Keep safe distance from young in the wild

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Each spring, forests, fields and backyards come alive with wildlife babies.

White-tailed deer drop fawns, litters of foxes, coyotes, raccoons and squirrels emerge from dens, and black bear cubs explore their world.

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. Let me be clear why it’s best to adopt a “hands-off” approach.

First, it’s illegal. State wildlife agencies are quite clear on this point. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it’s not in the best interest of wildlife.

Animal welfare

Most of us are not trained to care for wild babies. Most rescue attempts result in dead animals.
Third, capturing wildlife can be dangerous. Mothers may attack when they sense their young are in jeopardy.

An angry deer or bear is a powerful threat, and raccoons, squirrels, and foxes are more than willing to bite attackers.

And remember, any mammal can carry rabies. Admire wildlife from afar, especially babies.

Take photos from a respectful distance. And teach children the same respect for nature.

Predators kill and eat prey. That’s their job. They take the young, old, sick, and weak.
And sometimes the 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 be conservationists and make sure every species has the habitat it requires so life and death dramas can unfold on the ecological stage every day.

“But I can’t bear to see babies abandoned and killed by blood-thirsty predators,” you say.

Rarely abandoned

That’s understandable, but rarely are young animals truly abandoned. Mom is usually nearby watching and waiting for you, the threat, to leave.

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

These folks are licensed and trained. They give helpless or injured wildlife the best chance for recovery.

And if you really want to help, donate cash or volunteer your time to a rehab center.

Furthermore, a fawn or baby rabbit eaten by a coyote or a hawk 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 may starve to death. From our human perspective, this may seem terribly cruel, but that’s how nature works.

Teeth, claws, and talons rule the natural world. Most animals eventually end up in another species’ belly. We must resist the urge to treat wildlife as if they are human.

Animals reproduce

And remember that the biotic potential of every species is staggering. Frogs and fish lay hundreds or thousands of eggs annually. Squirrels give birth to four of five pups twice a year.

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

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

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 sure 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 a cat, snake, hawk or raccoon.

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. 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 on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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