Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wild Animals & Birds

Helping Our Wild Brothers and Sisters

by Cindy Kamler

   Wild animals can find themselves in trouble—injured, ill, displaced—at any time of the year. In the spring, the natural world is teeming with babies—wrens, robins, jays, ravens, jackrabbits, deer, foxes and skunks—and this is the time when most people find animals that need help. An over-eager baby robin falls from its nest or a ground squirrel’s burrow is flooded by spring runoff. Human neighbours cut down a nest tree or let their dogs run loose. A mother raccoon or barn owl may be killed by a car or a black-chinned hummingbird caught by a house cat, leaving their babies alone and unprotected.
    Through awareness, planning, and a knowledge of natural history, you can prevent some of these situations from arising. When you do find an animal that appears to need help, there may be alternative choices you can make.

    To prevent problems, check carefully for bird nests before trimming or cutting trees or shrubs; put a bell on your cat or keep it indoors when baby birds first leave the nest and can’t fly well; keep your dog on a long line in the early spring when tiny blacktailed jackrabbits, helpless little cottontails, and spotted fawns lie hidden in tall grass and brush.

    When you find an animal, you must determine whether it needs your help. If the animal is injured or ill, it should be taken to someone trained in wildlife care. Until you can contact them, place the bird or mammal in a cardboard box or other container not much larger than the animal.

Adult animals
    For handling large adult birds and adult mammals, wear gloves and protect your face when moving the animal. You can drop a towel or T-shirt over the animal, bundle it gently, and place it in the padded container. Put it somewhere warm, dark and quiet while you call for advice and help. Don’t give the animal food or water until you get advice or until you are sure the animal is alert enough to handle it. A weakened animal could drown in a dish of water. An emaciated animal could die if it suddenly eats too much food.

Baby mammals
    Uninjured baby animals may not need help. They may be doing just what Nature intended them to do. For example, if you see a fawn or baby jackrabbit lying quietly in the grass or brush, leave it alone. Deer and jackrabbits (actually hares) are precocial mammals, born with eyes open, fully furred; they can hop or run within a short time after birth. They are well camouflaged and have no scent to attract predators. Their mothers leave them alone most of the day when they lie quietly until she returns around dawn and dusk to feed and groom them.
    If a fawn or hare is on the road or in your yard, it may have been flushed by a dog or human. Unless it’s injured, move the little one to a nearby safe place under a bush or in tall grass. Close up your dogs and cats. Monitor the animal from a distance; the mother should return at dark or by morning for her baby. Allow time, then check to see if the baby is still there and showing signs of hunger by moving restlessly or crying. If the mother doesn’t return, something may have happened to her. Then you need to contact a wildlife rehabilitator—someone trained in wildlife care—for help.
    Other baby mammals, such as opossums, raccoons, and skunks, if they are still naked with eyes closed should not be away from their mother or their nest. If you know the location of the den or burrow and that the mother is alive, you can put warm, uninjured babies back. If the animal is cold but unhurt, warm it and then try putting it back. Smoothing the earth or spreading flour on the ground and looking for the mother’s tracks, or laying a long hair or string across the entrance and seeing if it is moved, can let you know if the parents are returning. (Always use gloves to handle these young mammals. This is a precaution against possible disease for you and the baby. If you have touched an animal that could carry rabies, it will have to be killed in order to test it for the disease.)
    If you don’t know the location of the den, place the animal in a small, padded container and put it somewhere dark and quiet. They must be kept warm. Place the box halfway on a heating pad on low (this allows the animal to move away if it gets too hot), or place a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel inside the box. Then call for help. Handle as little as possible; handling any wild animal or bird causes stress that could kill it. It is best not to attempt to feed the animal until you have advice; better yet, let the experts do it.

Baby birds
    If you find a baby bird out of its nest, assess the situation. If the bird is naked or covered only with down, it either fell or was taken out of the nest by a predator. If it is warm and unhurt, return it to the nest if you possibly can. If it’s cold or hurt, or you can’t reach the nest, keep the baby safe and warm as described above (temperature should be about 100 degrees for naked birds) and call for advice. Again, it is best not to try to feed it or give it water. Each species needs a different diet and the wrong food can cause problems for the bird. Also, the glottis (opening into the lungs) in birds is in the back of the tongue and if any food or liquid gets into the lungs, the bird will die or become ill.
    If the young bird is fully feathered, most likely it has fledged and left the nest, fluttering to the ground where it will practice flying, and the parents will feed it and teach it to find food. Unless hurt, these birds should be left alone. If they’re in an unsafe spot, pick up the fledgling gently and place it in a nearby tree or bush. Another option is to return it to the nest or, if the nest is unreachable, make an artificial nest (not much larger than the bird) out of an old basket, strawberry container, etc. Pad the nest well and secure it as close to the actual nest as possible. Then watch from a distance to see if the parents come to the fledgling. (I’ve had a lot of success with this technique.) Don’t believe the old tale that parent birds won’t come back if the baby is touched by humans; most birds can’t smell! You won’t get a disease from birds; just wash your hands after handling.

In general
    The goal in helping wildlife is always to return the animal to the wild. Baby wild animals should be raised by their parents if at all possible. If you can get that raccoon or robin back to its family, that ‘s the best solution. For an animal that is injured or sick, or whose parents can’t be found, you need expert help. The animal needs good nutrition, proper housing, and sometimes medical treatment. Wildlife rehabilitators have years of experience and volumes of information and can provide the best possible care for the animal you have rescued. You can find them through the yellow pages, local vets or animal shelters, or on the internet at

Cindy Kamler is a trained wildlife rehabilitator who has been taking care of her wild brothers and sisters for 13 years. She lives in the high desert in Bishop, California.


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