WHETHER YOU MAINTAIN a habitat or not, even in a city setting, you stand a chance of finding nests of young birds or mammals or obviously immature animals who appear to be orphaned. Unless they are visibly injured or in the path of traffic or predators, the first thing to do is observe from a distance, and the second is to get in touch with a wildlife rehabilitator who can answer questions unless you have received some training. They are usually not abandoned, their parents may be near but out of sight for safety, and you would be disturbing the natural course of nurturing a young animal if you were to intervene. In fact, taking wild animals out of their habitat is illegal. Young animals are always best with their parents if at all possible, and should never be taken away unless you have confirmed they are abandoned or injured.
Cardinals enjoy nesting in the 70-foot Norway spruce in front of my house. I see lots of cardinal courting and construction activity through the spring, and I’ve spotted at least three cardinal nests each year, bottom to top, along with robins, sparrows and house finches. Cardinal nests always seem to be so flimsy, not like the sturdy mud bowls of robins. I’ve always wondered if that was why, each May or June without fail, I’d find two or three little tailless immature cardinals cheeping around the front yard, and even on the street as it seemed the front of the tree was a favorite spot where the branches grow more lush with needles from more sunlight.
They may appear insubstantial and somewhat alien, but with feathers and coordinated hopping, they are fledglings and actually doing what they’re supposed to do at that age, learning to use their legs and feet, getting the feeling of clutching branches and hopping and walking, but it’s best if they can stay up in the tree.
For the most part, unless we are closely observing a nest, we rarely see the training sessions in the tree. It’s when these adventurous little fledglings lose their balance and end up on the ground that we see them. And, seeing they are obviously not fully formed and feathered, are unable to fly, and really don’t seem to know what they’re doing, we want to rush in and save them. No.
Hands off baby animals
Whether animals are cared for by their mother only or by both parents, there comes a time when the young animals are left alone in the safe space their parents have created. We may shake our heads at some of the spaces parent animals have chosen, but animals raise their young according to what they learned from their parents and the conditions they have available. If the methods their parents used and passed on to them had been unsafe, they would have likely been unable to pass on the information to the next generation.
Sometimes first time parents will make bad decisions, but if the parents could not find a truly safe place but made do with what they had—well, that’s why we prepare our back yards as habitats for them by providing safe nesting spaces for various species. The best we can do to help them is not to move their young, but to support them where they are. That toddler age for wildlife is only a short time, a couple of weeks in some cases, and that’s not too much time to avoid an area of your yard, not cut the grass, block an area from your dogs or cats that parent animals can still negotiate.
If you find a lone infant animal, it still may not need any help, and your first course of action is to move out of sight and wait and observe, not just for a minute, but often for hours. Some species move their young repeatedly for safety, and actually carry them one by one to the new spot. Often they walk together as a family and one may be separated from the rest, but that doesn’t mean a parent won’t come back to look for them when the rest are safe. Finding one or two alone is not unusual. Be patient and see if a parent shows up.
When to act
In the following circumstances, you do need to help a young animal if:
- you see obvious injuries, blood or broken limbs
- the animal is pacing or wandering, and crying out
- the animal is shivering
- the animal has been carried to you by a pet
- you have seen a wild predator attack the animal
- the animal is in a high traffic area and in danger of being killed, but always take care of your own safety first
- you see a dead parent nearby
In these cases, unless you are a skilled wildlife rehabilitator, you should find one immediately. Always be aware of your own safety and that any animal can be aggressive when injured and in pain. Don’t run out into traffic or climb into unsafe places to save an animal, get help first.
- If it’s acting hostile try to secure it in place by putting a box over it. Even young animals can be defensive when in pain, and there is always the chance of rabies with warm-blooded mammals.
- If the animal is larger than a rabbit, don’t try to move it at all, but let someone with more experience and knowledge take over.
- Parents can be very protective. Deer may charge you, raccoons may attack, so always keep watch for parents who are being vigilant over their offspring.
- Safely staunch bleeding if you know how but don’t attempt to move broken bones or treat the young animal.
- Don’t attempt to feed the young animal or give it water. It is probably still nursing and will not be able to digest anything you give it.
Some confusing habits of parents and their young
Deer place their fawns in a safe place and go off to graze for hours, often all day, stopping back to nurse. The fawn has no scent and is covered with natural spots to camouflage them in a wooded area, and will not move until its mother comes back. This is one reason for observing over a period of hours, out of sight, and you will see the doe. If you don’t, contact a wildlife rehabilitator.
Rabbits are raised by their mothers only. She creates a cupped hollow in soft soil and lines it and covers the kits with her own fur and soft grasses but only visits once or twice each day to nurse the kits, spending most of her time at a distance to discourage predators. The nest is usually underneath a shrub or brush, and when they are young grasses and plants or leaf litter around them often covers them over completely, but you’ll sometimes seem to come upon a little clutch of baby bunnies where yesterday there was just grass. This is when people usually presume they are abandoned because they don’t see a parent around anywhere, but she’s usually been frightened away. Don’t try to touch them because she may reject them with your strange scent, just move away. If your pets or other predators want to get to the nest, protect it for a couple of weeks so that the mother can get to them. A 4-inch bunny with upright ears is independent of its mother and does not need to be rescued unless injured.
