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University of Illinois Extension

Wild Babies Do Best in the Nest

May 10, 2013

It's spring time, and that means nature abounds with new life! It's also the time when the Wildlife Medical Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine sees a big influx in patients, including lots of "orphaned" wild babies.

Sadly, wildlife clinic leaders estimate that around half of the "orphaned" animals brought in are perfectly healthy. Some of these animals have been removed from their nest to avoid such dangers as the family pet or tree removal, but more often well-meaning people have "kidnapped" baby animals that are being well cared for by their wild parents.

Wild animals instinctively try to protect their young. For many species, a key protection strategy is to avoid drawing attention to the area where the newborns lie. If the mother detects that her nest is being watched by a potential predator, such as a human, the mother will stay away from the nest completely until the coast is clear. Even without the prospect of danger, mother rabbits, for example, normally spend no more than 5 minutes at their nest per day.

A baby animal out of its nest, however, may just need human help. What to do depends on the age and health status of the animal.

Young birds with feathers are likely fledglings that may be ready to leave the nest even though they are not yet fully able to fly. If the bird is featherless, it needs to go back to its nest as soon as possible. For baby mammals, age is more difficult to estimate and depends on the species. The most commonly found baby mammal is the wild rabbit. If the rabbit is about the size of a tennis ball, looks just like a miniature form of its adult counterpart, and is able to hop around, then it is old enough to survive on its own.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the mother won't feed a baby that has been touched by human hands. If a baby animal has fallen or been removed from its nest, pick up the baby and return it to its nest. If the nest can?t be found, place the baby in a shallow box with grass and place the box near where the baby was found (in a tree for birds, on the ground for baby mammals).

If the baby animal appears too young to survive on its own, it is very important to remember that any baby animal's best chance for survival is with its mother. Even in the best possible scenario, humans will be nowhere near as proficient in care for these delicate creatures as their mothers will. Survival rates for animals raised in captivity can be significantly lower than those raised in a natural setting.

There is also a risk that the baby animal will "imprint" on humans, meaning that it will no longer have a fear of humans. In order for the animal to have a good chance of being successfully returned to the wild, it needs to maintain a healthy fear of humans to avoid harm to itself and to people. This is particularly true for raccoons, deer, and birds, who may pose a risk if they approach people once they are returned to the wild.

If the baby animal appears to have broken a bone or other injury, is very cold, is bleeding, or has been attacked by a predator, the baby animal needs medical attention. In addition to the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic, located within the Small Animal Clinic at 1008 West Hazelwood Drive in Urbana, there are wildlife rehabilitators throughout the country who know how to care for an injured baby animal. The state wildlife agency, a local veterinarian, humane societies, Audubon societies, animal control officers, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service can provide contact information for wildlife rehabilitators.

If it is unclear whether an animal is old enough to survive on its own or needs medical attention, then it is best to contact a wildlife rehabilitator before removing it from the area where you found it.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic has information on ways to help wildlife on its "Wildlife Encounters" educational website: go.illinois.edu/wildlifeencounters

If you have any questions about orphaned animals, contact your local veterinarian or visit the website of the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic at vetmed.illinois.edu/wmc/.

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