It’s hard to know when a baby animal needs help.

by Rebecca Michelin, Director, Schuylkill Center Wildlife Clinic

“I’ve found a baby (fill in the blank). What do I do?” This is one of the most challenging and most frequent questions we receive at the Wildlife Clinic. During “baby season” (typically March through July), we get hundreds of phone calls about injured and orphaned baby birds and mammals and we are often asked to make decisions about an animal with only the caller’s description of the situation. Sometimes the action that must be taken is very clear. If an animal shows any of the following signs, he or she should be immediately placed in a ventilated cardboard box or other secure container and brought to the clinic for treatment:

• Has been in a cat or dog’s mouth (even if there are no obvious injuries)

• Is bleeding, bruised or has a visible fracture

• Is wet, shivering or is cold to the touch

• Has fleas, ticks or other external parasites

We need to stress immediate action in these cases, as the sooner an animal is brought to the clinic for treatment, the better its overall chances will be for a successful recovery and release.

In the absence of these obvious signs of injury and distress, the appropriate response is not so cut and dry. For some infants, it is normal to see them without their parents at certain times of day or once they reach a particular point in their development, even if, to our eyes, they seem too young to be on their own. If you are unsure whether a baby animal needs your help, here are answers to some of the most common scenarios.

I’ve found a baby bird… Without feathers:

Nestlings are newly hatched baby birds that may be naked or have only sparse downy feathers. Their eyes may be closed, and they are not capable of walking, hopping or perching. If the baby you have found is a nestling, the nest is very likely somewhere close by, though it may be well-hidden. If you can find the nest, put the baby back as quickly as possible, then watch from a safe distance for the parents to return. If the nest has been destroyed, you can make a replacement nest out of a berry basket or plastic tub with drainage holes and secure it close to where the original nest was found.

With feathers:

The vast majority of “abandoned” baby birds that are brought to rehabilitation facilities are actually fledglings: young birds that have recently left the nest, are still under the care of their parents and do not need our help. Fledglings are mostly or fully feathered, hop and flap but can’t fly and can perch well on a twig. They are like toddlers – they are just learning how to take care of themselves while still under the watchful eye of their parents. For some species of birds, this stage can last for up to two months. There is little that needs to be done for these birds, other than maybe moving them to a nearby low branch or bush and keeping pets and children away. Remember, many urban bird species like starlings and sparrows make their nests on ledges, in small green spaces or in other odd areas. Just because the baby isn’t in a tree or bush, doesn’t mean it is in the wrong place!

I’ve found a baby bunny… With slick fur and closed eyes:

Mother cottontail rabbits have their babies in shallow depressions lined with grass and fur, often in patches of tall grass along the edges of lawns. They leave their babies alone while they go off to forage for themselves and only return to the nest a couple times a day to nurse, so you will almost never see an adult cottontail at her nest even if you watch closely for several hours. To test if the mother is still caring for the babies, leave a few twigs across the nest in an “x” pattern, then check back the following morning. If the twigs have been disturbed, the mother has come back and the babies are being well cared for. Remember to keep cats, dogs and children away from the nest.

With fluffy fur and upright ears:

Young rabbits develop very quickly and leave the nest at a very young age. A juvenile cottontail will be fully independent at only 6 to 7 weeks old. If the rabbit has upright ears, fluffy fur and is about the size of a tennis ball, it is old enough to be on its own. If it feels it is in danger, a juvenile cottontail’s natural instinct is to freeze in place and try to be invisible; it may become so frightened that it will not run away even if it is approached or picked up! If you are able to pick up a small rabbit, check for any obvious injuries. If there are none, put the rabbit in a sheltered spot like in tall grass or under a bush, and leave it alone.

We are always grateful for the compassion and kindness of people who want to help young animals. Keep in mind that no matter how good our intentions may be, a baby animal’s best chance for survival and for growing up healthy and strong is to be raised by its own parents. Unless they are clearly injured or a parent is known to be deceased, you can rest assured that the babies are being well taken care of.

If you have a wildlife concern that you would like answered in an upcoming article, please submit your questions to wildlife@schuylkillcenter.org

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