This spring, as we’re seeing more puppies and kittens for their first veterinary exams, other animal babies are being born or hatched out in the wild–wild babies! Think back to your most recent puppy or kitten, when you had to be very aware of the environment (whether it be your home, backyard, or property) to make sure there were no safety hazards that might endanger your new family member. We should extend the same courtesy to wildlife! To keep both our pets and our wild neighbors safe, be vigilant and keep a close eye on hazards like domestic cats and dogs when there are vulnerable wild babies in the area.
Some species are already caring for young even though there’s still plenty of snow on the ground, like owls. Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesters of the year! You may already see their fluffy, ghost-like nestlings peering down from a nest, but soon they will be venturing out onto nearby branches and even climbing down the tree. They may not be great fliers yet, but they are skilled climbers! Their parents will continue to watch over and care for them even outside of the nest.
This is true of many young birds who leave the nest too early. Bird parents have very little sense of smell, despite what you may have heard, so as long as they can hear their nestlings calling, they will continue to try to care for them. Often, if a nestling has fallen from the nest, as long as there are no other injuries, they can be placed right back into their nest or, if the nest is inaccessible, in a makeshift nest as close to the original placement as possible. Hatchlings and nestlings that should remain in the nest will have sparse feathering or retain fluffy, downy feathers to help them maintain their body temperature. Later in spring, fledglings may be leaving the nest naturally, learning to fly and forage with their parents. At this point, fledglings can look exactly like their parents, except for one thing–they have short tails!
Other wild babies, like squirrels and rabbits, may also end up prematurely outside the nest. Mammals do have a better sense of smell, but they will not abandon a baby because it smells like a human. As with birds, as long as there are no injuries, they can be returned to their nests as well. Squirrel mothers may even come to collect their fallen young if you leave the babies in a warm, safe area at the base of the nest tree or rocks. When it comes to rabbits, our main concern is usually yardwork! Rabbits like to burrow in lawns or burn piles to nest, so be sure to investigate the area fully before burning or using dangerous equipment like lawnmowers or weedwackers. Young rabbits are on their own almost as soon as their eyes open, so if you do find a nest, you shouldn’t have to wait too long for them to move on.
However, if any baby animal has been in the mouth of a cat or dog, they should be taken in to see your local wildlife rehabilitator for evaluation. Even if you don’t see any wounds, our pets can do a lot of damage. They carry toxic bacteria in their mouths that can cause fatal infection from even the smallest of breaks in the skin. Internal injuries can also be dangerous if left untreated. If you see active nests near your home, keep your dogs and outdoor cats out of the area as much as possible, especially as birds begin to fledge and young mammals begin to venture out on their own.
Here in Bend, the Think Wild Wildlife Hospital is officially open to receive patients, from hummingbirds to bobcats! You can call their hotline at 541-241-8680 with any wildlife-related questions. If you do find a wild baby, please call before attempting to care for an animal. The only thing a wild baby needs immediately is warmth and quiet, so if you find an injured animal, the best thing to do is place it in a secure box somewhere away from stressors and provide a low heat source such as a warm water bottle or rice-filled sock. Closets are a good choice, making sure to keep children and domestic animals away. Stress alone can be fatal to many wild animals.
Written by: Lindsay Magill