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Publication #WEC130

What to Do about Orphaned, Injured, and Sick Wildlife1

Dean Easton, Leslie Straub, and Joe Schaefer2

Summary

At some point in your life, you may find a young wild bird that has fallen from its nest ( Figure 1 ) or a young squirrel that appears to be orphaned or abandoned. Bringing the animal into your home to care for it may be the worst thing you could do. In most cases, the animal's parents are nearby, waiting for you to leave the area. There is a good chance that it does not need your help and you should resist the temptation to provide unnecessary care.

Figure 1. 

Not only would providing this care be illegal without state and federal permits, but wild orphans need exhaustive care and species-specific housing, nutrition, and handling. Examples: Some hatchling birds require feedings every 15 minutes for 14 hours a day with very specialized food. Most very young mammals must be fed specialized formula every 2 hours around the clock.

Even when the most appropriate protocol is followed, humans cannot do as good a job as the real parents.

So, your energies should go to assessing the situation. If the young animal is in good condition, you need to make every effort to reunite it with its parents. If not, you need to locate a wildlife rehabilitator to continue the animal care. This is why throughout every state, there are people who are licensed and/or permitted by state and/or federal agencies.

General Information

Young animals starting out on their own are most likely to be mistaken for orphans. Although these animals often appear helpless, this is a normal stage of development. Some young wild animals can take care of themselves shortly after they are born ( Figure 2 ).

Figure 2. 

Many species, however, require intense parental care for longer periods.

What to look for

If the animal you are observing flies or runs away from you or tries to defend itself, it probably does not need help. Look for signs of sickness (glazed eyes, fly eggs, fire ant bites, irritated eyes or rectum, matted fur or ruffled feathers, visible cuts, cold body temperature, twisted or limp limbs, and weakness) before you try to capture it. If none of these symptoms are present, the best thing you can do is to leave the animal alone and check on it again in a few hours.

What to do

If it does appear to be sick, the best alternative is to call your local Humane Society, County Extension, or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office and ask to be referred to a local wildlife rehabilitator. A wildlife rehabilitator is a person or organization that has received the proper permits from state and/or federal agencies and is qualified to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. Some Humane Society offices do provide care for these animals; however, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not have the facilities to offer this type of service. A rehabilitator will be able to provide advice or be equipped to care for orphaned and injured wildlife.

Some animals become temporarily orphaned when their nest is disturbed by humans' cutting down trees or pruning shrubs. You can fashion a new nest or leave the "orphan" in a place where the mother can find them.

Contrary to popular belief, birds or mammals do not abandon their young when these "orphans" have been touched by humans.

What not to do

Problems do arise when humans scare the parents away and bring the "orphans" inside their homes, effectively separating the young from their parents.

Do not try to give the animal any food or water: It may be harmful. Some animals have specialized diets which change as they mature and by the time of year. If the animal is not given proper nutrition, permanent disabilities can result.

If the "orphan" is very young and aspires (inhales) some solid food or liquid, this can cause pneumonia and eventually death.

Specific Information

Birds

Baby birds go through different stages of development during their first months of life. Young quail, shorebirds, and others born in ground nests develop much like baby chickens. They are covered with downy feathers at birth and can run but not fly soon after they hatch out. However, most birds go through a nestling stage ( Figure 3 ) before they can leave the nest.

Figure 3. 

Nestling Stage. During this period, the young bird's feathers have just begun to develop and they can neither walk nor fly. Some nestlings fall out of nests and end up helplessly floundering on the ground. If you find one of these, look for a nest nearby. If a nest is found, check to see if the young birds in the nest look like the nestling that you found. If so, put it back in the nest. If the nestling does not look like the young birds in the nest or if you cannot reach the nest, you can make an artificial home from a hanging plant pot with drain holes and lined with pine straw up to the lip. Place the new nest as close to the original nest site as possible and leave the area. This should be done quickly as young chicks shouldn't be separated from their parents for a long time. If the parents do not return within an hour, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Fledgling Stage. At the end of the nestling stage, young birds leave the nest. This is the fledgling stage when they sometimes appear awkward. Fledglings are feathered but not yet excellent fliers. During this period, young birds learn to fly and gather food. They are vulnerable prey for dogs and cats. After a few successful test flights, fledglings are capable of escaping most wandering pets. A fledgling should be rescued only if the parents are not around or dogs or cats are a serious threat. Gently pick up the bird and place it on a high branch in dense vegetation. If the parents do not return within two hours, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

