Animal House: Feral Babies May Not Need Help – The Resident Community News Group, Inc.

Orphan Eastern Gray Squirrel

The first impulse at the sight of a small baby bird, squirrel, flying squirrel, raccoon, opossum or rabbit alone may be to pick it up away from danger and rush to the rescue of wildlife. Wildlife experts say healthy wild babies, old enough to be alone, must be allowed to learn to feed and live independently despite the risks.

Every spring relief organizations are overwhelmed with orphaned, sick or injured babies unable to survive without round-the-clock care. Forced to ration limited resources and staff, they beg the public to leave healthy wild babies in nature.

A cell phone photo of any wild baby can easily be sent to a wildlife rescue to help determine age or health status if needed. There are also basic tips on how to tell if a feral baby really needs help.

First, assess the baby for injury or illness and note the safety of its location. If the baby is in danger, move to a safer location away from sidewalks, playgrounds, or streets. Protect babies from ground predators or raptors and other birds attacking from above. If it’s a baby bird, wait until it can fly safely. If it is a squirrel (Eastern Grey, Southern Flying, or Sherman’s Fox), raccoon, opossum (Virginia Possum), or rabbit (Marsh or Eastern Cottontail), wait until it can climb on shrubs, a tree or disappear under cover.

While it is true that these first hours and days are the most dangerous for newly independent wild babies, both bird and squirrel parents are fiercely protective and continue to care for and nurture their newly independent offspring. In these cases, babies need to stay close enough for parents to hear their calls and find them.

Lifeguard Desiree Pinder with 4-week-old orphan squirrel
Lifeguard Desiree Pinder with 4-week-old orphan squirrel

Sometimes baby birds or squirrels that are still too young to survive on their own are accidentally kicked out of nests by siblings, storms, wind, pruning or tree cutting. According to Desiree Pinder, founder of Hotel for Squirrels Wildlife Rescue, babies in these situations need to be reunited with their parents quickly.

This can be done by playing a recording of baby squirrel calls, Pinder said. His organization recorded the baby squirrels’ calls and put the recording on You Tube. It can be found online at Youtube.babysquirrelcall=orphanGPS. The recording should be played – loud – on a cell phone speaker left near the baby squirrel. If a parent hears the cries, they will quickly retrieve their baby. Take care to deter predators that may react to the sounds. If neither parent picks up the baby squirrel within an hour or two, he is not moving to the trees or covering up and seems too young, consult wildlife rescue.

Feral babies may seem too young to be independent, when they are actually quite old. Eastern gray squirrels open their eyes at four weeks old. At ten to twelve weeks they are weaned, fully haired with bushy tails, able to leave the nest and feed. If they don’t leave the house voluntarily, mom hoists them out.

If a healthy baby bird is found on the ground, locate its nest in nearby shrubs or trees and discharge the baby bird. If the nest has been damaged, pick up and reassemble all the pieces. If no nest can be found, replace it with a small wicker or berry basket. Fill the basket with dry leaf litter, plant lint or twigs (nothing treated with pesticides), straw, feathers, moss or pine needles. Avoid synthetic or non-biodegradable materials.

Carefully tuck the baby into the new nest. Secure the nest to the nearest tree, on a sturdy branch at least eight to ten feet above the ground to thwart ground-dwelling predators. Secure the basket with wire or zip ties. If neither parent returns to feed the baby bird within an hour or two, contact wildlife rescue.

There are visible ways to tell if a baby bird is healthy and old enough to be independent. Hatchlings are completely helpless baby birds with tightly closed eyes and no feathers. The chicks are older with a few feathers, but still unable to fend for themselves. Hatchlings and nestlings must be cared for by parents or they will die of dehydration, cold, exposure to the elements, or be eaten by predators. Nestlings are fully feathered chicks that walk, jump, flutter, test their wings and learn to fly within a week.

Raccoons are caring and protective parents who wean babies at twelve weeks and painstakingly teach them survival skills. Baby raccoons feed at five months and at ten months are independent. They can stay with mom for a year: unusual among wildlife. The offspring often build nearby dens and choose to live in family groups. Vanderbilt University researchers describe raccoons as one of the most intelligent mammals.

