Now that spring is here in central Illinois, it is likely that we will come across the young of various wildlife species as we go about our gardening chores and nature walks. When people discover young creatures that appear to be alone, it is natural to want to "rescue" them or assist in some way. This is not usually a good idea, simply because it is very difficult to know for sure when an animal in the wild needs help. And contact with humans is often disruptive to their natural behavior, making it very hard to return them successfully to their natural surroundings.
In last month's column, I presented some situations that normally occur in nature as baby birds and baby rabbits are born, nurtured, and reared by their parents. There are other species that people sometimes find whose young might be by themselves and seemingly abandoned as well. It is important to remember that many species of animals deliberately avoid the areas where they leave their offspring alone. Such "hiding" behaviors are designed by nature to reduce the chances that a predator will discover and prey upon the vulnerable young. The parents are usually within visual and/or auditory range and are capable of drawing a predator's attention away should the need arise. So – what are some of the other wildlife species that people are likely to encounter?
Squirrels: Since tree squirrels generally nest in trees, a baby found on the ground usually means that it has fallen from the nest. If one is found, try to locate the nest and put the baby back. This is perfectly okay, as the mother will not be deterred from caring for her youngster simply because you have touched it. It really is best to try to reunite the baby with its mother. If you think that the nest is near and the mother is in the area, you can give her the opportunity to find her baby on her own by simply watching the area for a couple of hours. If the nest is unreachable or cannot be found, then place the baby in a box near the tree or area where it was discovered. Make sure that the baby cannot get out, but that the mother is able to get in and retrieve the baby. Remain out of sight so that the mother feels safe returning. If she has not come within the two-hour time period, she probably is not going to reappear. Keep in mind that if the baby is sick, cold, or injured, chances are that the mother will not try to come back and nurture it.
If the baby is found just before dark, do not attempt a reunion with mom. She will not be looking for it after dark, as squirrels stop moving at end of day. You can shelter it in a box or small enclosure with soft, smooth cloths (such as old tee shirts) in which to snuggle. Keep it in a warm, dark, and quiet place indoors, changing the bedding as it becomes soiled. The baby can be put outside in place as soon as the sun comes up in the morning. If the mother is in the area, she will start searching for it then. If the mother never returns and the baby otherwise seems healthy, it's best to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
Raccoons: The most likely situation involving raccoons occurs when they begin to set up nesting locations in chimneys and attics, garages, or outbuildings. Because humans have encroached on the natural territories that would have originally belonged to this and other wildlife species, these animals are becoming increasingly common in residential and urban areas. Prevention is the best deterrent as we make sure that all chimneys and other openings are covered and rendered inaccessible to these persistent, unwanted guests. If they are already inhabiting forbidden areas, we can encourage them to move on by placing foul-smelling ammonia near where they are nesting. Loud music played early in the morning will disturb their privacy and quiet, and they might decide to move their families out in search of more peaceful surroundings. Raccoons are nocturnal, so the mother and her babies are most likely to be out in the darkness of night – this means that chance meetings in the daytime between humans and baby raccoons are not as common. It is possible in spring and summer, however, to see a mother out with her young in the daylight when her energy demands are high due to nursing her young (especially if garbage or pet food is left out and is easily accessible). Born usually in April or May, the babies do not start to accompany the mother on her nightly forays for food until about ten weeks of age, and they usually stick pretty close to her. Because raccoons are one of the primary carriers of rabies throughout North America, for this reason alone interaction with raccoons of any age should be avoided. They are also carriers of several other diseases transferrable to humans, so these creatures are best left alone, if found. The mother is very attentive to her young and is most likely nearby, even if not in sight.
Deer: In Illinois, it is possible that people may encounter seemingly abandoned or orphaned deer. Mother deer typically leave their fawns bedded down in one place and only visit them two or three times a day to avoid attracting predators. While the mother is away foraging, the fawn relies on camouflage from its speckled brown coat, lying still and close to the ground for protection during the vulnerable first days of its life. Until the fawn is about four weeks old, you will rarely see the mother. If the fawn is not crying, the eyes are not swollen and there are no visible wounds, do not handle or disturb it. Your presence and interference will only cause undue stress for the baby, and its mother is most likely nearby and waiting to return. Seeing a fawn all alone is perfectly normal, even if found in unusual places such as window wells or sunny porch steps (usually late May to mid June). If, however, you are sure that the fawn is orphaned or injured, call a wildlife rehabilitator. Fawns require special care.
While it seems that everyone wants to help an "abandoned" baby bird, cottontail bunny or fawn when they find one, it's usually best to resist the urge to rescue. The fact is, most of these "orphans" are not really orphans at all. Animal parents are never far from their young unless there is a reason for the separation. They are, however, very good at staying out of sight. Sometimes, getting involved is the worst thing we can do. These little creatures' chances are much better in the wild, where they belong. And after all is said and done, we would do well to remember one thing – an animal baby's best chance for survival is its own mother.