June 18 09:57 PM

Where the sidewalk ends...

Irresistible baby wild animals are usually best left in the wild

A doe nuzzles her twin fawns earlier this month at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden Twp. Naturalists warn local residents to watch for newborns but keep their distance from young wildlife. photo by Maria Brown.

April 16, 2008
Most people have good intentions when it comes to fostering the well-being of wildlife. The sight of a hapless chick blown from its nest, or the delicate- looking fawn seemingly abandoned by its mother, is a disturbing sight for tenderhearted folks.

Naturalists at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden Twp. know this all too well. Come April and May, their phone starts ringing and locals at the other end of the line wonder what to do with the scared baby rabbit discovered in their dogs' jaws or the passel of young raccoons who've tumbled out of their tree stump nest.

Often, the answer they'll hear is 'do as little as possible.'

"Lots of well-minded folks think that an animal has been abandoned," naturalist Lois Rheaume said.

That's because many creatures don't care for their young like we humans do.

Whitetailed deer are an ideal example, Rheaume explains.

Immediately after birth, a doe licks her newborn fawn clean to erase any scent it may have. She will nurse it but doesn't stick around for too long, leaving the fawn to curl up in tall grass while she goes to feed herself. The baby is too weak at this point to escape any possible predators, so hiding is its best defense. The mother will come to nurse the fawn two times a day.

"The fawn is well-hidden by its camouflage," Rheaume says.

She's practically stepped on some of the near motion-less newborns herself while taking elementary classes on a walk through the nature center.

"I stepped over a log and actually bumped it, " she says with a smile.

"It got up and ran off."

After three days, the fawn is more mobile but doesn't officially join its family group for another three weeks.

Most important, Rheaume says, is that humans don't handle a fawn.

"It can put our scent on the animal which would attract predators," Rheaume says.

Fawns are born throughout the season, beginning in late April to early May.

Residents can contact the nature center if it is obvious the fawn has been orphaned and is in need of a rehabilitator's care.

Rabbits are another creature that regularly cross paths with humans.

"Often lawnmowers and pets get them," Rheaume said.

"People get the impression that they use burrows but they'll build a nest in taller grass."

If a dog or cat manages to catch a baby without killing it, Rheaume suggests they simply be put back into the nest and the pet be kept indoors. If the nest can't be located or the young ones are in harm's way, simply place them in nearby tall grass and the mother will most likely find it.

Rabbit mothers, just like deer, only come to feed their babies one to two times a day, otherwise staying clear of the nest.

If a homeowner knows for certain that the mother is dead, they may gently place the animal in a box with a sheet placed over it. Place half of the box on a heating pad on the 'low' setting and make contact with the Nature Center to locate a rehabilitator.

Rheaume cautions people to not assume any small rabbit hopping around their yard is helpless.

"They leave the nest after 16 days and can care for themselves," she said.

Spotting young rabbits isn't only a spring occurrence. They can have three litters a year while squirrels can produce up to two litters a year.

As for young raccoons and possums, it's best to leave them alone. Again, despite the appearance of nest abandonment, parents are always nearby.

Then there are the young animals that find themselves subject to the weather.

"After a wind storm, you might see a squirrel or bird on the ground," Rheaume says.

Simply tack a makeshift nest—bucket or basket—to the tree and the mother will return to feed it. In the case of the squirrel, it just might take the young back to the original nest.

"Babies are often relying on their parents for help for several weeks after they're out of the nest too," Rheaume says, citing birds as an example.

"Birds feed their babies out of the nest for a longer period of time than in the nest."

For two weeks, the chicks are considered 'nestlings.'Out of the nest, while still being fed, they're referred to as 'fledglings.'

Eventually the young birds master flying but if their navigational skills are off, one might take a dive into your windows later this spring.

"They can become easy prey," Rheaume says of the stunned birds.

If found motionless under your window, she suggests placing the bird in a paper bag, loosely closed, keeping it outdoors. Check every 15 minutes and once you hear rustling, it's safe to set them on their way.

By law, the average person cannot keep a wild animal. Rheaume says it's a safety measure to protect the species and humans alike.

Humans should steer clear of all animals acting strangely.

"They can carry a number of diseases like distemper, brain worm, West Nile virus in birds and of course, rabies," Rheaume says.

If the situation warrants taking an animal to a rehabilitator, do not try to feed the animal while in your care as it can make them ill or even cause death.

Ultimately, before making any contact with wildlife, Rheaume encourages locals to phone Seven Ponds at 796-3200 for advice.

"We are the resource for any nature-related question," she says.

If you like to look out the window and see a healthy population of birds and juvenile wildlife, Rheaume offers suggestions for making your property critter-friendly.

"To help with the proliferation of wildlife, we need to keep a natural setting," she says.

"More manicuring means less wildlife."

That means leaving brush piles and dead and fallen trees. Woodpeckers, squirrels, racoons, owls, wood ducks and the hooded merganser especially like the old, hollowed out trees for homes.

There's also a science behind setting out birdhouses.

"Often houses are made for the purchaser rather than the birds," Rheaume says, referring to the highly ornamenal types.

"Birds are hole-specific."

Several plans for different kinds of bird housing are available at no charge at Seven Ponds.

Establishing such houses also means a homeowner should monitor who is using them.

There has been a recent campaign to help bolster the state's bluebird population which had dipped dangerously low. Seven Ponds has put up 100 bluebird houses on their grounds. Each has a predator guard to keep raccoons and snakes away. But that's not all. Naturalists will check the boxes for the next 14 weeks and clean out the nests of trespassers including sparrows and starlings, whose population is much healthier at the moment.

While we like to admire nature from a distance, it's quite a different story when they've made homes in our homes.

Rheaume says Seven Ponds staff is happy to help callers figure out the most humane way to keep creatures out.

They frequently get calls about bats, which are best to deal with in the fall. Prior to that they'll be tending to offspring through the spring. By fall, they'll no longer be nesting, which makes for a good time to stop up any holes or crevices they're accessing.

"It's a matter of excluding," she says.

"Make sure there are no openings around the deck and every chimney should be capped. Just make sure there are no babies inside at the time."

Naturalists at Seven Ponds Nature Center are on hand to answer questions 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. They can be reached at 796-3200. The center is located at 3854 Crawford Rd., west of Rochester Rd.

To learn more about the nature center and its programs, visit their Web site at

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