How to tell if baby animals are orphaned, injured, or perfectly fine—and what to do if they need your help
It’s common to see baby wild animals outside during spring, as a new generation makes its way into the world. Continue reading to find out when and how you should help a baby wild animal.
Unless the animal appears injured or in distress, there may be no need to rescue them.
Nestlings are baby birds who are too young to be away from the nest. If the nest is intact, gently place the bird back inside.
- A cat or dog presents the wild animal to you
- Evidence of bleeding
- An apparent or obvious broken limb
- A featherless or nearly featherless bird on the ground
- A dead parent nearby
If you observe the above signs, find help for the animal and safely capture and transport him or her to the appropriate place for treatment.
Determining whether an animal is an orphan and needs your help depends upon the animal’s age, species, and natural behaviors.
- People often mistakenly assume that a baby deer (a fawn) is orphaned when found alone. If he is calm and quiet, he is OK, and his mother deer (the doe) is probably nearby. A doe only visits and nurses her fawn a few times a day to avoid attracting predators. Unless you know the mother is dead, leave the fawn alone.
Mother deer are wary of human smells, so if you have already handled the fawn, take a towel, rub it in the grass, and then wipe down the fawn to remove all human scent. Then return the fawn to the place where you found him.
Only if the fawn is lying on his side, or wandering and crying incessantly, is he likely to need help. If this is the case, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- Unlike deer and some other animals, birds will not abandon their young if a person touches them. If baby birds have fallen from their nest and you can put them back without danger to yourself, you should do so.
If the original nest was destroyed or is too high to reach, hang a small, shallow basket close to where the original nest was. Woven stick baskets 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.
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.
Birds with fully feathered bodies but short tail feathers may be fledglings (adolescent birds). You may see them hopping about on the ground, unable to fly. This is normal; birds learn to fly from the ground up!
Fledglings may remain on the ground for a few days, supervised and fed by their parents a few times per hour before they get the hang of flying.
Keep pets away from the area—dogs should be leashed, and cats should be kept indoors. If there are stray pets in the area, put the fledglings in a small basket and hang it securely from a nearby tree limb to keep the birds off the ground for the few extra days they need before they can fly.
However, if baby birds appear injured, alone, or in imminent danger, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- Often fox kits will appear unsupervised for long periods of time while their parents are out hunting for food. Observe the kits from a distance; if they seem energetic and healthy, leave them alone. If they appear sickly or weak, or if you have reason to believe both parents are dead, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- Baby opossums are born as embryos, barely larger than a bee, and spend about two months nursing within their mother’s pouch. When they get to be about 3-4 inches long and start riding around on her back, they may fall off without her noticing. As a general rule, if an opossum found alone is over 7 inches long (not including the tail), he’s old enough to be on his own; if less than 7 inches long (not including the tail), he is an orphan, and you should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- A rabbit who is four inches long with open eyes and erect ears is independent from his mother and should be allowed to fend for himself. Uninjured baby rabbits in a nest that is intact should also be left alone. Mother rabbits only visit their dependent young to nurse them 2-3 times a day to avoid attracting predators.
If the rabbit nest has been disturbed, though, or if you think the babies are orphaned, cover the nest with surrounding natural materials such as grass and leaves, and follow these steps.
- Keep all pets out of the area, as they may harm the young rabbits.
- Avoid touching the babies, as foreign smells may cause the mother to abandon her young.
- Make an “X” with sticks or yarn over the nest to assess if the mother is returning to nurse her young.
- If the “X” is moved but the nest is still covered by the next day, the mother has returned to nurse the babies.
- If the “X” remains undisturbed for 24 hours, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- If a baby raccoon has been seen alone for more than a few hours, he is probably an orphan, because mother raccoons closely supervise their young and don’t let them out of their sight. You can put an upside-down laundry basket over the baby (with a light weight on top so he cannot push his way out) and monitor him for a few hours. If the mother does not return, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
- If you see a baby skunk—or a line of baby skunks, nose-to-tail—running around without a mother in sight, he (or they) may be orphaned. Skunks have poor eyesight, so if something scares a mother skunk and she runs off, her babies can quickly lose sight of her.
Monitor the situation for an hour or two to see if the mother rejoins her young. You can also put on gloves and slowly place a plastic laundry basket upside down over the baby skunks to keep them in one spot and make it easier for the mother to find them.
If the mother returns to her young and you need to lift the basket to let them out, remember that moving quickly may frighten them, causing them to use their spray defense. If you move slowly and speak softly, though, it’s unlikely that you will be sprayed. If she does not stamp her front feet to show that she is alarmed, you should be safe to proceed. If no mother comes to retrieve her young, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
A squirrel who is nearly full-sized, has a full and fluffy tail, and is able to run, jump, and climb is independent. However, if a squirrel nest falls or a younger baby squirrel falls from a nest, you may need to intervene.
If you don’t think the babies fell from the tree today, or if they appear injured, immediatelycontact a wildlife rehabilitator.
If you are certain the baby squirrels fell from the tree today, give the mother squirrel a chance to reclaim her young. If the baby is uninjured, leave him where he is, leave the area, keep people and pets away, and monitor him from a safe distance.
If it’s chilly outside, or the baby isn’t fully furred, place him in a shallow box with something warm underneath (like a heating pad on a low setting or a hot water bottle). Do not cover him with leaves or blankets, as the mother may not be able to find him. If the babies are not retrieved within a few hours, take these steps to warm them.
Wearing thick gloves, gather the squirrels and place them inside a thick, soft cloth, such as a cloth diaper or fleece scarf or hat.
Provide immediate warmth by placing one of the following beneath the cloth: chemical hand warmers, 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 a pillow case.)
Place the baby squirrels, cloth, and warmer inside a small cardboard box. Call a wildlife rehabilitator. You can also try calling your local humane society. Many shelters and humane societies can provide emergency care for wildlife.
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 one of the following:
- Local animal shelter or humane society
- Animal control agency
- Nature center
Once you’ve contacted someone who can help, describe the animal and his physical condition as accurately as possible.
Unless you are told otherwise, here’s how you can make an animal more comfortable for transport or while you’re waiting for help to arrive:
- Never handle an adult animal without first consulting with a wildlife professional. Even small animals can injure you.
- Put the animal in a safe container. For most songbirds, a paper bag may be used for transport. For larger birds or other animals, use a cardboard box or similar container. First, punch holes for air, from the inside out, and line the box with an old T-shirt or other soft cloth.
- Put on thick gloves and use a towel or pillowcase to cover the animal as you scoop him up gently and place him in the container.
- Do not give the animal food or water: it may cause him to choke, develop digestive problems, or drown. Also, many injured animals are in shock, and eating or drinking can make it worse.
- Place the container in a warm, dark, quiet place—away from pets, children, and noise—until you can transport the animal. Be sure to keep the container away from direct sunlight, air conditioning, or heat.
- Transport the animal as soon as possible.
- While transporting the animal, leave the radio off and keep talking to a minimum.