Jessica Zorge, the wildlife program assistant at Tufts Wildlife Clinic who handles calls from the public during wild baby season, responds
For starters, it’s important that you don’t rush to help every baby animal. Young animals often appear to be abandoned, but that’s usually because their mother is limiting her visits to the nesting area to prevent predators from finding them. A young animal’s best chance for survival is with its parents. However, things sometimes do go awry for the littlest ones, so here’s some general guidance on when and how to get involved. And relax—it’s a myth that birds or other wild animals will be rejected by their kin if they smell the presence of a human.
If you find a baby bird with only some or no feathers, it’s still a nestling. If possible, return the baby bird to its nest. If you can’t do that safely, make a temporary nest from a box or plastic container with a similar depth and diameter as the real one. Drill holes so the container won’t fill up with rain; line it with grass or leaves (not fabric); tack it up as close as possible to the real nest; and monitor it for 12 hours to see if the mother, which always sits on the nest at night, returns. If not, the nestling should be placed with a licensed rehabilitator.
It’s normal for baby birds with all their feathers to be found on the ground. They’re making the tricky transition from being a nestling to being able to fly. You’ll often spot their parents nearby, as birds feed fledglings from above for several days. And although fledglings are very vulnerable, it’s best to leave them alone unless you know they’ve been injured. The exception to this rule are fully feathered baby owls, hawks and other raptors, which should be assessed by a wildlife veterinarian if they are found on the ground, because they don’t go through the same fledgling stage as song birds.
If you find baby bunnies and tons of fur that make it look like an attack has taken place, don’t panic. Rabbits nest by making shallow indentations in the ground, which the mother insulates with lots of her own fur, and they stay away from the nest from dawn to dusk. To check for the mother’s return, lay string in a tic-tac-toe pattern across the nest and return 12 hours later to see if any of the strings have been disturbed. If so, leave well enough alone. Baby bunnies are notoriously difficult to feed and care for in captivity, and you could do more harm than good by trying to get them to a veterinarian. It’s also not safe to move the nest for the baby bunnies, so if you have a dog that goes outside, cover the nest with a laundry basket (topped with a heavy object to keep it in place) during those times your pet is in the yard.
Fawns likewise are best left where they are. Call a wildlife clinic for help if you know for sure the mother deer is sick, injured or dead.
If you find a baby squirrel with its eyes still closed, it still needs care. Put it in a shallow box or plastic container at the base of a tree in hopes that its mother will return and carry it back to the nest. However, do not leave it outside overnight. Come dusk, bring it inside and call a wildlife rehabilitator or clinic.
Whatever the type of baby animal, you can always call Tufts Wildlife Clinic at 508-839-7918 for advice. We are happy to talk you through safety tips (such as always wearing heavy gloves if you must handle a wild animal), and we can refer you to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, animal control officer or rescue group for further assistance with care or transport of the animal. If you are not sure whether to intervene or not, our staff also can review cell phone pictures and discuss possible options. Remember, it’s illegal to care for, feed or keep wild animals unless you’re a licensed rehabilitator—and not safe, either, for you or the animal.