Few things look more vulnerable than a fledgling bird or other wild spring baby. Their flyaway feathers don’t look finished. Their exposed nests don’t seem practical. Many people can’t resist the urge to step in and offer the “help” they’re sure the animal needs. If you’re tenderhearted, you have to brace yourself through the entire month of May when the whole world turns into a nursery.
The cardinal rule is that a wild animal stands the best chance of survival with its parents. You just can’t pass on the skills, wild foods and natural defenses it receives from them. Even if you don’t kill the animal in the process of trying to save it, you could cause it to lose its natural fear or, worse, cause it to imprint on humans, or associate them as kin. In this case, the animal isn’t releasable, and, in Kansas and most other states, it’s illegal to keep wild animals.
As a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator, I’ve learned to fight some of my own misguided instincts and step in only when absolutely necessary. I hope this column will help you do the same.
Myth: No baby bird belongs on the ground.
Fact: Baby birds must eventually leave the nest. Though they may seem like fluffy Oliver Twists, fledglings are moving on to the next phase of their lives. Technically, they aren’t great flyers, but most can flutter to cover. Except in the rare event that something has happened to both parents, these little guys are being fed and cared for. Often, all it takes is for a human to step in to “help” to flush parents into the open. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure your own or neighbors’ cats and dogs don’t bother it. If you can give them a day or two, fledglings will be fine.
Myth: Parents will reject a baby bird touched by humans.
Fact: Few birds have a sense of smell. If you’re sure one has fallen from the nest after a storm, for example, you can put them back. If the nest is destroyed, you can even create a new one out of a shallow butter tub with holes punched in the bottom for drainage and secure it in the tree. Trust me, the parents will find them.
Myth: Any baby rabbit without a parent nearby has been abandoned.
Fact: Mother rabbits generally visit at dawn and dusk. The rest of the time, they’re out eating, and the babies are doing what they do best: sleeping. Again, your job is to keep domestic animals and lawn mowers away from the nest. All that’s needed is a little time and quiet for babies to mature. If you’re still not convinced, lay two pieces of string in an X over the nest and check back in about 12 hours to see if mom has pushed them out of the way.
Myth: A baby squirrel on the ground is doomed.
Fact: Again, unless you see visible signs of injury, the baby may have crawled out of the nest or, in the case of a storm, the nest may have been destroyed. Most likely mom is nearby and doing what she can to address its ear-splitting whistles of protest. Again, your task is to watch and wait. If mom hasn’t retrieved the baby within several hours, you may want to step in.
If all else has failed and you need to intervene, here are some steps to follow:
• First contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator like me or call Northeast Kansas Wildlife Rescue at (785) 575-1981 or Operation Wildlife at (785) 542-3625 for advice.
• Secure the animal in a small box that will let in air and place the box half on/half off of a heating pad set on low in the quietest room of your house.
• Don’t give the animal food or water and avoid handling it.