Janice Burleson is tending a quartet of orphaned baby rabbits, including one with a spinal cord injury.

The Oteen animal rehabilitator said this is the time of year of the wildlife baby boom. And with every boom comes either orphans or babies people assume are motherless.

“First it was baby squirrels. Right now it’s baby cottontails,” Burleson said. “I have six and three more are coming in tonight.”

The group of four arrived after someone building a driveway bulldozed through the nest, she said.

“One has a cut. The one with the spinal cord injury seems better and is responding to pain.” She’s hoping the cord is bruised and not severed.

Such is a typical day for a wildlife rehabber come spring and summer.

In Burleson’s five years as a licensed rehabilitator, she’s cared for everything from an abandoned crow to a groundhog with a head injury. Incidentally, both creatures still inhabit her property, having become too dependent to be released into the wild.

“They will live in the same area for up to 20 years,” she said. As for the groundhog, she named it Ginger, and later discovered the mammal was male.

“I’ve seen it all,” she said. “My daughter wanted to be a vet when she was 15. We met a friend who said a good way to get her foot in the door was through the (WNC) Nature Center.”

Burleson’s daughter’s foot is out of the door and onto something new, though Burleson remains in the field, mending and tending squirrels, possums, raccoons, flying squirrels and some birds that don’t require her to have a federal license.

What to do

This is the time when numerous birds, mammals and reptiles are born. That means we humans are more likely to come into contact with them and not know what to do, says Hyta Mederer, president of the Florida Wildlife Hospital and Sanctuary.

“It’s really hard to know what’s accurate and what isn’t,” Mederer says. Take, for instance, the theory about scent — touching a baby bird will cause its mother to reject it because it smells like a human. While this may be true of some animals, such as tortoises, it’s not true of the majority.

“Most animals don’t care,” says Laura Simon, field director of urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States.

Where’s Mom?

While the human scent story is a myth for most baby animals, it doesn’t mean humans should pick up any lonesome-looking baby and rush it to the nearest animal clinic. Many babies found around homes by themselves, in fact, aren’t far from their mothers at all.

“Our perception of motherhood is that mothers stay with their young,” Simon says. “When people find a baby animal, they assume it’s orphaned.”

That’s particularly true of rabbits, which leave their young in safe holes during the day, so as not to attract predators. To test if a rabbit has been abandoned, people can place twigs over the top of its hole and wait 24 hours. If, after one day, the twigs have not been disrupted, chances are the mother has not returned and it is abandoned.

The wildlife baby season has no specific start and end dates, but usually tapers off around late August. Until then, being cautious of feathered and furry “neighbors” and keeping their homes in mind could save lives.

If you find a . . .

• Baby squirrel: If they fall from a tree being cut down, immediately cease the tree-cutting and leave the babies out for the mother to retrieve. If it is cold outside, put the squirrels on a heating pad on low and place a shirt underneath the squirrels so they do not overheat. If the mother does not retrieve them by nightfall, contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

• Fawn: It is normal for mother deer to leave their fawn alone for long periods of time to avoid attracting predators by the mother’s scent (the young are odorless). Call a wildlife rehabilitator if the fawn is wandering and bleating constantly, or if a clearly lactating, yet dead mother is found nearby.

• Rabbit: Baby bunnies often are left alone so the mother’s scent does not attract predators. Only if the babies have been attacked by an animal or injured should you call a rehabilitator.

• Raccoon: If you find a baby raccoon alone for more than a few hours outside, it is a sign something happened to its mom. Contact a rehabilitator. To avoid orphaning baby raccoons, do not use a trap. To keep them out of your garbage, take the trash out on the morning of pickup, not the night before.

• Skunk: Sometimes baby skunks get separated from their mothers due to their poor eyesight. If you find baby skunks, place a laundry basket upside down over them to hold them in place and give the mother a chance to find them. If she does not retrieve them by the next morning, call a rehabilitator. Remember to move slowly around baby skunks. Even babies can “spritz” if they perceive an attack.

• Bird: It is a myth that if a baby bird is touched by humans, the parents will reject it. The reality is birds have strong maternal instincts and the best thing to do if you find a fallen chick is to put it gently back in its nest.

• Fledgling bird: You may think you see a bird with a broken wing, but many birds in June cannot fly yet because they are fledglings. You can tell if their parents still are taking care of them by watching to see whether adult birds fly over to feed them and by seeing if there are bird droppings on the ground. Birds poop right after they are fed, so fecal material indicates his parents are around.


• “The main thing is, people should realize songbirds live on the ground as fledglings for three days before they fly, and people think it’s an injured bird that’s left the nest,” said Michelle Dandoy, office manager at Sweeten Creek Animal and Bird Hospital. “The parents will come back and take care of them. We get inundated with fledglings, which should be left alone. It’s OK to move them to a safe location nearby if they are on a driveway or road.”

• “You can pick them up and move them.” What no one should ever do is touch baby raccoons with their bare hands, she said. “Use an instrument to pick them up. They can carry rabies.”

• Bunnies live on their own at four inches or longer. Leave them alone if they are four inches or greater and not injured. “They die very easily. Put them in a box, give them a little water, no food, and leave them alone until you can get them here or to a rehabilitator,” Dandoy said.

• If you find squirrels out of the nest, observe for a few hours because sometimes the mothers return to retrieve them.

• If attacked by a cat or other animal, bring the bird or small creature in for treatment or antibiotics, she said. If the animal is attracting flies or insects, been hit by a car or has other obvious injuries, also bring them to the vet or rehabber.