Anyone who spends any time outside is eventually bound to come across what looks like orphaned wildlife. Bunnies, birds, and kittens are the most frequently found and are responsible for the majority of calls for help from veterinarians. People are unsure if they should touch the animal, fearing the scent of a human will cause the mother to reject the baby. People sometimes fear that if the orphaned wildlife was abandoned, it must have been kicked out by the mother because it is diseased or injured.
So, what should you do if you find orphaned wildlife in your yard?
The short answer is “not as much as you think.”
Orphaned wildlife bunnies/rabbits:
Many of the stories regarding baby rabbits starts with “I was mowing my yard.” Imagine mowing your yard, and suddenly you see fur flying out of the discharge chute on your mower. I’ve had that happen, and it is mortifying. You run back and discover a shallow scrape smack dab in the middle of your yard with three, four, even five little bunnies in it or scattered around it. Maybe some of them are hopping away. You instinctively reach out and grab them then panic because they now are contaminated with human scent. Mom will never take them back! Stop. You haven’t doomed them to orphandom. Mom will not reject them because they have people cooties, I promise. Odds are she has not abandoned them, either. Rabbits are savvy when it comes to survival. That nest out in the open in the middle of your yard. That was built there because predators hate to hunt fully exposed. And where is Mom? Shouldn’t a good mom be with her babies? Not if it draws attention to them. Rabbit moms will only visit their nest a couple of times a day to feed and care for their babies. If they are left alone, the kiddos are quiet and sleep and generally don’t do anything to draw the attention of a predator. Mom is usually there, nearby, so the best thing to do if you uncover a rabbit nest is to put the bunnies back, recover them with the grass and fur that was disturbed, and watch from a distance to make sure mom makes it back. Only if you are certain that the mom is dead or injured, or you have observed the nest for at least 12 to 16 hours without her return should you intervene. Collect the bunnies and take them to a wildlife rehabilitation facility as a last resort if you are certain mom won’t be back.
Abandoned baby birds are often found around the base of trees or bushes. Our first instinct is to think that they have fallen out of the nest, but this is seldom true. If you find a baby bird your first task is to determine if it is a nestling or a fledgling. A fledgling has feathers and can hop about a bit while a nestling is unable to get about and still has fluff rather than feathers. If you find it is a nestling it probably has fallen or been pushed from the nest which should be nearby. Place the bird back in the nest or make a new nest safely tucked in a nearby bush. Again, don’t worry about getting your scent on the bird as momma birds do not identify their young by smell. Mom will find them easily enough when she comes back to the area through sight and vocalization. If you find a fledgling, you should leave it alone. Do not move it except to get it out of immediate danger from pets or predators. Fledglings are birds that have left the nest but are still under the watchful eye of their parents. Mom still brings food and keeps an eye out on Junior and his siblings from a nearby perch. Unless the bird is hurt, it should be left where it was found.
Finding a litter of kittens on their own is tough. Baby kitties are adorable and helpless and cute and fuzzy, and often do NOT need your help. Much like rabbits, a momma cat will leave her litter in a safe place while she hunts or naps or just stays away so as not to draw attention to the kittens. Unless the kittens are in obvious danger or injured, they should be left where they are and watched from a distance to make sure mom is coming back. Only intervene if you are certain that the mom is dead or hasn’t returned in several hours. If you do find yourself becoming a foster mom, you should ask your vet for guidance on feeding and care.
All animals have a higher survival rate when raised by their parents. Because of that, orphaned wildlife should be given a chance to be reclaimed by their parents without human intervention. The myth that if you touch a baby bird or bunny or kitten the mom will reject it is unfounded, so if you need to take steps to put the baby in a safer position don’t worry about running off the mom. While our first instinct is to rush in to help to do so can often do more harm than good. When in doubt contact your local vet or a wildlife rehabilitation agent.