Wildlife: Saving the Orphans…Are They Really Orphaned?

Wildlife: Saving the Orphans…Are They Really Orphaned?

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What keeps our wildlife rehabilitation centers so busy? Orphaned babies and more babies! Of course there are the adult birds and mammals needing care for their injuries, but spring and summer bring the largest parade of little ones. And with the help of all the volunteers and veterinarians who tirelessly care for the injured and the orphaned babies, these animals have a chance to recover and go back to the wild.

I’d like to tell you the real story about wildlife orphans.

I started working with local shelters and rehabbers in college rehabbing many wild animals including hundreds of wild rabbits over the years. My jobs included feeding and cleaning the shelter’s temporary homes for the birds, ducks, opossums, one baby mountain lion, a golden eagle, wild rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, and many more.

Here are some examples of wildlife animals that we would commonly care for:

  • Injured animals after being hit by cars
  • Orphaned animals because their parents were killed
  • Injured animals that were shot by kids with BB or pellet guns causing raptors to lose an eye and/or prevent them from ever flying again
  • Baby squirrels that would fall out of trees. These were truly orphans that needed critical care to try to get them ready to be released back into the wild.
  • How Do You Know if the Baby Animal Needs Help?

    This is the first and best question you should ask if you find any wildlife.

    There are many baby birds and bunnies that are commonly brought in unnecessarily. These animals are most often mistaken for orphans.

    The mother bird helps push the babies out of the nest two to three days before they can fly. These fledglings need the time on the ground to develop their muscles and wings to take flight. Leave them be!

    This is the time when they are most vulnerable and are sadly grabbed by outdoor cats, or picked up by well-meaning humans, especially children, thinking they are saving an orphan. If you see babies hopping on the ground, waiting in a bush, and they look healthy (eyes are open and birds are feathered), leave them alone. Mom is caring for them just out of sight in most cases. She won’t come back until we humans are completely gone. Don’t stand and watch-she sees you. Having really no sense of smell, the mother bird will not reject her young if touched by us, so yes, put them back. Babies take about two to three days to learn how to fly. Give them this time; they will do it.

    Of course if a baby is injured, or if a baby bird has no feathers and you cannot locate the nest, or a baby rabbit’s eyes are not yet opened and no nest is around, call a wildlife rehabber, veterinarian, or Animal Control.

    Wild Rabbits and Deer

    For wild rabbits, if their eyes are open and they appear healthy, leave them alone.

    (These are two actual bunnies I cared for. Both were perfectly healthy and should have been left in the bush for mom. They do not need a nest at this point.)

    Rabbits and baby deer (newborn fawns) are left all day by their moms in the brush. The mothers will come back to feed, (rabbit mothers in the middle of the night, deer more often), but only when the humans are gone. Rabbits are Crepuscular, meaning more active at dawn and dusk. Babies will be left alone all day and often thought abandoned, but they are not! We have put fawns and wild bunnies (eyes open) back in the area where they were found. We watched the mom come back at night via camera set up. You won’t see a nest. Think of them as young children. You see children playing in the yard without a mom, but they have one!

    When Wildlife Can’t Be Put Back

    Just as it is important to know when you should leave wildlife alone – it is also important to know when they need help.

    The orphans that couldn’t be put back or are injured end up at the wildlife facilities where they are cared for by veterinarians and rehabbers.

    In these wildlife centers you will also see volunteers feeding baby birds…”peep peep peep” every 30 minutes.

    From spring through summer, baby birds are brought into the centers more than any other animals. Some facilities will have more than 200 baby birds in incubators. A timer is set to feed them every 30 minutes. The timer goes off usually as the last baby bird is feed, and it is time to start over. It is hard work to be their temporary moms. Baby bird rescues can take up a lot of resources.
    There is an overwhelming need for volunteers to help care for these baby birds, many of which never needed to be “rescued”.

    Baby rabbits, if healthy, are fed formula twice a day (some pet formulas, especially puppy formulas, are not good for rabbits as they are very sensitive). Overfeeding rabbit babies is one of the biggest problems. It is impossible to replace the mother’s milk, so leaving the baby with mother ensures the baby’s greatest survival.

    Other mammals like squirrels need to be fed every few hours at first. No matter how hard rehabbers try, they cannot replace the true mom, and some babies just cannot survive without her.

    Who Can Rehab?

    People need to be trained and licensed by their state to serve as a rehabber for a wild animal at home. In most states it is illegal to do so without a license or shelter permit.

    How You Can Help:

    There are several things you can do to help.

  • First –don’t assume a pet is orphaned. If you have questions – ask! Please call your local wildlife rehabber, veterinarian, or Animal Control.
  • Educate family members about wildlife and teach them when to leave the animals alone.
  • Keep cats indoors; put a bell on outdoor cats to warn wildlife of the cat’s approach. This will give the wild babies a warning and a chance to freeze, run, and/or hide.
  • Don’t shoot BB’s at any animal.

    If you are interested in volunteering, contact your local Humane Society. They can put you in touch with a wildlife center. To find rehabbers in the US, go to: http://wildliferehabber.org/st_disp_list.php


    Rehabbers in the US:

    Finding Vets (many vets know rehabbers):

    Call your local humane society or Animal Control, as well.

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