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By Christy Wall and Hilary DeVries
They’re cute, they’re helpless, they’re wild. What do we do if we find them? The New Mexico Wildlife Center can help.
Who doesn’t love baby animals? They’re small and look so cuddly! At New Mexico Wildlife Center, we refer to spring as “Baby Season.” During the months of March, April, May and June, many species give birth to their young. Very few animals care for their babies the same way that humans do. Mother animals often spend large periods of time away from their babies. This action can help protect the babies by drawing less attention to the young animals and enabling them to hide from predators. How do different animals care for their babies? What should we do if we find baby animals who look like they need help? When should animals be left alone, and when should you call the New Mexico Wildlife Center? It is important to remember that even though they are adorable and look defenseless, baby animals are still wild animals.
Mother bunnies make a nest. Often these nests are in plain sight, such as in the middle of a yard. Bunny nests are usually constructed of grass. When the babies are born, Mama does not sit on the nest. In fact, the mother bunny only visits the nest in the early morning and at dusk! During these visits, she will feed her babies. Because baby rabbits spend most of their time alone, when people encounter a nest of baby rabbits they often think that they are abandoned. If you find a nest of baby bunnies and are concerned that their mother is no longer caring for them, you can place a circle of yarn around the nest or sprinkle cornstarch around the nest. Check it the next day. If the yarn is disturbed or if the babies have cornstarch on them, the mother bunny came back to care for her babies. Do not relocate bunny nests! Rabbits memorize the exact locations of the nest to find their babies. If the nest is moved, they will not search for it. If you find an injured baby bunny or have questions about how to protect a bunny nest, give us a call.
Songbirds also create a nest for their babies. Unlike rabbits, the mother bird sits on her eggs to keep them warm. Baby birds that have hatched within the last three days are calling “hatchlings.” These babies don’t have feathers and must be in their nest to be cared for. Once baby birds grow some feathers, they are called “nestlings” and still need their parents for survival. As nestlings grow and get flight feathers, they become “fledglings.” As the name suggests, this is when baby birds try to fly. Most fledglings leave the nest before they can fly. Mom and dad still hang around to feed their fledglings, but it can take up to a week for the babies to learn to fly.
If you find a nestling or hatchling on the ground and cannot locate a nest, place it in a box, keep it warm, and call us for advice. If you find a fledgling on the ground and think it’s in danger (from a cat, a dog, a road, etc.), place it on a higher surface. The bird’s parents won’t abandon it if you touch it! If the entire nest has fallen to the ground, or you can’t find or reach the nest, you can make a homemade nest. Take a plastic container with sides just tall enough that the baby won’t roll out, poke holes in the bottom, and line it with torn paper towels. Nail or tie it as close to the original nest as possible. Put the baby back in its new nest, and keep an eye on it from a distance for 15 minutes to see if the parents return. Birds are fast and will stay to feed the babies for less than a minute. Baby birds with obvious injuries should be brought to a wildlife rehabilitator.
Mice make nests for their babies, too. For the first two weeks of their lives, baby mice must be fed every two hours, even during the night, so mama mice are very busy. Baby mice sometimes appear after their mother has been caught in a trap. If you find baby mice and think the mother is still around, you can make a nest of torn up paper towels. Leave the babies alone for one to two hours. If the mother mouse is still around, she will relocate the babies. If the mother does not return, line a small box with rags to transport them to a wildlife rehabilitator. Make sure to keep the babies in a warm, dark and quiet area, and do not attempt to feed them.
Elk and Antelope If you’re really lucky, in the spring you may see a fawn or an elk calf. Mother deer, elk and antelope leave their spotted babies alone, typically in a relatively safe area with good cover, while they forage. The babies can be on their own for several hours at a time. If you see one of these hidden little ones, do not approach them. Leave the area so that its mother feels that it’s safe to return. Make sure to keep your dog on leash or inside until the mother returns. Signs that the baby could be orphaned include a sunken face, extremely obvious ribs and hips, unkempt appearance with ticks and brambles in their fur, and uncontrollable crying. If you are concerned that the baby has been abandoned, give us a call, or call the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish.
Raising Baby Animals
Raising baby animals without professional help is very difficult. Many babies cannot survive without a very specific care plan. Attempting to keep or raise a baby wild animal is also illegal without the proper permit. While it’s very tempting to hang on to a baby bunny (after all, they’re so cute!), its best chance of survival is to stay with its family. If all else fails, call a licensed rehabilitator. It’s important to call us before you pick up or transport an animal to us, because even over the phone we can prevent unintentional kidnapping of baby animals. One phone call may lead to a baby successfully being reunited with its parents.
If you find an animal that you suspect needs human help, never give it any food or water until speaking with a rehabilitator. Every species of animal has a different milk formula, and feeding a baby animal the wrong formula can be deadly. In general, even if you have touched a baby animal, the parents will continue to feed it. To prevent spreading or contracting zoonotic disease, always wear gloves if you need to handle wildlife.
If you find an injured animal, or if you have questions about wildlife, call New Mexico Wildlife Center at (505) 753-9505.
Follow New Mexico Wildlife Center on Facebook to keep up with the baby animals we receive into our care this spring!
Christy Wall, Ph.D., Director of Science and Education for the New Mexico Wildlife Center, has been teaching science for over 10 years and has been leading NMWC’s River Classroom Program since 2014. Hilary DeVries, Wildlife Rehabilitator, recently arrived at NMWC after being a staff member and “Raccoon Team Leader” at Wildcare Foundation, a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Noble, Oklahoma.
Photos courtesy of New Mexico Wildlife Center.