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 Orphaned


Pet Column for the week of April 10, 2006


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

Spring is here, a time for us to enjoy singing birds, hopping bunnies and the swishing of the squirrels' tails. This is also the time when wildlife lovers may come across of nest of baby wildlife and, presuming the critters are orphaned, may try to take care of them or bring them to a veterinary clinic.

Derek Paul, third year student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and student manager of the school's Wildlife Medical Clinic, explains, "More often than not, the animals that are brought to us as orphans actually come from a viable nest and are perfectly healthy. They are brought in by well-intentioned people who may not have the information at hand to assess the situation."

When bunnies are taken from their mothers, their chances for survival are very slim. "There's no substitute for mom," Paul notes. "We try to mimic Mom as best we can but don't do very good job of it; bunnies have very small mouths and most will not suckle from bottle or syringe, so we have to tube feed them (by placing a tube down the esophagus and into stomach) which is very stressful." Stress can be detrimental, even fatal for young wildlife. "Also, as soon as their eyes open and they see predators around (humans) they become even more stressed."

"We can keep young birds alive here in the clinic but they cannot survive in the wild without learning survival skills from their parents." Unfortunately, humans don't do a very good job at teaching them, and in the end, they probably don't survive as well once they are released in to the wild.

Paul explains that rabbits are commonly "kidnapped" because their mother only visits the nest about two times a day. "The mother very specifically comes at dawn and dusk under the cover of darkness, so predators cannot see where her nest is." The predators she is hiding from include humans. "Typically, when people find a nest of bunnies, they will watch it for a couple hours, and if they don't see the mother, will assume mother has abandoned the babies and bring them to us."

Many people believe that wild animals will reject her babies once they have been touched by humans. "This is the biggest myth we deal with here at the Wildlife Clinic. The maternal instinct is much stronger than any stinky human smell, and animals will not abandon their young if you have touched them. You can put the babies back where you found them and the mother will still care for them."

If you find a nest full of bunnies, there are a few things you can do to see if the nest truly has been abandoned. "With bunnies, if you suspect something has happened to Mom, go to the nest and cross a few sticks over the front of the nest. Check back in about 12 hours, and if the sticks have been moved, mom has been there. If the sticks haven't been moved within 12-24 hours, you should call the proper authorities."

"Also, if you see warm, wriggly, fat, full-bellied bunnies, mom had recently been there to feed them. However, if they are cold, lethargic, don't want to move, and appear thin, then you want to take them to someone who is licensed to care for them."

Songbird babies are often found on the ground after a storm has knocked a nest out of a tree. Try to get the nest back up where it was, since bird parents often come back for their babies. If the nest is destroyed, put as much of the nest as you can in a plastic disposable container, such as a margarine tub. You can add extra grass, leaves, or sticks, poke a few holes in the bottom for drainage and poke holes in the side and use string to tie the new nest to a tree branch.

"Mom and dad won't know the difference. As long as they see those baby mouths opening to get fed and hear them chirping for food, they will come down and take care of them." Once you put the nest back up, stay away for a few hours since humans are considered predators by most birds.

If youre concerned, Paul says "Look out your window once in a while. As long as you hear the babies cheeping and you see those little beaks popping up at the above the nest, theyre doing fine."

Sometimes baby squirrels will fall out of a tree nest, and if the animal appears healthy, Paul suggests looking for the nest (typically in a hollow area of a tree) and simply putting the squirrel back.

It's illegal for any person who is not properly licensed to bring wild animals into their home and attempt to care for them. If you find wildlife you believe to be sick, orphaned or injured, you should contact your local animal control or state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

For more information on what to do if you encounter sick or injured wildlife, visit the Web site of the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic at www.cvm.uiuc.edu/wmc.