe distance.

And many thanks to the many that submitted photos for this entry! I like the variety of species and locations I am able to share, and perhaps I’ll call for photos again sometime in the future.


  1. Beautiful pics, the red fox my favourite, and YES, often very hard to leave the baby animal where you see it, but the mother, and all that is inbred in her , will take over, she'll be back. I guess the only time to intervene is when the mother is dead, Near where I live, is a lady who takes in rescued birds, and does wonderful work, rearing them till they are ready for their release time. The white-tailed deer, also here in NZ, little ones are truly lovely. Thanks for sharing with us. Greetings from Jean.

  2. Thanks for posting this! Its a tough lesson to learn! I totally anthropomorphize animals in the wild! But I learned my lesson that nature really does know what its doing when I found baby doves whose nest had been destroyed earlier this spring: http://dreamsofaleaf.blogspot.com/2013/05/swimming-in-flood-doves-finals-and-love.html
    Now I know :)

    1. Thanks, Bewilder! We all do it, and it's hard not to transfer human qualities to animals, but we can't have our vision clouded for what's best.

      Thanks for stopping by!!


Thank you for reading and wishing to leave a comment! Unfortunately, due to a high number of spam comments being left under the "Anonymous" heading, I had to disable that feature. You may still leave a comment with a Gmail account, or under the OpenID option! I welcome comments, suggestions, stories, and tall tales!