On April 10, 2024

Baby wildlife, when to help and how according to the Humane Society of the United States

As spring brings forth ‘baby season’ for wildlife and companion animals, the Humane Society of the United States has offered the following recommendations on how to appropriately respond when encountering baby animals outside.

Good Samaritans often come across young animals and wonder if they are in need of assistance. Whether individuals come across a litter of kittens nestled in their backyard, or a fawn seemingly abandoned in a field, there are critical steps to take to determine what, if any intervention is needed. 

“During the spring and summer, both animal shelters and wildlife rehabilitators are often overwhelmed with baby wild animals brought in by the public, many of whom are mistakenly identified as orphans in need of care,” said Lynsey White, director of humane wildlife conflict resolution at the Humane Society of the United States. “Baby animals do best when they are raised by their parents, so while it’s crucial to take action if an animal genuinely needs help, it’s equally important to assess the situation first to ensure intervention is necessary.”

Signs that a wild animal needs your help:

The animal is brought to you by a cat or dog.

A bird is featherless or nearly featherless and on the ground.

The animal is shivering.

There’s a dead parent nearby.

The animal is crying and wandering all day long.

The animal shows signs of injury: (An obvious broken limb, or there’s evidence of bleeding, or you can see an obvious asymmetry: Do both eyes look clear? Do both wings or pairs of legs look similar?)

If you see any of these signs, find help for the animal. Ideally, you should reach out to a local wildlife center or wildlife rehabilitator for guidance. If necessary—and following the rehabber’s instructions—safely capture and transport the animal to the appropriate place for treatment.

Whether an animal is orphaned and needs your help depends on age, species and behavior. Babies of some species are left alone all day and rely on camouflage for protection, while others are tightly supervised by their parents. Read on for descriptions of what’s normal for each species.

Baby birds

If baby birds are clearly injured or in imminent danger, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If featherless or nearly featherless baby birds have fallen from their nest but appear unharmed, put them back in the nest if you can do so without danger to yourself. It is a myth that birds will abandon their young if a person touches them.

Fully feathered birds: If the original nest was destroyed or is too high to reach, hang a small, shallow wicker basket close to where the original nest was. Woven stick baskets from garden stores or supermarket floral departments work well; they resemble natural nests and allow rain to pass through so the birds won’t drown. Adult birds won’t jump into anything they cannot see out of, so make sure the basket is not too deep. Put the fallen babies into the new nest and keep watch from a distance for an hour to make sure the parent birds return to the new nest to feed their chicks. If they do not return, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Nearly or mostly featherless birds: These birds will become too cold in a makeshift nest, so you must place them in the original nest. If that’s not possible, take them to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Remember that baby birds do best when raised by their parents or other birds, so try to reunite them with their parents before calling a rehabilitator.

Fledglings: Birds with fully feathered bodies, but short or non-existent tail feathers, may be fledglings (adolescent birds who have left the nest). You might see them hopping on the ground, unable to fly. This is normal; birds learn to fly from the ground up! Fledglings might remain on the ground for a few days or even a week, supervised and fed by their parents a few times each hour before they get the hang of flying. You can tell if the fledglings are being fed by watching from a distance to see whether a parent bird flies over to them, usually a few times an hour. You can also look for white-grey feces near the fledgling. Birds defecate after being fed, so the presence of fecal material means that the birds are being cared for. Be sure to keep cats indoors and dogs leashed until the fledglings are old enough to fly. If you are positive that the parents aren’t returning to feed the babies, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby deer

People often mistakenly assume that a fawn (baby deer) found alone is orphaned. If the fawn is lying down calmly and quietly, their mother is nearby and they are OK. A doe only visits and nurses their fawn a few times a day to avoid attracting predators. Unless you know for sure that the mother is dead, leave the fawn alone.

Although mother deer are wary of human smells, they still want their babies back. If you already handled the fawn, quickly return the fawn to the exact spot where you found them and leave the area; the mother deer will not show herself until you are gone.

If the fawn is lying on its side or wandering and crying incessantly, they probably need help. If this is the case, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby opossums

Baby opossums are born as embryos, barely larger than a bee, and spend about two months nursing in their mother’s pouch. When they get to be about 3-4 inches long and start riding around on their mother’s back, they may fall off without the mother noticing. As a general rule, if an opossum is over 7 inches long (not including the tail), it’s old enough to be on its own. If it’s less than seven inches long (not including the tail), it is orphaned and you should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby rabbits

Rabbits at least 4 inches long with open eyes and erect ears and who hop well are independent from their mother and should be allowed to fend for themselves. Uninjured baby rabbits in an intact nest should also be left alone. Although they might look abandoned because their mom isn’t around, they’re probably fine: Mother rabbits visit their dependent young only a few times a day to avoid attracting predators. If the nest has been disturbed, lightly cover it with natural materials you find nearby—such as grass, fur or leaves—and follow these steps:

Keep all pets out of the area.

Avoid touching the babies—foreign smells may cause the mother to abandon her young.

Use yarn, sticks or string to make a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest to assess whether the mother is returning to nurse her young. Check back 24 hours later.

If the yarn, sticks or string were moved aside, but the nest is still covered with fur, grass or leaves, the mother has returned to nurse the babies.

