Spring has sprung, which means the days are longer and everything is blooming. Birds are singing, buds are bursting, leaves are unfolding, bees and butterflies are pollinating and many wildlife species are busy tending to their newly-born offspring.
In the coming days and weeks, you may notice young animals who seem to be alone or in distress. Each spring, we get many calls from concerned citizens about nests and young rabbits, squirrels, fawns, birds and other wild babies.
Sadly, well-meaning people sometimes take wildlife babies from their parents because they believe the babies are abandoned. While the impulse to save these “orphans” is admirable, wild babies rarely need human assistance. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission offers helpful tips and guidelines about when to intervene, who to call for help and when to walk away.
While the impulse to save these “orphans” is admirable, wild babies rarely need human assistance. In support of NCWRC’s efforts, here are some helpful tips and guidelines about when to intervene, who to call for help and when to walk away.
Signs of abandoned vs. natural “nesting” behavior
Nests or offspring disturbed by humans can be compromised; however, that’s not always the case. The babies could die because of intervention or lack thereof. Therefore, it’s good to know when and if to step in.
If a young animal is alone and you can’t see the adult, it doesn’t mean the baby is orphaned. Many adults leave juvenile animals alone for long periods, so it’s best to give them the chance to reestablish contact and take care of their offspring. Leave the animal or nest alone for 24 to 48 hours to determine if mom is returning.
If you find a baby bird on the ground that has closed eyes or is featherless or fuzzy, it may have fallen from its nest. Try to locate the nest and gently scoop up the bird and carefully place it back in its nest. Also, be sure to keep family pets (cats and dogs) indoors or away from bird nests or ground-based nests.
Rabbits will try to hide their young by digging shallow nests in clumps of thick grass, under low-growing shrubs or in the middle of a yard. Nests may be hard to see and look like piles of messy or dead grass. The female may leave her young alone for hours at a time while she forages.
People who come across a nest may think the baby rabbits (kits) are abandoned. No matter how tempting it might be to “help” them, if the kits appear uninjured, cover the nest and walk away. Female rabbits will avoid approaching the nest if they think you or another threat is nearby.
Tip: Place some thin twigs or dental floss in a tic-tac-toe pattern over the nest. Watch the kits from a distance to see if the mom returns. If the twigs or floss are disturbed, you’ll know she’s been there. If she doesn’t visit the next 24 hours, the nest may be abandoned.
When juvenile rabbits leave the nest and are starting to learn how to survive on their own, it might appear they need help because they’re hopping around awkwardly. If they’re in a dangerous location, move them to the nearest safe place. Otherwise, leave them alone.
3 signs young wildlife may be orphaned
- Healthy wildlife babies waiting for mom to return are usually quiet, so predators don’t find them. If a wildlife baby is crying or making a lot of noise, it might be orphaned.
- When mom is taking care of the baby, she’ll keep insects away. If you notice insects on a baby, it may indicate it’s orphaned.
- If babies go too long without eating, they can get cold and become dehydrated. Wrinkled skin is a sign the baby hasn’t been fed and is likely orphaned.
Leave wildlife care to the experts
Keep in mind, in North Carolina it’s illegal to keep most wildlife species without a permit. Leave wildlife care to the experts. Avoid wildlife contact and don’t attempt to raise an orphan.
Only wildlife rehabilitators have the proper licensing and training to care for wild animals until they can be released back into their natural habitat. They dedicate their time and resources to caring for orphaned and injured animals. Note: Certain species of wildlife, such as raccoons, foxes, adult white-tailed deer, adult black bear, coyote, nutria and feral swine, cannot be rehabilitated in our state.
Before taking action (or when in doubt), check out these resources.
The NCWRC Injured and Orphaned Wildlife page provides answers to these common questions and more:
- What should I do if I find injured wildlife?
- I found a baby animal. What should I do with it?
- There is a fawn lying alone. Is it OK?
- If I touch a baby bird, will the mother abandon it?
- How can I protect my pet from wildlife?
- How can I become a wildlife rehabilitator?
- What are the consequences of feeding wildlife?
- Who picks up dead animals?
Contact a wildlife rehabilitator or fawn rehabilitator. If you see severely injured white-tailed deer or black bear during business hours, contact the NC Wildlife Helpline at 866-318-2401, or the Wildlife Enforcement Division at 800-662-7137 outside of business hours.
Want to help wildlife and wild places in North Carolina financially? Support NCWF.