Hardly a spring day passes that a wildlife rehabilitator does not receive a call concerning baby wildlife. First the rehabilitator determines if the baby is actually abandoned and needs help. Although a parent may not be seen tending the youngster, it is not necessarily an abandoned animal. If the baby looks alert and healthy, the parents may just be gathering food for them.
Below is a guide to identify and help baby wildlife. If an animal needs help, it should be confined in a warm, quiet, dark place until it can be taken to a rehabilitator. Avoid handling wild animals, which causes stress. Animals perceive humans as predators and do everything they can to escape, including using their teeth and claws.
It is a myth that parent birds will kick the babies out of a nest if humans have touched them. Birds' nurturing instinct is much stronger than their sense of smell. A bird’s olfactory nerve, used to smell things, is very small. A good example of their poor sense of smell is the fact that the favorite meal of a Great Horned Owl is a skunk.
Nestlings are birds without feathers but may be covered with soft down. If you find one that is warm and appears uninjured, place it back in its nest, if possible. If the nest cannot be located, then create a substitute nest out of a strawberry basket or any hanging basket lined with leaves and torn paper towels. Put the nestling in the basket and hang it in a tree near the site where the bird was found, avoiding direct sunlight. Their own parents are their best caretakers, feeding them every five to ten minutes. Stay out of sight and watch for the parents. If a parent does not return within an hour, call a rehabilitator. Do not give food or water.
Fledglings have wing feathers, and look like small adults with short tails. Although small, they are too big for the nest and actively hop and flutter about to gain strength and coordination. They spend about a week on the ground while they are learning to fly. When hungry, about every 15 minutes, fledglings call to their parents who come down to feed and tend to them. Fledgling activities on the ground often attract the attention of cats and dogs. If your pet catches a fledgling, call a rehabilitator immediately, as the baby bird may need medical attention.
Baby mammals that look cuddly and helpless tend to bring out our nurturing instincts. So, unless you know a baby mammal's parents have been killed, it is best to leave them alone. If it is alert and healthy, leave it alone and remain hidden for a few hours so that the parent will return. It will not come back if it sees you. Dogs and cats must also be out of sight.
Opossums: Do not attempt to rescue if the animal appears healthy and measures at least six inches, not including the tail. This size indicates that it has dropped off its mom’s back and is big enough to be on its own. If it is six inches, but injured or ant-bitten, call a rehabilitator. If it is a “naked” baby with unopened eyes and no parent in sight, rescue it and call a rehabilitator.
Deer: Although fawns lay quietly alone in fields or woods, the mother is usually close by watching over her young. Do not attempt to rescue fawns unless they are covered with ants, are injured, or you know the mother is dead. Call a deer rehabilitator first.
Cottontails and swamp rabbits: Fully-furred babies, the size of a hand, live on their own when they are small and are able to tend to themselves. They rely on camouflage to keep them safe from predators, and your scent on them may attract predators. They also shock easily and attempts to rescue them may cause harm. Leave them alone and do not rescue unless they are naked or lightly furred with unopened eyes, cold, or injured.
High-risk mammals (bats, bobcats, fox, raccoons, and skunks): Do not handle or attempt to transport. These species are high-risk for rabies, which can be transferred through the animal’s saliva. Call a high-risk rehabilitator immediately for information on how to proceed. For safety purposes, Texas law prohibits the transportation of these species.
Any baby that is covered with fire ants or has numerous ant bites needs to be rescued!
The best way to pick up an injured baby animal is to cover it with an old towel. Covering an animal’s eyes will calm it considerably.
- Place the animal gently in a box on top of a soft towel.
- Place the box halfway on a heating pad set to the LOW setting or on a hot water bottle underneath a towel.
- Position the animal so it is warmed, but not scalded.
DO NOT FEED OR OFFER WATER. Each baby requires specific care, which will be given by a trained and licensed rehabilitator who specializes in that species. For example, cow’s milk is not healthy for any wild animals and birds do not drink milk.