The other day, a coworker stopped by my desk: a newborn fawn was curled up next to the building outside, and its mother was nowhere to be found. What should we do? I was glad to tell her that we didn't need to do anything, and that the fawn's mother would be much happier if we left her baby exactly where she hoped to find it when she returned.
I moonlight as a volunteer wildlife rehabilitator, and this is the time of year we start worrying about fawnnappings, and -nappings of all kinds of young wildlife. The people who bring litters of bunnies, fledgeling bird chicks and tiny, curled-up fawns to wildlife rehabilitators certainly have the best of intentions, but the truth is that while wildlife rehabilitators have the skills and experience (and the legal permission) to care for wildlife, about 80% of the time, wild babies don't need any help at all.
Many animals leave their young alone for hours, and it's for their own good. Deer and rabbits park their babies in a safe place while they forage, and only visit them two or three times a day. Fawns spend the day hiding perfectly still in the tall grass, or under the bushes in your yard, while baby bunnies spend the day snuggled up under a pile of grass. Hiding keeps the babies safe, since they're practically invisible to the eyes and noses of predators, and mother animals can search for the food they need knowing they'll find their babies where they left them. Even though fawns and bunnies appear to have been abandoned, this strategy actually protects them from unwanted attention.You may never even see a mother deer or rabbit visit her babies because secrecy is so vital to keeping the young out of sight from predators.
Likewise, there's usually a very good reason for a feather-covered baby bird to be on the ground, and it's not because it fell from the nest. Well, it kind've did, but it meant to be flying! As soon as baby birds grow their flight feathers, they leave the nest and follow their parents as they learn to fly and forage. That first flight out of the nest isn't always successful, though, and many baby birds spend time on the ground while they're figuring out how to fly. Their parents are always watching from close by, though they may wait for you, or your pet, to leave the area before they come down to feed their hungry chick.
While we're at it, let's lay this myth to rest for good: animal mothers will not reject their young if the babies have been handled by people. That's an old wives' tale, and we now know that animals recognize their young in a variety of ways, including scent. It's better not to touch wild babies as a rule, but if you find a featherless baby bird on the ground and you can see its nest, go ahead and pop it right back in the there with its siblings. Similarly, baby squirrels, bunnies, and fawns can sometimes be reunited with their mothers if they haven't been separated for too long.
Sometimes, humans can help
There are some instances where humans can be helpful to young wildlife. If you know for a fact that the parent has been killed, if the baby is injured, or if it's a fawn who is walking around crying or covered in flies, the baby may need veterinary attention. Your local animal hospital may be able to help wildlife if you find an injured animal. I also recommend saving a phone number for a local wildlife rehabilitator in your contacts list. Some state departments of environmental conservation or natural resources keep a list of licensed rehabilitators, and it's good to know who to call for advice or in an emergency. An experienced rehabilitator will be able to tell you if you should bring the babies in, how to catch and transport them, and even whether the babies can be reunited with their parents, which is always a better outcome for wild animals when it's possible.
In almost every other case, the best thing to do, whether you find a fawn, a bunny, or a baby bird, is to leave it where you find it - where its parents expect to find it when they return. People aren't nearly as good at raising wild babies as wild animal mamas are.
What experiences have you had with rescuing baby animals?
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share.