Wildlife Center Contact: (609) 883-6606
TRENTON, N.J. — Imagine walking toward your shed to get extra chairs for the weekend’s picnic. You nearly trip over a tiny, spotted fawn curled up in the grass in front of the shed. The alert fawn silently looks up at you with huge, innocent eyes and doesn’t move, even when you pass by again with an armful of chairs. On the way back to your patio, you see a baby bird beneath a bush; you can tell that the bird can’t fly, but you can hear other birds screaming nearby. Later that day, as you mow the lawn, you see a small rabbit about the size of a tennis ball hop across your path but no parent is nearby. Which of these three animals needs help?
If you answered “None,” you’re absolutely correct. In the spring, nature welcomes a new generation of wildlife. In most cases, the parents of this new generation do an excellent job of raising their young. The fawn, for example, is doing exactly what its mother told it to do: stay quiet and hidden. Fawns have no scent and their dappled coat is used as camouflage. Until the fawn can keep up with its mother as she forages, the mother relies on these characteristics of camouflage to keep the fawn from danger. She is nearby and will only visit and nurse her fawn a couple of times a day to avoid attracting predators.
The baby bird is also behaving normally. Many fledglings can’t fly well when they first leave the nest. The birds you heard screaming overhead were likely the parents, who remain close by to supervise and feed their young as they learn to fly.
And what about the little rabbit that looked too young to be on its own? Young Eastern Cottontails are independent at only four to five weeks of age. At this stage, they are about the size of a tennis ball and fully furred, their eyes are open, and they are no longer nursing.
It is perfectly natural to want to help wildlife - and it is sometimes very hard to resist that urge. We may believe that a young animal is orphaned or abandoned, but that is rarely the case. The parents are nearby, waiting for the human threat to leave so that they can resume caring for their offspring. There is no substitute for a baby animal being raised by its own parents, receiving its natural diet and learning the skills it needs to survive in its own natural surroundings; if we “assist” this baby, we can do more harm than good.
Some people also don’t realize that in New Jersey, it is illegal to hand raise, treat, or keep nearly every species of wildlife without a permit. These laws are intended to protect both animals and humans. Even well-meaning people can harm wild animals by providing inappropriate housing and nutritional or medical care. In addition, prolonged human contact disrupts an animal’s normal behavior and makes it more difficult—sometimes impossible—for the animal to be returned to the wild. And, because animals can transmit certain diseases to humans, these laws protect humans from illness.
But sometimes wildlife does need our help. How can we tell when we should leave an animal alone and when it’s OK to intervene?
- Caught by a cat or dog
- Bleeding or with an apparent injury or broken limb
- Featherless or nearly featherless bird (nestling) on the ground
- Covered with insects
- Evidence of a dead parent nearby
- Tree work – Help prevent animals from becoming displaced by postponing tree work until nesting mammals and birds have grown.
- Nestlings – It’s a myth that birds abandon their young if a person touches them. If a nestling has fallen from its nest, you can put it back if it is safe to do so. If the original nest was destroyed or is too high to reach, hang a small, shallow basket lined with dry grass or leaves close to where the original nest was. Watch quietly and from a distance for about an hour to make sure the parents return to the new nest to feed the nestlings.
- Baby squirrels – If you discover a baby squirrel that has fallen from its nest, give the mother a chance to reclaim her young. If the squirrel is uninjured, leave it where it is. Do not cover it with leaves or blankets, as the mother may not be able to find it. Keep pets away and monitor from a safe distance. If the squirrel is not retrieved by sundown or is injured, read on for information about getting additional help. (Note: A squirrel that is nearly full sized, has a full and fluffy tail, and is able to run, jump, and climb, is independent.)
- Baby rabbits – If you accidentally disturb a nest of rabbits, you can reconstruct the nest and gently put the babies back into the nest using a towel. You can determine whether the mother returns to feed them by placing a few pieces of string across the top of the nest, creating a couple of Xs; if the string is disturbed the next morning, she has returned. Until the babies are old enough to be on their own, try to keep all pets out of the area.
A wildlife rehabilitator can help you determine what additional help is needed and, if necessary, will talk you through how to safely capture the animal and transport it to a licensed facility for care. The main points to remember here are:
- Maximize safety – A wild animal (especially an adult) views anything larger than itself as a predator - including the humans who are trying to help it - and will use its natural defenses to try to protect itself. Protect yourself using thick gloves. Although not all injured animals have rabies, this simple precaution is especially important given the increased incidence of rabies in Hunterdon County.
- Minimize stress – Keep the animal in a warm, dark, quiet place away from noise, pets, and children. The less stress an animal experiences, the better its chances of survival.
- Avoid feeding – Offering food to a stressed or injured animal may not be in its best interest and may do more harm than good. Feeding a baby animal unnatural food (for example, bread or cow’s milk) can cause diarrhea and subsequent dehydration and death.
- Fawn lying flat on the ground, wandering around and crying incessantly, or beside a dead mother
- Animal hit by a car or caught by cat or dog
- Animal that is bleeding or has an apparent injury or broken limb
- Raptor trapped in fencing or a soccer net
- Nestling that has fallen from nest
- Bat on the ground
Doesn’t need help:
- Fawn curled up in the grass
- Young rabbit the size of a tennis ball
- Active young squirrel with bushy tail
- Feathered fledgling on the ground with parents nearby
Woodlands Wildlife Refuge
The Raptor Trust
NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife
Wildlife Rehabilitator Locator
The Fund for Animals
Common Misconceptions about Rabies, Coexisting with Wildlife Fact Sheet #5 www.peopleandwildlife.org.uk/crmanuals/Wildlife%20Factsheet5.pdf