Experts from Tufts Wildlife Clinic offer advice on how to know when to help baby birds, bunnies, and squirrels
Seeing a baby animal alone outside can pull at your heart strings and trigger your protective instincts. However, it’s important to take a moment and pause before intervening. In fact, moving the animal can do more harm than good and reduce its chances of survival.
Baby animals are best cared for by their parents. The parents will provide them with the best diet and teach them to find food, avoid predators, and communicate with others of their species, among many other skills.
“A young animal may appear to be orphaned or abandoned, but more often than not, its parent is nearby or out searching for food,” says Maureen Murray, V03, the Gabriel and Valerie Schmergel Term Director in Wildlife Medicine and associate clinical professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
General guidelines that will benefit many wild baby animal species include:
- Restrict tree trimming and cutting to fall and winter.
- Keep pets and children away from baby animals.
- Observe baby animals from a distance only. Too close and you can alert predators or risk the parents not caring for the baby.
- Contact a wildlife rehabilitator before intervening to make sure intervention is in the baby’s best interest.
Keep reading for more detailed info on commonly found baby animals.
Deciding what to do if you see a young bird depends on the age of the bird and the situation.
“If you see a hatchling or nestling songbird—baby birds without feathers—outside of the nest and with no signs of injury or illness, you can place the bird back in the nest,” says Cristin Kelley, V12, assistant clinical professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s not true that parents will reject their baby if a human touches it.”
Fledglings are adolescent, fully feathered birds with short tail feathers. You may see them on their own, hopping around on the ground. They are just learning how to fly and therefore may appear less skilled than adults. While they may seem injured or lost, this is a normal developmental stage. Their parents are likely nearby keeping an eye on them and feeding them from time to time. Unless the bird is clearly injured, it’s best to let it be.
Mother rabbits nest by making shallow indentations in the ground and insulating them with her own fur. They usually stay away from the nest from dawn to dusk while they are out foraging for food. Therefore, seeing baby bunnies in a nest with no parent around is no cause for concern or intervention.
If you identify a rabbit nest in your yard, avoid that area when you are doing yard maintenance such as mowing, and keep pets away from that area.
If you find an uninjured baby bunny out of the nest, you can wear gloves and return it to the nest. If the nest seems to have been disturbed but the babies are unharmed, lightly cover it with natural materials you find nearby—such as grass, fur, or leaves.
“Small rabbits with erect ears that can hop well are no longer dependent on their mothers and can fend for themselves,” Kelley points out.
An uninjured baby squirrel that seems to have fallen out of its nest should be left alone to give its mother a chance to find it and return it to the nest. Squirrels don’t typically leave their babies alone for very long. You can monitor the baby from a safe distance to make sure she returns and keep pets away from the area. If the baby is very young (eyes not yet open, tail not furry), you may want to put it in a small open box where it was found; adding a microwaveable heating pad can help keep it warm.
A squirrel who is nearly full-sized, has a full and fluffy tail, and can run, jump, and climb is independent.
For further information and for tips on other species or injured adult wildlife, please see the “Found Wildlife?” section of our website at wildlife.tufts.edu.
This content was originally published in June 2017 and was updated in September 2023.