Spring is here, and it's a time when nature bustles with activity. Many native animals of Illinois are giving birth and again are busy raising their young. The pace of life in nature is speeding up as parents seek out food and tend to offspring. But it is also the season during which people are most likely to believe that they have discovered a misplaced or abandoned animal. Young wildlife often appear to us to be helpless and lost, when in all likelihood their mothers are close by. It is our task this time of year to resist temptation and try not to interfere, no matter how cute and vulnerable these animals appear.
Easier said than done.
So what do we do if we discover a wild baby that seems to be all alone? Often people think they need to help in some way out of concern for the creature, but they're not sure what to do. Sometimes it helps to know a little about what situations are likely to occur, so that good decisions can be made without inflicting unintentional harm.
Is it true that if you touch a baby bird, the parents will abandon it?
Most bird species have a limited sense of smell. Because they strongly bond with their chicks, they will not neglect an offspring even if it has been handled by humans. When deciding if a baby bird needs assistance, it helps to know whether it's a nestling or a fledgling.
Nestlings are very young baby birds that are not fully feathered. Birds this young that are on the ground are vulnerable to predators and exposure to the elements. Putting the bird right back in the nest it fell from would be the best solution, if at all possible. The parents will return to feed it, usually several times an hour from dawn to dusk, and its chances for survival are good.
Fledglings are young birds that are fully feathered, but are not yet able to fly well. These youngsters are often seen on or near the ground, hopping around and trying out their wings on short, awkward flights. Often they will cry for their parents raucously, imploring them to bring food and unwittingly leading us to believe that they are in distress. These youngsters are simply in the stage of life where they are learning to fly. If they have a full set of feathers, it's best to leave them where you found them. It's very likely that the parents are keeping a watchful eye nearby and will continue to feed the young birds for several weeks until they can fend for themselves and are able to take flight. The adult birds will be reluctant to bring food if they think a predator is near, so monitor things from a distance, perhaps keeping pets and children away from the area until the young have matured enough to fly away. Fledglings do not need our assistance unless they are injured, at which time we should contact a wildlife rehabilitator, someone who is trained and has obtained a permit to care for sick or injured wild creatures. An exception to this advice would apply in the case of ducks, geese, or swans, who do not typically leave their young alone. A wildlife rehabilitator should be called for advice if young waterfowl are found alone with no adults nearby.
My dog/cat found a rabbit's nest in our lawn, and the mother has not returned all day. Have the babies been abandoned?
The eastern cottontail constructs a nest that resembles a saucer-like depression three or four inches deep and about eight inches across. It is lined with soft, dead grass and mixed with tufts of the mother's own fur. A covering of the same materials is used to keep the babies warm and dry and to keep the nest hidden. Since rabbits often hide these nests out in the open or in brush piles and long grass, chances are great that a litter of baby rabbits might be discovered and disturbed. Because rabbit mothers only nurse their babies twice a day (in the morning and again in the evening), it gives the impression that the litter has been "abandoned" during the day. The mother's milk is very rich and when the babies nurse, they are well-nourished within minutes. Mother rabbits do not "sit" on or lie with the babies to keep them warm as do some other mammals and birds. The nest is designed to keep them safely snug and protected between feedings. If you come across a nest of wild bunnies in the wild and the mother is nowhere to be seen, do not disturb them. This is perfectly normal, and her infrequent visits are designed to protect the babies from predators. Removing them from their nest would greatly reduce their chance for survival, as these timid creatures are highly susceptible to extreme stress, whether young or adult. There simply is no substitute for the rich nutrients that the mother's milk provides, and they often die in captivity of bloat, or of improper or overfeeding.
What if the nest has been accidentally disturbed?
If the nest has been disturbed by a mower, pets or children, do all you can to restore and protect it rather than remove the bunnies and bring them inside. Reconstruct the nest as best you can with grasses and bits of the mother's fur if available. It is also acceptable to move the nest a few feet away if that area would be a bit safer. Chances are very good that the mother will return at night to locate her missing babies, call to them, and feed them. We need to give nature a chance to take its course and let the mother do her job. We can determine if the mother is returning by creating a pattern of tiny twigs, grasses, or straw over the top of the hidden nest. Wait 24 hours to see if the twigs have been disturbed. Because she may be able to feed them without disturbing the twigs much, be sure to double-check. If the babies' tummies are round and not sunken, their bodies are warm, and they seem comfortable in their nest, then the mother is coming back to care for them.
Rabbits are weaned at about three weeks of age, so although they may appear to be too young to care for themselves, those seen hopping around outside the nest do not need our assistance. They are exploring their surroundings and learning to forage about for food. They usually don't venture far from the nest and should be able to find and return to it. A young rabbit of this age (about the size of a tennis ball) is very cute and looks very vulnerable, but at four weeks or so is considered a juvenile and no longer requires the constant protection of the nest or the nurturing of its mother. The best help we could give would be to not touch the youngster, leave it alone, and keep pets and children away.
Next month: More tips on what to look for if you run across what appears to be other "orphaned" wildlife species.