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Wild Things

How to Handle Injured Animal Babies in Nature

Spring is full of new life, including wildlife. Even in our urban settings, we see lots of babies, especially birds. Sometimes these youngsters need some help, but usually Mother Nature is taking care of her own. What should you do if you see wildlife that seems injured or orphaned?

How can you tell if a bird is supposed to be out of the nest? If you find a bird on the ground and it is not fully covered in feathers, then it is not ready to fledge (meaning leave the nest). Check the bird for bleeding or other injuries. If there are no injuries, the best outcome for the baby bird will result from returning it to the nest. Look around in the nearest trees, bushes, and shrubs to see if you can spot the nest. If the baby bird is cold, warm it gently for a few minutes in your hands and place it back in the nest. It is not true that handling a bird will cause the parents to reject it. The parent birds will return to the nest when you leave. If the nest is too high or out of reach, you can construct a substitute nest and place it nearby. The parents will recognize their nestling’s cry for food and feed it. Make a simple nest from a strawberry basket or small plastic tub with drain holes poked in the bottom and place some grass or straw in it. Watch the nest from a distance, preferably from indoors, for the parents to return. If you are sure they have not found the nestling within four to six hours, you should contact a licensed rehabilitator.

Sometimes, you will see a fully feathered bird that appears to be trying to fly, but is only hopping and floundering. This is probably a fledgling, a sub-adult bird experiencing a normal day or so of learning to fly. Just leave the bird where it is, and do your best to keep children and pets away from the area. Parent birds are sometimes close by and will even bring food to their fledgling as it is learning to take off. If you remain too close, the parent bird is less likely to stay and care for its fledgling.

Assume that any bird found bleeding, or known to have been in a cat’s mouth, needs help. The first step is to place it in a box with a lid. Place a towel in the bottom of the box and place a heating pad or other heat source, on a low setting, under the box. Heat sources in direct contact with a bird can cause burns and overheating. Place the box in a quiet and dark area, away from children and pets. Contact the Wildlife Center of Virginia or an area licensed rehabilitator. If your discovery happens in the evening or help is not immediately available, you can keep the bird like this overnight. Unless a licensed rehabilitator or veterinarian instructs, you should not attempt to give food or water.

Caution should be exercised for birds other than songbirds. Herons, with their long pointed beaks, can cause severe injuries to humans trying to help them. Their defensive instincts may cause them to strike at your face and eyes. Hawks and eagles will naturally grasp firmly with their dangerously sharp talons. If you find this type of bird, call local animal control for help.

Other spring babies that sometimes need our help are squirrels and rabbits. Their nests are sometimes disturbed or destroyed, or your favorite dog or cat may have brought  them to you. Finding broken bones or blood means they need help. Just like baby birds, keep them in a box with a lid, an external heat source, and in a dark, quiet spot until you can get them to a veterinarian or licensed rehabilitator.

Sometimes young squirrels and rabbits seem friendly or at least unafraid of people and animals. These are usually juveniles that are exploring life outside the nest. They will survive without your intervention. Just try to enjoy them from a distance and keep children and pets at a distance as well.

Like puppies and kittens, squirrels and rabbits found with their eyes still closed need parental care. Squirrels can be reunited with their mothers. Put some uncooked rice in a sock and warm it in the microwave for about thirty seconds. Put the tiny squirrel in a box with the rice sock. Attach the box to the nesting tree. If the nesting tree has been destroyed, attach the box to the nearest tree. You can reheat the rice sock every couple of hours until the mother returns. If the mother does not return after several hours or by nightfall, contact a licensed rehabilitator.

Rabbits’ nests are easy to overlook because they are very plain. Look for a shallow depressions on the ground lined with rabbit fur. Sometimes the nest is under a shrub, but it can be in an open area. Mothers spend the night in the nest, but may not visit during the day. If you find the nest, simply replace the baby into it and cover it lightly with nesting material or grass. No rice-filled sock or other heat source is required.

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is a world-renowned hospital for injured or orphaned wildlife near Waynesboro, Virginia. Visit their website at for more information. The Need Wildlife Assistance? link at the top of the webpage  offers a host of useful information.

Remember, raising a wild animal in captivity is illegal unless you have both state and federal permits. Rehabilitators are licensed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. A list of rehabilitators in your area can be found on their website:

Kelly Gottschalk, DVM, co-founder of Wellesley Animal in the far West End, has a passion for and background in zoo animal medicine. She serves as the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association’s (VVMA) legislative chair.
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