Hands off the baby wild animals

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The hills are alive with wild creatures. In May, white-tailed deer drop fawns, litters of raccoons and squirrels emerge from dens, and bird nests burst with babies.

The temptation to rescue an “abandoned” baby can be overwhelming, but don’t do it.

Wildlife agencies across the country issue press releases every spring asking people to steer clear of baby wildlife.

Hands off

Let me be clear why it’s best to adopt a “hands off” approach. First, it’s illegal. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s not in the best interest of wildlife.

Most of us are not trained to care for wild babies. Rescue attempts by the public often result in dead animals.

This is a job best left to professional, licensed rehabilitators. They are experienced and trained in dealing with wildlife.

Third, capturing wildlife can be dangerous. Mothers may attack when they sense their young are in jeopardy.

An angry deer is a powerful threat, and raccoons, squirrels, and foxes are more than willing to bite attackers. And remember, any mammal can carry rabies.

Admire wild babies from afar. Take photos from a respectful distance. And teach children the same respect for nature.

Remember, it’s a predator’s job to kill and eat prey. That means prey — the young, old, sick, and weak — must die.

Nature’s way

Sometimes victims are just unlucky. Our job is not to protect and save every individual animal we find in harm’s way.

Our job is to ensure that every species has the habitat it requires so life and death dramas can unfold naturally on the ecological stage every day.

I understand that it’s hard to see wild babies abandoned and killed by predators, but rarely are young animals truly abandoned.

Mom is usually nearby watching and waiting for you, the threat, to leave.

In the event that a fawn or baby rabbit is eaten by a coyote or a hawk, it does not go to waste. It provides a valuable meal for the predator and/or its young.

In fact, without that meal, the predator’s young might starve to death.

From a human perspective, this may seem terribly cruel, but that’s how nature works. Teeth, claws, and talons rule nature.

Most animals eventually end up in another’s belly. We must resist the urge to treat wildlife as if they are human.

Birth rates

And remember that the biotic potential of every species is staggering. Cottontails can raise seven litters (as many as 35 young) each year. Squirrels give birth to four of five pups twice a year.

Even species with slower reproductive rates such as bats, bears, porcupines, and eagles have longer lifespans so that, over time, their populations can increase surprisingly fast.

Call for help

If you find yourself with a helpless animal this spring (maybe a neighbor brought it to you because you’re the local animal lover), take it to a nearby wildlife rehabilitator.

Search online for “wildlife rehabilitators” in your area. They give helpless or injured wildlife the best chance for survival and recovery.

And if you really want to help, donate a twenty-dollar bill or volunteer your time to a rehab center. Raising injured or young animals is an expensive proposition.

There is, however, one exception to the hands-off rule. Young flightless birds are often found on the ground.

Songbirds

The reason is that open-nesting songbirds such as robins and cardinals leave the nest several days before they can fly.

If they remain in the nest too long, a predator is likely to find the nest, so they are actually safer spending a few days clambering among the branches of trees and shrubs. But inevitably some fall to the ground.

There they are certain to be eaten by cats, snakes, hawks, or raccoons. If you find a young, flightless songbird in the backyard, pick it up, and get it off the ground onto a branch of a tree or shrub.

Don’t worry about returning it to its nest. The chick’s begging calls will alert the parents, and they will care for them until the chicks become independent.

This is the very least we can do. It’s also the most we should do.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard 3 to 4 p.m. Sundays on 620 KHB Radio or online at www.khbradio.com. Visit www.drshalawaycom or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.

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