What to Do When You Find Wildlife in Distress

By ecoRI News staff

If a baby bird doesn’t have feathers and you can reach the nest, put it back. Your touch will not cause the mother to abandon the baby. (Audubon Society of R.I.)

If a baby bird doesn’t have feathers and you can reach the nest, put it back. Your touch will not cause the mother to abandon the baby. (Audubon Society of R.I.)

“There are some things we can set the yearly clock by,” Audubon Society of Rhode Island refuge manager and naturalist Kim Calcagno says. Each winter, she fields scores of phone calls about weak and emaciated water birds such as Canada geese, loons, grebes and ducks. This past winter, the calls came through in the hundreds, but her work is far from over.

Throughout spring and summer, when people spot baby birds outside of their nests, Calcagno’s phone keeps ringing. Baby birds are often at the mercy of particularly persistent myths. Some people believe, for instance, that a baby bird can’t be reunited with its parents if it’s fallen out of a nest. Not true.

“Parent birds invest a lot of time and energy in their babies, and won’t give up on them easily,” Calcagno says. “Even if a storm destroys a nest, the parents fly around for days looking for their young. It’s easier than most people think to reunite baby birds with their parents.”

Most people don’t know that raising baby birds is highly specialized and demanding. Baby birds need to be fed every 15 minutes from dawn until dusk. Calcagno, who has spent time rehabilitating baby birds, describes the experience as enough to make a person ill from exhaustion. When it comes to raising healthy nestlings, there is no replacement for devoted parents and a community of birds, she says.

When it comes to situations where intervention is warranted, however, choosing how and when to intervene can be complicated. There is no simple set of rules to follow. That’s why the Audubon Society urges people to call an expert before trying to help a bird or animal that appears to be injured or orphaned. The truth is, plenty of supposed “rescue missions” carried out by non-experts are well intentioned but misguided, and ultimately harmful to wildlife.

Sometimes it’s helpful to intervene, but just as often, nature should be left to its own, at times unforgiving, ways.

An expert should always be consulted before intervening with wildlife. Here are a few tips, courtesy of the Audubon Society:

Before intervening in any way with an animal that appears to be injured or orphaned, monitor it from a distance and make some careful observations: What type of animal is it? If you’re unsure of the species, note the size, shape and markings on the animal. Is it an adult or a baby? Where is it located? Did you see it moving? If it’s not moving, how long has it been in the same spot? Has anyone touched the animal? What obvious injuries do you see? If known, what is the reason for the injury?

Call the Audubon Society of Rhode Island at 401-949-5454 or the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island 401-294-6363. During normal hours of operation, injured animals may be brought to the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, 240 Shermantown Road in Saunderstown. Don’t leave animals if the clinic is closed. (The Audubon Society isn’t licensed to accept injured wildlife.)

Here are the answers, courtesy of the Audubon Society, to some fairly common situations:

A baby bird out of its nest, with no visible injuries: If the bird doesn’t have feathers and you can reach the nest, put it back. Your touch will not cause the mother to abandon the baby. If you can’t reach the nest, Calcagno advises tacking a small basket — such as a pint-sized strawberry basket — to the tree, or as close to the nest as possible, and placing the baby bird gently in the basket. If the bird has feathers, leave it alone and monitor it. Juvenile birds that appear to be alone and incapable of flight aren’t necessarily injured or abandoned. A fledgling will hop around on the ground for a while before it learns to fly, and you may notice its parents coming around every 45 minutes or so to feed it. In the meantime, the best thing is to leave the bird alone and not attract the attention of predators to it.

An injured or orphaned raccoon, skunk, bat, fox or woodchuck: Never touch these animals. Secure all pets indoors. Keep children away. These are rabies vector species. Call the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management at 401-222-3070 or your animal control officer. If a person has skin-to-fur contact with these animals, the person must be vaccinated and the animal must be euthanized.

A fawn alone in the bushes, or at the edge of the woods, calling out: Don’t attempt to move the fawn, and monitor it from at least 40 feet away. Note how long the fawn been calling for its mother. A mother deer will leave her fawns to go off and forage. Since her babies are born without a scent, they may remain undetected and the mother expects to find them in the same place when she returns. If the fawn is up on its feet and running around, is visibly distressed or injured, or has been calling for a half-hour or more, call the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

A rabbit nest that seems abandoned: It’s best to observe this nest from a distance and not draw attention to it. Chances are, that’s exactly what the mother of the young rabbits has in mind. She’ll only return to the nest briefly at dawn and at dusk. If she sat on the nest for any length of time, her presence would be a red flag to predators.

An orphaned baby squirrel, bird or rabbit: Don’t feed the animal or bring it into your home. Call the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association or Audubon Society immediately. Mere hours can mean the difference between a relatively healthy baby animal and one that has suffered so much that it can’t be saved.