Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Wildlife Orphans May Not Be Motherless

Pet Column for the week of April 12, 2004

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ann Marie Falk
Information Specialist

Springtime brings an abundance of wildlife babies. When critters start nesting in your backyard, remember that baby rabbits, squirrels, or birds you spot alone may not be abandoned.

Christine Wilmes, a third-year veterinary student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, co-manages the volunteer-run Wildlife Medical Clinic. She advises, "Most of the 'orphans' that are brought into the clinic by caring people are not really orphans. They are neonates that have been 'kidnapped' from their nests. The best thing to do if you find a baby animal in your yard is to leave it alone and give someone knowledgeable a call."

Baby bunnies are brought to the clinic the most. People don't realize that mother rabbits visit the nest only one or two times a day. Often these visits are made at odd hours of the day, such as 4 or 5 a.m., when most humans are still asleep. The mother rabbit is just trying to avoid drawing predators' attention to the nest.

Another interesting fact is that baby bunnies are on their own when their eyes are open. These mini bunnies have been weaned and are capable of taking care of themselves.

Baby squirrels are frequently brought to the wildlife clinic. A baby squirrel on the ground has probably taken a tumble from its nest in a tree. If you can find the nest, put the little guy back in. "Don't worry about touching nests if necessary. It's an old wives' tale that the mother will abandon her babies due to human scent!" says Wilmes.

Have you ever seen a small child learning to ride a bike? That is similar to what it looks like when young birds stretch their wings and learn to fly. "Baby birds are called fledglings. As they learn to fly, they hop around the yard looking very awkward. People often assume the babies have fallen from the nest, not realizing the mom still comes down to feed them," states Wilmes.

One spring a bird decided to build her nest in a crook under the hood of my car parked in the driveway. So until the babies hatched, I didn't drive my car. What I didn't know is that I could have moved the nest to a nearby tree. In an ideal world leaving the nest alone is best. But if a nest has fallen from a tree or you can't keep your dogs/cats from disturbing, it you can move it.

Place the nest in a plastic 1-gallon ice cream container or something similar. Cut several holes in the bottom for drainage. Nail it to a nearby tree as high as you can reach. To protect bunny nests, chicken wire can be placed in a spiral over the top of them. This keeps the dogs out but the mother rabbit can still gain access.

"Don't ever, ever keep wildlife in your home. It is illegal, fineable by state and federal agencies, and generally a very bad idea. Special licenses and permits are required to care for wildlife. The supplies you have at home are not what these animals need. Cow's milk is not appropriate for most animals. Each species has specific nutritional requirements," warns Wilmes.

Catching an orphaned, ill, or injured animal can be quite an adventure. You must consider the safety of the animal and the rescuer. Covering the animal with an old blanket or towel often calms them or makes them freeze. Wear gloves; welding gloves are almost a must for catching large raptors. Keep the animal quiet, warm and bring it to a reputable wildlife organization. In Illinois, you can contact the Wildlife Medical Clinic (217/244-1195) or the Department of Natural Resources (217/782-6384).

"Before you act on good intentions, call and ask someone who has wildlife experience. Any baby animal has the best chance for survival with its mother in the wild," explains Wilmes.

For more information about the Wildlife Medical Clinic, visit their Web site at