RALEIGH — Cute baby bunnies are a staple of Easter, but taking young rabbits out of your yard and into your home will likely do more harm than good. Well-meaning people often put young wildlife’s health in danger when they intervene in a wild animal’s natural process of growing up.
As people begin to garden and play in their yards this spring, they may stumble upon young bunnies, fawns and fledgling birds mistakenly thought to be abandoned. The natural response for most people will be to help, but in the majority of cases, one or both parents is a short distance away searching for food and will only return when the coast is clear.
“Wild parents can’t hire a babysitter, so most young animals spend a lot of time on their own well before they can fend for themselves,” said Falyn Owens, extension biologist at the Wildlife Commission. “When the mother returns, sometimes many hours later, she expects to find her young where she left them.”
Owens advises that if you truly feel the animal needs help, the best thing you can do is leave it alone (or put it back) and call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.
Newborn rabbits (kits) spend their first few weeks hiding in plain sight, in shallow holes tucked among clumps of thick grass, under shrubs, or in the middle of open lawns. Rabbit nests can be hard to spot, often resembling a small patch of dead grass. Female rabbits (or does) actively avoid their nests, only visiting once or twice a day for a few minutes, to avoid attracting the attention of hungry predators.
“We hear from concerned people every spring who say they’ve found an abandoned nest of bunnies, when in fact the kits are just fine and quietly waiting for the doe to return,” Owens said. “If they appear to be healthy and unharmed, the best thing you can do is to cover up the nest and walk away. The mother won’t return until well after you have left the area.”
Newborn deer also spend nearly all their time hiding for the first few weeks of their life. After nursing, the doe gives a signal and her fawns instinctively split up to find a quiet place to lay down and stay put. They will usually stay curled up for several hours while the doe ventures away to feed. Fawns rely on a dappled coat and no scent, which make it difficult for predators to find them.
If you find a fawn that is calm and appears uninjured, leave it be and check on it the next day. If it is still there and bleating loudly, appears thin, injured or has visible diarrhea, contact a licensed fawn rehabilitator for advice.
“If a fawn has already been moved from where it was found but only a little time has passed, return it immediately,” Owens said. “A doe will usually try to find her missing fawn for about 48 hours before she gives up. After 48 hours have passed, or the fawn has been given any food, contact a fawn rehabilitator as soon as possible.”
Knowing the difference between a nestling and a fledgling can help you make the right decision if you see a young bird on the ground. Nestlings don’t have their feathers yet and can’t survive outside of their nest for long. Fledglings have their feathers and are able to walk, hop, or fly short distances; they might appear helpless, but have already left the nest are being cared for by the parents — typically at a distance.
“If you find a nestling on the ground, return it to the nest as quickly as possible, if you’re able to find it,” Owens said. “If the entire nest has fallen, you can place it back in the tree, or even construct a makeshift nest.”
Fledglings, however, should be left alone in most cases. They are busy with the important tasks of learning to fly and survive on their own. If a fledgling isn’t obviously injured or in any immediate danger, leave them to it. Like human toddlers, young birds need tons of practice to gain the muscles and coordination to become graceful adults. Keeping cats inside and dogs on leash are the best way to assure these young birds make it through this vulnerable learning stage.
Obey the Law
Leaving young wildlife alone is not only part of being a responsible steward of nature, but it is also the law.
“Taking most wild animals out of the wild and into your possession is illegal,” Owens said. “The chances that a young wild animal will survive in human care are slim at best. Even those that live long enough to be released won’t have developed the skills to survive on their own.”
Owens also stresses the importance of never feeding young wildlife, which can lead to irreversible harm, and is often fatal for the animal.
“When in doubt, contact a professional before you do anything,” she advises. “Each spring, wildlife rehabilitators take in a lot of young that are malnourished, sick, or injured from well-meaning people trying to provide care.”
And one final piece of advice: It’s best to leave the animal where you found it, even if someone has picked it up or touched it. Wild parents almost never abandon their young, even if they detect human scent.