It was a gorgeous spring day; one of those rare times when our central Ohio sky was clear blue, the sun was shining, and it was just warm enough to go without a coat. Everyone was at the park that day, joggers, hikers, pet owners, picnickers, and some simply seeking fresh air. The nature center was busy too, and people arrived with interesting questions as always.
Sadly, I missed the opportunity to answer an important question that I wished had been asked: “How do you know if baby birds have been abandoned, and what should you do to help?”
I found the baby birds on my way back into the office after talking with visitors. The high-pitched chirping sounded too close to be coming from the shrub outside. There on the desk was a small shoebox containing a nest of four baby birds. I frantically looked around the nature center, but no one seemed to notice or have anything to do with the birds.
Without knowing where these birds came from, there was no hope to reunite them with their parent. They looked perfectly healthy; their eyes were shut, they chirped and opened their mouths when I moved close. As much as I love birds, I am not a mother bird, and would make a pretty poor substitute for one. That’s the problem when humans intervene with young wildlife, as Ohio Department of Natural Resources warns:
Humans are always a young wild animal’s LAST hope for survival, NEVER its best hope. A young animal should only be removed from the wild after all avenues to reunite it with an adult animal have been explored.
So now that it’s finally spring again, I hope to share some useful information in case you encounter young wildlife this season.
As humans, we don’t leave our young alone. When we see a young animal alone, our first thought might be that it’s been abandoned. But wild animals have different strategies for raising their young, which are important for teaching them how to survive.
Many animals leave their young for periods of time as they go off to feed themselves. Eastern cottontail rabbits, for example, leave their young right on the ground in a simple nest of grasses. Rabbits will nest in any habitat with food and cover, perhaps your own backyard. The mother is mostly nearby and nursing periodically even if you don’t see her; remember, humans are viewed as predators, so she will remain hidden until you are far away from the nest.
Have you ever encountered a baby bird that has fallen out of the nest? Maybe you were told not to touch it, because the parents won’t care for it when a human scent is on it. This myth isn’t true, but leaving animals alone is still good advice. If the bird you see on the ground is fully feathered, it’s probably just learning how to fly and the parents are likely nearby. If the bird still has its down feathers and you are able to safely return it to its nest, the mother will continue to care for it. Only do this if it’s obvious which nest it came from and you can do so safely,
Spring weather can make life difficult for wild parents, especially when the tree holding their nest is knocked down in a storm. Once it’s safe, birds and squirrels will move their young to another location. I met someone who told me she once watched from her window as a squirrel carried her young one by one from the tangled canopy of a downed tree to another nest in a nearby standing tree (squirrels usually build more than one nest). If you care about wild animals, take these opportunities to watch from afar and appreciate the survival instincts of the wildlife we live so closely with.
However, there are occasions in which a parent does meet harm, whether they are hit by a car, become prey, or perhaps you find an animal with a serious injury. This is when it might be appropriate to intervene. Make observations and ask yourself: Does the animal have an obvious injury such as an open wound or broken leg or wing? Does the animal appear to be sick? Or if the animal is juvenile, did you see its parent injured or killed? If the answer to these questions is yes, seek help from a professional. Call a wildlife rehabilitator, as they have special permits to treat or care for orphaned or injured animals.
Ohio Wildlife Center (OWC) is a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation and education organization located in Powell, Ohio. One of the many services they provide is a hotline to answer questions or concerns about wildlife. Call: 614-793-WILD or check OWC’s website. The Frequently Asked Questions section is especially helpful in deciding what action to take in a number of different situations, as well as when it’s best to leave an animal alone.
Another resource is the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife. They can help find the wildlife rehabilitator closest to you. Call: 1-(800)-WILDLIFE You can also check out their website for information on many different species and topics, as well as a page about finding young wildlife in the spring.
As for those baby birds, I had to bring them to the Ohio Wildlife Center, and I am not sure of their outcome. What I am sure about is that the best thing we can do is focus on preventing injury to the wildlife around us. Here are some ways you can help.
- If you plan to remove trees from your yard, try to wait until autumn to have them cut down (after nesting season).
- Carefully supervise your pets when they are outdoors. Pets cause a majority of wildlife injuries, but in turn, our pets can also be injured by wildlife. It’s best to prevent the interactions.
- Educate your family and friends, including children, about the importance of leaving wild animals alone and enjoying them from a safe distance. Set an example by observing wild animals in their natural habitat.
The more we understand and appreciate the creatures we share this planet with, the better off we will all be. I hope you get outdoors this season to enjoy all the beautiful areas Ohio has to offer! — Colleen Sharkey
Colleen Sharkey is an environmental educator and naturalist whose love for birds has led to a focus on native pollinator conservation. Colleen enjoys sharing her passion for the natural world through workshops, guided hikes and the written word. Find her around central Ohio birding by ear while trail running or studying native plants and insects through a macro lens.