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Orphaned Wildlife

Is that cute, helpless baby wild animal really abandoned? In spring and summer, people frequently find baby wild animals who fall from trees or mysteriously seem to appear, and they assume the babies are orphaned. Whether or not an animal is orphaned depends on the animal's age and species, circumstances and how accurately their behavior is interpreted.

Some animal mothers leave their young alone for long time periods (fawns, rabbits) while others closely supervise them (raccoons). The tips below will help you determine if a given animal is truly an orphan and what to do. If you have found an orphaned animal, do not touch or feed any baby wild animal. If the animal is already in your possession, put the animal in a secure, ventilated container and keep it in a warm, dark and quiet place until an animal control officer can assist. Loud noises can badly stress baby wild animals, and the wrong foods (like milk and lettuce) can kill them. If you must handle the baby animal, heavy gloves should be worn at all times. 

Baby Opossum

Baby opossums stay in their mother's pouch until they are three months old and the size of a mouse. At this age, they ride on her back and sometimes fall off without mom noticing. 

What To Do: If the baby opossums are smaller than 7 inches long (not including the tail), they are too young to be on their own, please call your local Animal Services Agency. If their body length is longer than 7 inches (not including tail), then they're big enough to survive on own.

Baby Foxes Seen with No Parents

Fox kits will often appear unsupervised for long periods of time while both parents are out hunting. If the kits seem energetic and playful, just leave them alone. When they're old enough to go on hunting trips with the parents, they will disappear.

WHAT TO DO: Refer to your local animal services only if the kits appear sickly or weak, or if you have reason to believe that no parent is returning to care for them (or have evidence that both parents are dead). 

Rabbits Alone in Nest

If the nest is intact and the babies are not injured, leave them alone! Like deer, mother rabbits only visit their young 2-3 times a day to avoid attracting predators. So finding babies alone in the nest is normal. If the nest has been disturbed, or if you think the babies are orphaned, you can put a tic-tac-toe pattern of sticks, string or yarn over the nest to assess if the mother is returning to nurse them. If the "pattern is displaced or pushed aside, but the nest is still covered 12 hours later, the mother has returned.

WHAT TO DO: If the tic-tac-toe pattern remains undisturbed for 12+ hours or if a cat has had any of them in his mouth.

NOTE: It is vital to keep cats and dogs away from the helpless young rabbits or they will be killed or mangled. Do not touch the baby rabbits-mother rabbits are very sensitive to foreign smells and may abandon their young if handled. The single most important thing you can do to help wildlife is to turn your outdoor cat into an indoor one! If the cat is not taken in immediately (and kept inside), all the babies in the nest are likely to die a horrible death because the cat now knows where they are.

Baby Raccoon Seen Alone

If the baby raccoon has been seen for more than a few hours, he has most likely lost his mother, since mother raccoons closely supervise their young and don't let them out of their sight much. Often when the mother has been trapped or killed, the hungry babies will start chittering and wandering away from their dens after about three days without mom.

WHAT TO DO: You can put an upside-down laundry basket over the baby (with a one-pound weight on top) and monitor it for a few hours. Ask around to see if anyone in the neighborhood trapped an adult raccoon or saw one hit by a car. Refer to your local animal services agency if the mother doesn't retrieve her cub after a few hours.

Baby Skunk Seen Alone

Skunks are very near-sighted and follow their mother nose-to-tail. They sometimes lose sight of her when a car or dog scatters them.

WHAT TO DO: Monitor from a distance to see if mom returns. You can put a plastic laundry basket upside down over the skunk to temporarily contain him while waiting for mom to return. Approach the skunk slowly and talk softly- if the skunk gives a warning by stamping his front feet, then stand still or back off. Try to approach again after skunk calms down. As baby skunks get older, they sometimes come out to explore while the mother is away. Most of the time, they don't appear without her, particularly during the day. Contact your local animal services agency if you repeatedly see the baby outside alone and/or a dead skunk has been found in your yard or neighborhood. You might want to ask around to see if any neigh­bor has been trapping and recently took away an adult skunk (a common cause of this problem).

