RALEIGH — State officials encourage everyone spending time outdoors to “look but don’t touch” wildlife, as more sightings of young animals are expected.
According to a release from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, with spring comes a profusion of newborn and young wildlife. As COVID-19 keeps people at home more than usual, sightings have increased, as have the calls to the WRC’s Wildlife Helpline.
“Look but don’t touch, unless absolutely necessary,” said WRC extension biologist Falyn Owens. “In almost all instances, young wildlife should be left alone. More often than not, the mother is nearby and will return when she feels safe to do so.”
Deer, in particular, use a “hider” strategy for the first two or three weeks of their life. At the doe’s signal, fawns instinctively find a quiet place to lay down and stay put. There they will stay, usually for several hours, while the doe ventures away to feed. Fawns have a dappled coat and no scent, so they hide easily in the underbrush, making it difficult for predators such as coyotes and bobcats to find them.
If you find a fawn that is calm and appears uninjured, leave it where it is and check on it the following day. If it is still there and bleating loudly, appears thin or injured or has visible diarrhea, it might truly be orphaned. In this case, contact a local licensed fawn rehabilitator.
“If you do take a fawn out of the wild, but it has been less than 48 hours, please take it back to where you found it,” Ms. Owens said. “A doe will usually try to find her missing fawn for about 48 hours before she gives up. If more than 48 hours have passed, or you have tried to feed the fawn, contact a fawn rehabilitator as soon as possible.”
Fawns are not the only ones that survive by hiding from predators. Newborn rabbits spend their first few weeks hiding in plain sight, in shallow, dirt nests among clumps of thick grass, under low-growing shrubs or in the middle of open lawns. Like deer, the female rabbit will leave her kits while she wanders off to forage, only visiting for several minutes a day.
“We get a lot of calls from people who think they’ve found an abandoned nest of rabbits, when in fact, the kits are just fine and quietly waiting for the mother rabbit to return,” Ms. Owens said. “If the kits appear to be healthy and unharmed, the best thing you can do for them is to cover up the nest and walk away. The mother will not return until you have left the area.”
Biologists also receive a lot of calls about young songbirds this time of year.
Knowing the difference between a nestling and a fledgling can help you make the right decision if you see one on the ground. Nestlings are not yet fully feathered and are too young to survive outside of their nest for long. Fledglings have left the nest, have their feathers and are able to walk, hop or fly short distances. They too are being cared for by the parents but typically at a distance.
“If you find a nestling out of the nest, place it back in the nest as quickly as possible, if you’re able to find (the nest),” Ms. Owens said. “If the entire nest has fallen, you can place it back in the tree.”
Fledglings should be left alone in most cases. They have outgrown the nest and are learning how to survive on their own, so unless they appear to be injured and aren’t in any immediate danger, leave them to it.
Leaving young wildlife alone is not only part of being a responsible steward of nature, but it is also the law.
“Taking a fawn — or most wild animals for that matter — out of the wild and into your possession is illegal,” Ms. Owens said. “We know that people mean well when they want to help what they think is an ‘abandoned baby.’ However, handling a wild animal, particularly a young one, usually does more harm than good. The chances that a young wild animal will survive for long in the care of humans is pretty slim. Even those that stay alive long enough to be released usually lack the skills to survive on their own.”
Ms. Owens stresses the importance of never feeding immature wildlife, which often does irreversible harm to the animal.
If you suspect a young wild animal is truly abandoned, injured or otherwise in need of help, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice. Information on wildlife rehabilitators is available online at ncwildlife.org/Injured-Wildlife.
For questions regarding human interactions with wildlife, visit ncwildlife.org/have-a-problem or call the helpline toll-free at 866-318-2401.