Orphaned Wildlife Primer: Creatures of the Sky

Newborn squirrels and birds, generally speaking, belong up in trees, and gravity can be a terrible adversary when your birthplace is so far off the ground. Branch cracks, siblings squabble, wind blows… down will come baby.

Tree-dwelling animals are pretty good at falling. The trip down doesn’t usually hurt them much. They are out of their element on the ground, however, and not as self-sufficient as a deer or rabbit baby. Even so, it is still quite rare for them to be genuinely orphaned and in need of hand-rearing.

Baby birds fall into two categories—fledglings and nestlings. Fledglings have juvenile markings and stubby tails. They have pretty thick feathers and are able to hop rapidly along the ground. Fledglings are learning their way around town and should be left alone;hopping along the ground is a normal phase of their development. It’s a bonus if you can herd them away from a busy street and confine your pets indoors. Nestlings, on the other hand, are usually pinkish with thin, wrinkly skin and tufts of down or feathers resembling porcupine quills. They can squirm, but they definitely can’t hop. If you find a nestling on the ground, he does not want to be there. Locate the nest above him, if possible. If you’re able to reach it, you should gently replace him there. You need not worry about his parents rejecting him due to the lingering scent of human hands. If you can’t find the nest (or it’s too high), line a shallow container with scraps of toweland poke a few holes in the bottom. Attach it to the home tree, as close as possible to the original nest, and give the family their privacy.

Squirrel babies also come in two varieties. One with open eyelids and a brushy-looking tail should be placed on the tree trunk and encouraged to climb. He’s likely to meet his family halfway up. One with a smooth tail and closed eyes is the younger, more fragile, “nestling” version. This one is best reinstalled directly into his nest, but the family home is likely too high for you to reach. Instead,create a temporary shelter out of a small, open box. A sock full of birdseed that’s been heated in the microwave is handy to provide warmthpad it with towels to prevent a burn. Place the box in the nest tree, or at its base, and keep your distance. Recharge your heat source every few hours, and don’t forget to keep pets far away from the scene.

Hand rearing wildlife babies is extremely challenging work. These animals need specialized, professionally prepared diets and environmental conditions that change with their life stage. Some species will stress themselves right into the grave when handled too much by a human. Even at a relatively young age, they can pose a threat to us with their teeth, their claws, and the diseases they may carry. Do not attempt to keep, or even feed, a found baby. If a parent does not retrieve him, transport him carefully and promptly to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

Dr. M.S. Regan