Orphaned Duckling

WHAT TO DO: If you know what pond the duckling came from, take him back to rejoin his family. If the duckling was left behind and his origin is unknown (e.g. he was fished out of storm drain or spillway), you can contain the duckling with an upside-down laundry basket. Monitor from a distance to see if mom returns. The mother will see the duckling through the lattice sides of the basket and make contact. If she returns, slowly approach and overturn the basket so she can collect her young. If this doesn't work, contact your local animal services agency.

Orphaned Gosling

WHAT TO DO: Try to reunite the gosling with her family if you can find them. If this isn't possible, know that Canada geese will accept unrelated goslings and raise them as their own. So try releasing the gosling close to a goose family with similar aged young. Monitor from afar to ensure the gosling is accepted. As a last resort, contact your local animal services agency.

Baby Squirrel Fell from Tree

WHAT TO DO: If tree work was done recently, give the mother a chance to reclaim her baby as long as he's unin­jured. Leave the baby at the tree base. Don't cover him with a blanket and don't put him in a deep box be­cause the mother may not find him. If there are free-roaming cats or dogs around, you can put the squirrel in a wicker basket or something similar and attach the container securely to the tree trunk as high as you can safely place it. The baby squirrel must remain within the immediate vicinity of where he fell, or the mother will not find him. 

  • If it is chilly outside, or if the baby isn't fully furred, he'll need a heat source, such as a hot water bottle or a chemical hand warmer. Always place a piece of soft fabric like flannel between the animal and heating device and check to make sure both stay warm but not too hot, you don't want the baby to overheat.
  • Be sure to give the mother an entire day to retrieve her young. It may take her that long to find him or make a new nest. Don't feed the baby, not only because they require a specialized diet, but also because you want his hunger cries to help attract mom.

Call your local animal services agency if the baby isn't retrieved by dark (mother squirrels stop being active after dusk). If the weather warrants, it is possible to bring the baby inside overnight and then attempt a reunion again early in the morning. 

Baby Squirrel Following People/Trying to Climb Person 

Call your local animal services agency. This behavior indicates a juvenile baby squirrel who has lost his mother. This animal needs to be taken to a wildlife rehabilitator. 

Bird Fell from Nest 

WHAT TO DO: Put the baby birds back in the nest if you can, it's a myth that the parents will abandon babies if they've been touched. If the original nest is unreachable or destroyed, secure a wicker basket (available at garden stores/supermarkets, but you may have one around the house) close to where the original nest was. Wicker and other stick-like baskets resemble natural nests and prevent the birds' legs from becoming splayed while allowing rain to pass through so the birds don't drown. However, an alternative nest will only work for older nestlings who are feathered (and can maintain body heat). Make sure the basket isn't more than four inches deep-adult birds will not jump into something they can't see out of. Watch carefully for at least an hour to make sure that the parents return to feed their chicks parent birds can be very secretive, so glue your eyes to that nest! And remember, fecal deposits are signs that the bird is being fed. 

Call your local animal services agency if parent birds definitely don't return. 

Baby Bird Who Can't Fly 

If the bird is almost full-sized, fully feathered, but has short or seemingly no tail feathers, he's a fledgling who left the nest before he could fly. This is normal. The bird will spend a number of days on the ground being fed by parents. Check whether whitish/gray-colored feces are on the ground around him. If so, that's a sign that the parents are feeding him, since baby birds defecate after being fed.

WHAT TO DO: Monitor from a distance and you'll usually see the parents return, but glue your eyes to the bird since they can be quick and secretive. Fledglings are very vulnerable at this stage, so it's essential to keep all pets indoors during this period-especially cats. Call your local animal services agency if the parents clearly aren't feeding the baby bird. 

Material developed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Humane Wildlife Conflict Resolution Guide.