If the pattern remains undisturbed for 24 hours, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby raccoons

If a baby raccoon has been alone for more than a few hours, it is probably an orphan. Mother raccoons don’t let their young out of their sight for long. Put an inverted laundry basket over the baby (with a light weight on top so it cannot push its way out) and monitor it until well into the nighttime hours (raccoons are nocturnal, so the mom should come out at night to reclaim her baby). You can also put the cub in a pet carrier and close the door. Instead of latching it, prop it closed with an angled stick. When the mother returns, she’ll run in front of the carrier, push over the stick and the door will pop open. If the mother does not return, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby skunks

If you see a baby skunk (or a line of baby skunks) running around without a mother in sight, they could be orphaned. Skunks have poor eyesight, so if something scares the mother and she runs off, the babies can quickly lose sight of her.

Monitor the situation to see if the mother rejoins her young. If the babies are on the move, put on gloves and slowly place a plastic laundry basket (with lattice sides) over the babies to keep them in one spot and make it easier for the mother to find them. Do not put a weight on top of the laundry basket.

If the mother returns to her young, she will flip up the basket and get them. If she has trouble doing this, you should lift the basket to let them out. Keep in mind that skunks are very near-sighted, so fast movements can startle them into spraying. If you move slowly and speak softly, you will not get sprayed. Skunks warn potential predators by stamping their front feet when they’re alarmed, so if the mother doesn’t do this, you’re safe to proceed. If no mother comes to retrieve the young after several hours, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Baby squirrels

A squirrel who is nearly full-sized has a full and fluffy tail and can run, jump and climb is independent. However, if a juvenile squirrel continuously approaches and follows people, their mom is probably gone. In this case, you should contact a rehabilitator because the baby is very hungry and needs care.

There are a few cases where you might need to intervene:

A baby squirrel falls from a nest.

A nest falls from a tree.

A felled tree contains an intact nest.

If the baby and/or their nest fell from the tree today and is in a safe place (away from the road or pets), give the mother squirrel a chance to reclaim their young and relocate them to a new nest. If the baby is uninjured, leave them where they are, leave the area, keep people and pets away and monitor them from a safe distance.

If the area presents too many dangers, such as free-ranging dogs or cats, give the mother squirrel a safer way to retrieve the youngster by nailing a basket onto a tree. Just make sure it has small drainage holes; a berry basket works well. Then put the baby inside. If the mother doesn’t show up, call a rehabilitator.

If it’s chilly outside or the baby isn’t fully furred, place them in a shoebox with something warm underneath (like a heating pad on a low setting or a hot water bottle). Be sure to put a flannel shirt between the baby and the heating device, or they could overheat. Do not cover them with anything or the mother might not be able to find them.

If the babies are not retrieved by dusk, take these steps: Wearing thick gloves, gather the squirrels and place them inside a thick, soft cloth, such as a cloth diaper or fleece scarf or hat.

Place one of the following items beneath the cloth: A chemical hand warmer inside a sock, a hot water bottle (replace the hot water every 30 minutes) or a heating pad set on the lowest setting. (If the heating pad has no cover, put it inside two pillowcases so the babies don’t overheat.)

Place the baby squirrels, cloth and warmer inside a small cardboard box or carrier and call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Finding help for an orphaned or injured animal

Once you’re sure the animal needs your help, call a wildlife rehabilitator for assistance. If you’re unable to locate a rehabilitator, try contacting an animal shelter, humane society, animal control agency, nature center, state wildlife agency or veterinarian.

A note on kittens: Springtime is also known as kitten season, and like wildlife, healthy neonate kittens typically do best in the care of their mother. The HSUS offers tips on evaluating if and how to intervene on behalf of newborn kittens. Many neonate kittens are brought into animal shelters throughout spring and summer, so if you are able to help, consider contacting your local rescue or shelter to foster bottle baby kittens this season.

For more information visit: humanesociety.org.

Do you want to submit feedback to the editor?

Send Us An Email!

Related Posts

Vermont Legislature adjourns after a contentious 2024 session

May 15, 2024
Session was shaped by debates over property taxes, housing shortages, flood recovery and public safety By Sarah Mearhoff and Shaun Robinson/VTDigger After a tumultuous day of dealmaking on housing, land use and property tax measures, the Vermont Legislature adjourned its 2024 session in the early hours of Saturday morning, May 11. The Senate gaveled out at 1:18 a.m.…

New data shows first decrease in Vermont opioid deaths since 2019

May 15, 2024
Overdose deaths in Vermont have decreased for the first time since 2019. According to the Dept. of Health’s newly released Annual Fatal Overdose Report, opioid-related overdoses resulted in the death of 231 Vermonters in 2023, a 5% drop from 2022 when 244 Vermonters died. The overdose report includes data on Vermonters who died of any drug…

Safe bet

May 15, 2024
After a week of long days and late nights, the regular session of the 2024 Vermont Legislature adjourned early Saturday morning just after 2 a.m. My best guess in the annual adjournment pool was 6:30 p.m. Friday evening, which turned out to be way too optimistic. When the Legislature finishes its work for the session,…

A lot accomplished this Legislative session

May 15, 2024
Vermont’s 2023-24 Legislative Biennium ended in the wee hours of Saturday morning May 11. The Senate gaveled out at 1:18 a.m. and the House about 2 a.m. This has been a hard session. It was begun in the wake of a natural disaster, with a state recovering from terrible flooding. Despite these challenges we managed…