Virginia opossums are the only marsupials in North America, with a pouch on the female’s belly where she carries and nurses undeveloped babies. Possums are excellent mothers for breastfeeding babies, but once the babies leave the pouch at two to three months of age and ride on mom’s back to travel, everything changes. If a baby possum falls or separates, it is usually left behind.

Baby opossums are weaned and feed between three and five months, when they become independent. If an opossum’s body, not including its tail, is at least eight inches long, it is old enough to live independently.

“Possums are animals that have changed little for tens of millions of years,” according to National Geographic researcher Nizar Ibrahim, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago. A reason for their evolutionary survival? These omnivores eat almost anything, not just plants and other animals, which is why they have survived since the age of the dinosaurs.

Despite a somewhat negative public image, opossums are among nature’s most treasured mammals. Their natural immunity to snake venom enables them to kill poisonous snakes. Researchers around the world are working to understand their unique body chemistry, to create an antivenom to prevent snakebite deaths around the world, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Possums also voraciously devour thousands of ticks, fighting the spread of Lyme disease. They eat many pests in the garden and landscape, including small rodents and rotting fruit fallen from trees.

orphan squirrel and rabbit
Orphan squirrel and rabbit

The mothers of Marsh and Eastern Cottontail rabbits differ due to their keen sense of smell, extremely high stress levels, and negative reaction to human scent. They are quick to panic and abandon litters if disturbed by loud noises like a lawn mower or even an animal passing too close. Babies are weaned, foraging and independent at four to five weeks. Rabbits are larger, with white puff-puff tails. Swamp rabbits are darker with a barely visible tail.

How can the regular observer determine if a wild baby needs medical help? In all interactions with wildlife, it is safest to wear gloves. If no gloves are available, disinfect your hands. Birds don’t have a very keen sense of smell except for vultures and it’s a myth that birds reject babies touched by humans.

First, notice if there is any obvious sign of distress or injury to the bird or mammal. Look for blood, discharge from the nose or mouth, bodily injury, shaking or shivering, open-mouthed breathing, feeling cold, lameness, inability to hold head or body straight or upright. Are there wet feathers or coat, lacerations or holes, drooping limbs, uneven wings? These are all signs that the baby has been grabbed, put in the mouth, chewed or bitten by another animal.

If a wild baby has visible flies, maggots or other insects, it cannot be returned to the nest or left alone. He must receive immediate medical attention. Birds and squirrels often reject babies that are cold or have injuries. Cold babies should be rewarmed before bringing families together (see box Rewarming Methods).

If there are any signs of distress or injury, the bird or mammal should be promptly transported to licensed Florida wildlife rescuers for medical evaluation and treatment. For safe transport, use a box lined with a pillowcase or soft towel. Never caress or hold the baby, or try to give him food or water. Gently place the baby in the box. Close and secure all sides. Place it in a quiet, warm place, away from rain, direct sunlight or cold drafts. Protect the box against any disturbance or rough handling. Feral babies cannot maintain their body temperature and must be kept warm (see sidebar). Place any heating device under the towel and not against baby’s skin, feathers or fur.

Hotel for Squirrels, an all-volunteer non-profit organization, rescues and rehabilitates orphaned or injured Florida small mammals for release into the wild. Visit their website for more information, to volunteer, to donate, and to see the list of items needed. Free volunteer training and student community service hours available.

Orphan Eastern Gray Squirrel
Orphan Eastern Gray Squirrels

Warming methods

  • Heating pad on bottom under half of box/container
  • Sock filled with uncooked dry rice microwaved for one minute
  • Plastic bottle filled with hot water
  • Microwavable, fabric-covered, pet-safe Snuggle Safe Discs retain heat for hours and can be purchased online.


Hotel for squirrels
(904) 343-5554

REdesigned – Chalet #10
Bayard Village
12561 Philips Highway.
Youtube.babysquirrelcall=orphanGPS: recorded calls from baby squirrels.

Help the animals now to find help on local wildlife based on zip code.

By Julie KernsGarmendia
Resident Community News

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Raymond I. Langston