Mammals

Most young mammals require longer parental care than birds, but this varies among species.

Squirrels

Baby squirrels ( Figure 4 , newborn; Figure 5 , young squirrel) are not weaned until they are about 12 weeks old, and receive parental care up to 24 weeks or more.

Figure 4. 

Figure 5. 

Raccoons

Young raccoons ( Figure 6 ), usually born in April or May, remain in their den until about 8 to 9 weeks old. They then forage with the mother for about a year while she trains them to be independent.

Figure 6. 

Rabbits

Young rabbits, however, can eat green plants eight days after birth and are completely weaned at age 15 days. Mother rabbits will leave the young unattended during the daylight hours and feed them only twice a day, morning and night. Mother rabbits will not reclaim babies left out of the nest.

Opossums

Opossums do not leave the mother's pouch until they are two months old. They are usually independent when their body length (not including tail) is 7 inches. That is at about age four months .

Cautions

Squirrels, raccoons, and rabbits are the species whose young are mistaken most frequently for orphans, mainly because of their adorable, helpless appearance. It often is difficult to resist handling these cute and cuddly young animals. They are often taken home to be raised as pets. However, in most cases it is illegal to keep wild animal as pets without special permits. By handling these animals, you may be doing more harm than good--you may be endangering yourself as well the animal.

Several mammals can carry diseases, such as rabies, that can be transmitted to humans through bites. And many young mammals can inflict a serious bite. If you must handle a young mammal, use heavy gloves and towels. Moreover, even very young mammals can carry diseases that can be transmitted without a bite.

Wild animals often become unmanageable when they reach adulthood. At this independent stage, they are not good pets. Wild animals are better off left in their natural environment.

Non-native Species

Non-native species cause problems for native wildlife. It is illegal to release the following non-native species in the state of Florida:

  • Muscovy, Peking, or any other domestic strain of duck;

  • feral hog;

  • pigeons;

  • English house sparrows; and

  • European starlings.

If you need help with a non-native species, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to handle the situation.

Final Comments

Young wild animals require much more care and training than most people can provide. It is inhumane to release animals that have not been properly trained for survival in the wild. So remember, be sure that the animal you are about to rescue is a real orphan before you interfere--what you view as abnormal may be a normal part of the animal's life style. Usually the animal that you are trying to help does not need it.

To Find a Licensed Rehabilitator Call:

The nearest Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office:

3900 Drane Field Road

Lakeland, Florida 33811

(863) 648-3200

3911 County Road 2321

Panama City, Florida 32409

(850) 265-3676

1239 SW 10th Street

Ocala, Florida 32674

(352)732-1225

Route 7, Box 440

Lake City, Florida 32055

(904) 758-0525

8535 Northlake Boulevard

West Palm Beach, FL 33412

(561) 625-5122

Or

The Humane Society, usually found in the Business section of the phone book.

Animal Services/Control, found in the County Government section of the phone book.

County Extension Office, found in the County Government section of the phone book

" Or at your local Humane Society or Animal Services/Control offices."

Footnotes

1.

This document is WEC -13, one of a series of the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. First published June 1990, as SS-WIS-006, What to do about Orphaned Wildlife. Revised: March 2013. Please visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Dean Easton, former graduate assistant; Leslie Straub, director of Florida Wildlife Care; Joe Schaefer, Ph.D., professor and former wildlife extension specialist, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.