Last week’s column had barely landed in mailboxes across central Maine when I received a call from a neighbor who had tried to “rescue” four barely-fledged robins from a nest in her back yard. Apparently a “large bird” had attacked the nest, scattering the young ones and killing their mother. Rather than leaving the birds to survive on their own the neighbor decided to save the day by scooping up the baby birds and becoming their surrogate mother. As she quickly discovered, feeding baby birds is a full-time, non-stop job, made even more difficult by the fact that the birds were traumatized and disoriented by the event. Plus, the sudden change in habitation from a serene, secluded nest high in a maple tree to an old shoe box lined with newspaper on the back porch gave the little ones such a fright that they refused to eat and, one by one, succumbed to the ordeal.
Nest-crashing events caused by other birds, squirrels, weasels and other predators are common and usually fatal to nestlings that are not quite ready to fly and therefore cannot defend themselves from attackers. However, human interference also invariably ends badly, despite the well-intentioned efforts of the “rescuers.” Every now and then we hear of a miraculous save when humans intervene but more often than not things do not end well.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife clearly, constantly and continually advises against “adopting” or “rescuing” wildlife simply because the mortality rate following the rescue is so high. It’s the rare bird or animal that can survive the switch from wild to domesticated status – they do not belong in our world and in most cases they die within a few days of being “saved.”
The MDIFW has issued warnings against animal rescues for decades now but folks still feel the urge to save animals or birds they think are in distress. The best, easiest and safest solution is to leave wildlife alone. Theirs is a survive-or-die world from the start and human interference only makes matters worse in most cases. Observe, study and enjoy but hands off – it’s best for them and it’s the law.
I spend many hours each week in the woods or on the water. In the last 50-plus years I have run into all kinds of situations where I thought about saving stranded wildlife but I have found that wild animals and birds have a natural survival instinct that is far more effective than anything I could do for them. The majority of healthy wild things can survive quite nicely on their own. Injured, sick or otherwise incapacitated critters probably won’t survive no matter what we do to help them. The mortality rate even for healthy wildlife is astounding: most wild birds and animals do not survive their first year (particularly in Maine, where winters are harsh and challenging for all species). Few of the common birds and animals we know live more than two or three years. Bigger species such as turkeys, deer, bear, moose and waterfowl tend to live longer lives (25+ years in the case of some bears), but those are the exceptions.
Several times over the years I have found the remains of large animals that apparently died from “old age,” at least judging from their teeth, which in every case were worn down to mere nubs. Once an animal cannot eat its health rapidly deteriorates and the end comes quickly. One particular example was a huge buck that I discovered curled up in a ball on a distant corner of some property that I owned. At first I thought the deer was asleep, but as I drew closer it was obvious that he had only recently died. He was thin and bony, and his teeth were nearly gone. What surprised me most is that I had never seen the deer before, and when I showed the neighbors his picture none of them had spotted him, either. How a deer of that size could live out its life and die within 200 yards of several houses without ever being seen is a marvel and a mystery, but I suspect it happens far more often than we think. It also proves that wild animals can live long and prosper with no help from us.
Before you decided to delve into “rescuing” wildlife, consider that Maine's laws regarding the possession of wildlife are among the strictest in the country. The goal of these laws is to protect the interests of wildlife, the public and Maine’s natural resources. A wildlife rehabilitation permit (available from the MDIFW) allows the holder to possess and rehabilitate debilitated or orphaned wildlife and release it into the wild or euthanize that wildlife if rehabilitation and release are not possible. Keep in mind that any animal or bird you legally attempt to “rescue” may well be too sick or injured to be rehabilitated, which means you will then be responsible for humanely disposing of it. Not many folks find themselves up to the task of killing an animal or bird they have just tried to rescue, but sometimes it’s the only alternative – another thing to consider when faced with a situation where wildlife is in distress.
In the end the best choice when wildlife is in trouble is to call a game warden or animal control officer. They are trained and equipped to handle wild birds and animals and will know the best course of action in every instance. Most animals should be left alone but some may need immediate care or long-term rehabilitation. The average animal lover is ill-equipped to properly care for injured critters and should leave the heroics up to those who know what they are doing. As the old saying goes, “If you care, leave them there.”