The Mistakes Nearly Everyone Instinctively Makes with Stray Baby Animals

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dr. Becker offers step-by-step tips on what to do if you find a baby animal or bird in the wild.
  • The first step is to assess whether the baby is hurt or sick. Depending on the condition of the animal, the next step might be to contact a wildlife rehabilitator. Sometimes, a better option is to simply return the baby to its nest, den or burrow.
  • If you can’t immediately contact a wildlife expert, there are several steps you should take to provide a temporary shelter for the animal – Dr. Becker explains each step.
  • It’s important to have some knowledge of how to handle different species you may encounter, whether it’s a baby bunny, a baby seal, a fawn or a baby bird. Dr. Becker discusses the best way to proceed in each case.
  • Knowing when to leave a baby animal or bird where you find it vs. when to intervene and rescue it is crucial in your efforts to help wildlife you may encounter.

By Dr. Becker

Today I want to discuss what to do if you find a baby animal or bird in the wild. Every year as warm weather arrives, it seems the subject of finding baby mammals and birds comes up, so I thought I’d do a step-by-step video of what to do if this happens to you.

The information I’m about to provide is taken directly from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

Step #1: Assess the Situation and Contact Authorities

The first question is: is the baby animal hurt or sick?

The second question is: are you seeing bleeding? Is there shivering? Is there vomiting? Was the animal attacked by a dog or cat?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you need to call a wildlife rehabilitator. To find one, contact one of the following: your state wildlife agency, your local Humane Society, the Audubon Society, a wild bird store, your city animal control officer, veterinarians who treat wildlife or exotics, a small animal vet who can point you in the right direction, the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol (if you live on the coast and find a marine mammal), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or go to Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.

If you can’t reach a wildlife rehabilitator, call your state wildlife agency, sometimes called the Department of Natural Resources.

What to Do If You Can’t Immediately Contact a Wildlife Rehabilitator

If you can’t reach any of these people or organizations and you are an adult, I recommend that you do the following. (If you’re not an adult, please make sure that you find one, as only an adult should handle a wild animal.)

  1. Prepare a container. Place a soft cloth on the bottom of a cardboard box or a dog or cat carrier with a lid. If the container doesn’t have air holes, you’ll need to make some. For really tiny newborn animals, you can make do with a paper bag that you punch air holes in.
  2. Protect yourself. Wear gloves, if possible. Animals, even if they’re weak or very young, will scratch or bite to try to protect themselves. It’s important to protect yourself at all times. Wild animals commonly have parasites; those could be fleas, ticks, or lice. And wild animals can carry diseases, so you must handle them with caution.
  3. It’s important that you cover the animal with a light sheet or towel. For larger animals, use a thicker blanket. Gently pick the animal up and put it in the prepared container. You’ll need to warm the animal if it’s cold out or if he is chilled, so place about half the container on a heating pad set on low. The other half should remain off the heating pad so the animal has a chance to regulate his own body temperature.
  4. If you don’t have a heating pad, you can fill a zip top plastic bag or a plastic bottle with warm water. Place the warm water at one end of the animal’s container, and open it enough to allow the heat from the water to warm the container. (Don’t open it to the point where the water leaks out, however.) The trick is to leave part of the animal’s container without heat. He will naturally move to a spot with a temperature that feels comfortable.

  5. Next, tape the container shut, or if you’re dealing with a tiny baby animal, roll the paper bag closed. Don’t forget to make air holes before you do that.
  6. Note exactly where you found the animal. This is very important for release.
  7. Keep the animal’s container in a dark, warm, quiet place.
  8. Do not attempt to give the animal food or water. Don’t handle him, pet him, or take pictures of him. Keep children and pets away from him. Let everyone know to just leave him alone.
  9. Next, you’re going to contact a wildlife rehabilitator, state agency, or a wildlife veterinarian. Go through the list above and leave messages. It’s important that you don’t keep the animal in your home any longer than necessary because it’s illegal.
  10. Keep the animal in the container. When you transport him to a wildlife rehabilitation facility, don’t check on him on the drive. Don’t let him loose in your car. Don’t attempt to hold him or keep him warm. Again, just leave him alone
  11. It’s important to wash your hands after contact with the animal. Also wash anything the animal has had contact with, including gloves, jackets, towels, blankets, and pet carriers, to prevent the spread of disease or parasites to you and your pets. 
  12. It’s very important that you get the animal to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. It’s against the law to keep wild animals even if you intend to release them. Please understand that under no circumstances should you attempt to care for a wild animal. Get him to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.

