In the Spring and Summer it is not uncommon to discover apparently orphaned baby birds and bunnies. The question is do they really need to be rescued?
• The Fledglings
Bird species such as robins, crows, and owls leave the nest and may spend up to 2 weeks on the ground before they can fly. This is part of normal development in the bird’s life. While they are on the ground, the parents will take care of the baby birds and will teach them vital life skills such as finding food, identifying predators and flying. You can identify these “fledglings” because they are usually fully feathered with a short tail and wings. They are able to walk, hop, and may attempt a short flight. Most likely if you replace these little guys into the nest they will hop out shortly afterwards and end up on the ground again.
• The Nestlings
Sometimes baby birds will fall from the nest prematurely. These little guys are scrawny, pink, and may have primary feathers which look like blue tubes sticking out of the skin. You can return these baby birds to their nest. It is a myth that a baby bird touched by a human will be rejected by the parent bird. It is best to use gloves when handling the baby bird. Leaving a human scent on the baby bird will usually not disturb the parent bird, but it may have the potential to attract predators that associate human scent with food sources. If you cannot reach the nest, you can make a temporary nest in a small box or strawberry carton and suspend it close to the original nest. After you replace the baby bird into the nest, stay clear of the area because the parent birds may not return for several hours after there has been a disturbance. Birds have a strong parental instinct and they will usually continue to care for their young.
What happens if the nestling ends up on the ground again? If this happens more than twice, the likelihood is that the parent bird detected something wrong with the nestling and is rejecting the baby bird. These orphaned babies are unlikely to survive regardless of any intervention that may occur.
• Baby Bunnies
Rabbits frequently make their nests in the open, sometimes in the middle of a lawn. The nest is made of long grasses and pieces of the mother rabbit’s fur. The mother rabbit will be in the nest for a short time early in the morning and late in the evening. Do not worry if you do not see the mother rabbit “sitting” on the nest. Rabbits do not nurse their babies for a long time. Believe it or not, baby rabbits can fulfill their daily nutritional requirement by nursing for only 5 minutes a day! Most wild bunnies leave the nest by 11 days old. If you find a baby bunny and his eyes are open, he will be fully able to take care of himself and find his mother. Their eyes open at 10 days and most are totally weaned by 3 or 4 weeks.
If you find a nest of bunnies with closed eyes, it is best to just leave the nest alone. If the nest has been disturbed or if your dog has found the nest, then it is possible to move the nest up to 10 feet away, if necessary. To make a new nest, dig a shallow hole about 3” deep and reconstruct the nest using materials from the original nest. The House Rabbit Society recommends making a tic-tac-toe pattern with twigs over the nest so that you can tell if the mother rabbit has visited the nest at night.
When should you be concerned that the mother rabbit is not returning to the nest? If the babies are crying or feel cold to the touch, the mother may not be feeding the babies. You can check for dehydration by pinching the skin at the back of the neck – if it does not spring back quickly, the bunnies may be dehydrated. If you are convinced that the mother is not caring for the babies, then you can consider intervening by bringing the babies to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Instructions on how to feed baby bunnies until you can transport the bunnies to a wildlife rehabilitator can be found on the www.rabbit.org website.
The take home message is that most of the “orphaned” wildlife that we find are probably not orphaned at all. By removing these creatures from their environment, we are greatly reducing their chance of survival. Their moms are probably in the vicinity and are fully capable of caring for their young. Don’t be an unintentional kidnapper! Nature has a way of taking care of itself!
Thanks to the following for some of the information contained in this article: www.audobonportland.org “What to do if you find a baby bird” and “Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic:” www.rabbit.org K
Co-owner of Valley Cottage Animal Hospital, Dr. Diane Tortorice was awarded her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine in 1991 from North Carolina State University. She joined the Valley Cottage Animal Hospital medical team, becoming a partner in 1999.
Dr. Tortorice has served as a veterinary volunteer at both the World Trade Center and New Orleans animal disaster sites. She has been a member of the Rockland County Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) since 2004 and in 2006 served as the founding veterinary member of the County Animal Response Team of Rockland (CARToR). In 2008, the Westchester / Rockland Veterinary Medical Association awarded her with both the Past-President Award and the Merit Award for leadership and contributions to emergency and disaster preparedness for Rockland County.