Opossums are marsupials, and her babies are in a pouch on her belly, or clinging to her back if they are a little older. Unfortunately, if you find a lone opossum it may have falled out of the pouch or off of her back, or there is a deceased mother near. If the loner is about 7 inches long or longer, it’s old enough to be independent of its mother, if less, keep it contained and call a wildlife rehabilitator. If you do unfortunately find a dead opossum she may still have live babies in her pouch. This is another time to get to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Adult raccoons are often trapped as pests regardless of the season, leaving young ones orphaned. Raccoons are also the most frequent wild species to carry rabies, so don’t jump in and presume the raccoon is orphaned, still just observe. Because raccoons are nocturnal species you many need to wait until night time to see if the animal’s mother returns.
Squirrels nest in tree cavities or in a big mess of leaves in the crook of a tree high off the ground, high enough to be safe from most predators, but also for a good wind to blow a few little ones right out of it, or even blow the nest out of the tree, or blow the tree down altogether, and little baby squirrels end up without protection. Observe any squirrel kits and give about 24 hours for their mother to come back and move them to a safer place. If it’s cold you can take steps to keep them warm.
Back to those cardinals
Finding baby birds in your yard is common, but most of the time you don’t need to do anything but let the parents take over. It’s a myth that parents will reject it because you touched it, but they may have rejected it because it is not thriving and they are focusing their efforts on their healthier chicks, or it may have only fallen out. If you find a nestling with no or few feathers, put it back in the nest because it’s not able to do anything for itself. If you can’t get it back in the nest, find a wildlife rehabilitator who can take it in, or at least give you specific instructions for building a safe nest, for heat and moisture requirements, and for food.
Fledglings are another matter because they may appear helpless but they are actually quite capable. Using the cardinals as an example, I rarely find one of these fledglings without also seeing at least one of its parents fluttering around, often both. They may not be obvious because they’re really trying not to be, but they are keeping a vigilant eye on the little one, flying overhead, chirping encouragement, trying to teach them how to maneuver or lead them back to a safe place.
When this little bird was hopping around in my little courtyard or on my porch and sidewalk, it was actually perfectly safe and providing some pretty intense entertainment for my cats as it hopped right up to the door and looked in at one point. I really didn’t even notice it until its concerned mother loudly chirped in the rhododendron right outside my window.
Typically, I just keep an eye on a fledgling who’s exploring the yard and I’ll usually see them ending up in the myrtle around the spruce, or under the spruce. I leave branches untrimmed and touching the ground on the uphill side of the tree for cover, and for little lost fledglings to be able to step up and back into the safety of the spruce’s dense branches. Sometimes they’ll surprise me and fly away.
This little one, however, kept hopping out to the street. They’ll do this because it’s clear of obstructions and easier for them to navigate than something like the myrtle, but my porch and sidewalk are open and easily navigable. This fledgling may have been heading for the warmth of the sunshine and the sun-warmed pavement. This was clearly not safe for the little bird as even a car passing at 25 MPH could toss him off against the curb, let alone what would happen if he kept hopping out into the middle of the street. Those little ones can move fast! His parents were chirping at him but not landing on the street to herd him to safety.
After a few near misses I decided there was something I could do to help the parents and keep the little bird safe, but that was not to put him in a box, take him indoors and try to feed him. The best thing would be to put him back in the nest, but I knew the nest was out of reach because there were none that I could reach even with a stepladder. I could also simply get him back up in the tree somehow, without hurting him, so that his parents could take over and lead him to safety. This could be done by getting him up in the branches so that he could move along them and make his way back up to his nest, or at least to a safer spot.
Without handling him, I used a box that he easily hopped into, explored and then perched on the edge. I lifted him up into the tree, and after a bit he hopped off onto a branch. I went back inside to watch. His parents circled and chirped.
But he fell back into the myrtle, then made his way out to the courtyard. Clearly, he wasn’t accustomed to walking on the branches yet, and still wanted to head for the street. The next option was to put him in some sort of a container where he would be safe and his parents could still reach him and feed him. First I used a robin’s nest that had fallen out of the tree; I keep nests when I find them, usually after winter storms. He looked cute, but actually made his way down to the ground again.
The next thing I tried was something I’d read about: using an empty plastic hanging pot that he might not be able to get out of but his parents could get into. I did this, and he was strong enough to hop up to the edge of the pot and again he made his way back to the ground. At this point the sun had left the street and that may have been why he stayed in the yard. His parents were vigilant and did not need my help to keep him off the street.
His mother was farther up in the spruce and his father stayed near him on the ground, and eventually I saw them make their way up onto the bottom branches. Evening grew dark and I heard no more little bird and big bird communication, so I presume they found their way to a compromise, either all the way back up to the nest, or to a safe spot where the tired little bird could be fed and cared for.
You found a baby wild animal – what should you do? Wildlife Reference Sheet Compiled by Robyn Graboski, L.W.R., state Wildlife Rehabilitator
Found an Orphaned or Injured Baby Wild Animal? HSUS website
Backyard Wildlife Habitats
My backyard wildlife habitat was certified through National Wildlife Federation’s program in 2003, and their site is still one of my favorite references for information. Visit and read about it, and begin planning your own and be certified!
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