If You Find Baby Bunnies…

If you find baby bunnies and they appear to be healthy, but their nest is damaged, look for a shallow depression that’s lined with fur. If you find the nest, you can place the babies back in the nest with a light layer of grass to hide them. Leave the area, or the mother will not return. Mother rabbits only return to the nest at dusk and dawn, and they nurse for just a few minutes. It is highly unlikely you’ll ever see the mother rabbit at all.

If you find healthy bunnies that are four to five inches long, if they are able to hop with their eyes open and ears up, then they don’t need help. Even though they’re tiny and appear to be very vulnerable or too young to be on their own, they’re quite able to survive at this age. They may be tiny, but they’re weaned and therefore independent. So, just leave them alone. If you have questions you can, of course, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

If You Find a Seal Pup or a Fawn…

If you find a seal pup or a fawn, keep in mind that mother seals and deer normally leave their babies while they go find food. If the baby looks cold, hungry, diseased, or confused, or if there are dogs or other animals or people around that are threatening its safety, you need to call a wildlife rehabilitator or a park ranger immediately.

Otherwise, if the baby appears healthy, leave it alone, and leave the area. The mother will not return if people or pets are nearby.

If the baby mammal isn’t sick or hurt, look for her nest or den. If the nest or den is intact, then place the baby back in it. If you can’t identify her home, you can place the baby in a shallow box close to where you found her. The spot should be warm, but away from direct sunlight. A shady area is ideal.

From a distance, you can watch for mom for four to six hours. It’s important during this time that you stay completely out of sight, as the mother will not return if people or pets are present. If the mother returns, you’re in the clear. If the mother does not return after four to six hours, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Above all, regardless of how cute the baby mammal is, remember that her best chance for survival is with her mother. Also remember it is illegal to take animals from the wild and care for them.

If You Find a Baby Bird…

If you find a baby bird, you should ask yourself the same list of questions as above.

Is the baby bird hurt or sick? Is she unable to flutter her wings? Is she bleeding? Are the wings drooping or uneven? Is she weak or shivering? Was she attacked by another animal? If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then you need to call a wildlife rehabilitator or another person or organization from the above list.

If you can’t reach anyone immediately and you’re an adult, do the following. (Again, you have to be an adult to pick up wild animals, so please make sure you’re securing the help of someone who is mature and able to do this without getting hurt.) Follow steps 1 to 11, as listed above.

If you find a baby duck, goose, quail, or quill deer, and if you know the mother is dead or the baby is injured, again, call a wildlife rehabilitator right away.

If the baby is simply separated from its mother and you know where she is, just put the baby back in close proximity, so the mother can hear it, and you can watch from a distance. If you don’t catch sight of the mother or she doesn’t claim the baby within an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitator. If you can’t reach one, then follow the above steps.

If the baby bird you found isn’t hurt or sick, the next question is: is it feathered? If not, it’s a nestling and needs help.

Can you find a nest? Is the nest intact? If so, put the baby back in the nest and leave it alone. If the nest is not intact, then you can make a substitute nest. Poke holes in the bottom of a berry basket or a margarine tub. Line the basket with some dry grass, and nail it to the original or a nearby tree.

Observe the nest from a good distance away. After several hours, are the parents visiting the nest? If yes, leave the area, as the baby will be fine. If not, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

If the bird is feathered, it’s called a fledgling. Normal behavior for a fledgling is to hop around on the ground. Don’t worry: the parents are still feeding it during this time. The bird could appear orphaned because the mom is not actually nesting with it, but the bird is still being cared for.

Next question: is the bird safe from cats, dogs, and people? If so, leave the area, as the baby is okay even though you don’t see mom around. If there are nearby threats, put the bird in the bushes or on a tree limb nearby. Remove unleashed dogs and cats from the area to protect the baby bird. If this is happening in your backyard, walk your pet on a leash away from the fledgling until it leaves your yard.

You can watch a fledgling from a distance. Are the parents nearby? Are you seeing occasional feeding behaviors going on? If yes, leave the area. The baby will be fine. If not, it is important that you call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Remember: a baby’s best chance for survival is with its mom. It’s important -- if an animal is truly orphaned or injured -- to intervene. However, in most cases, baby animals are mistakenly identified as orphans and inadvertently kidnapped from their mothers.

If you have removed a healthy baby animal, please return it to the area where you found it. The parents will gladly take the baby back. They have a vested interest and they have spent lots of time and energy caring for this baby. They will not abandon it. They will resume care of their offspring. That old myth that you should never touch a baby or the parents will reject it is simply a way of keeping curious kids out of nests and other natural habitats. Animal parents will gladly take their children back.

If the baby is weak, sick, or visibly injured, then thank you for taking the time to rescue him or her. You have probably just saved a life.