This is the time of year when the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife issues its, “If You Care, Leave Them There,” warning, essentially admonishing Maine’s summer residents to leave baby birds and animals alone rather than try to “rescue” them.
Although humans tend to coddle their young (for decades!) wild critters are not quite as attentive, or so it seems. Birds often leave their nests for several hours at a time, giving us pesky humans the impression that they’ve abandoned the nest. The same goes for deer, moose, bears and other large animals, which may leave their young alone for a day or two before returning.
Part of this behavior is designed to ensure that the young critter will survive the relentless onslaught of predators that it must face during this critical period. Until these animals can run from an attacker their best defense is to lay low, remain quiet and out of sight of marauding carnivores. Most wild young do not emit a body scent, which helps thwart hungry predators, but if a human comes along and makes the fawn, calf or cub move any distance, it’s like shining a light on the defenseless critter’s location. Remember, the woods have eyes and ears; any disturbance will be investigated by curious scavengers that think a free meal may be in the offing. Any time humans put on a display the wild things take notice, and when the people are done taking pictures, gawking and otherwise creating havoc the bad guys move in. A wild animal left alone has a chance of surviving, but one that has been disturbed or exposed is more likely to end up in a predator’s belly.
Even worse is when well-meaning folks decide to “adopt” a wild animal because they are convinced that the mother has left it for good. This is hardly ever the case except when the parent is killed by a vehicle or predator. It is illegal to pick up and carry home any wild bird or animal for any reason, but many people do so thinking (falsely) that they are coming to the rescue, and just like that another wild animal is agitated, traumatized and invariably doomed to die as a result. Very young birds and animals are especially susceptible to succumbing at the hands of their “saviors” because no human can match the intensity of parenting that the average wren or chipmunk mother can render.
The best thing to do when a young wild bird or animal is discovered is to leave immediately without frightening the critter or causing a major disturbance that every other creature in the woods will notice. Keep in mind that these young wild things are not lost, abandoned or dying – they’re simply doing what wild animals have done for eons. They knew how to survive without us thousands of years ago and they can do the same now. We like to think we are helping them but in fact we are seriously hindering their survival every time we draw attention to their location, pick them up or, worse, take them home.
In my youth I would bring home all kinds of wild babies I’d discover while fishing, hiking or just wandering in the woods and not one of them survived my “rescue” attempts. I tried to adopt woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, ducks, geese and all sorts of other birds and animals and every one died, escaped or was eaten by some wandering predator. Some people have better luck with these impromptu adoptions but for the most part the scenario ends badly for the adoptee. I finally learned that the survival rate for wild animals is much better if I just observe them and then leave them alone. When it comes to wild things, human interference is rarely a good thing.
If you want to see more wildlife consider setting up a feeding station in your back yard where you can observe and enjoy them at a safe distance. Expect to have to spend some money on feeders, seed and suet and also expect some damage when squirrels, raccoons and even bears decide to visit your station. The MDIFW’s official stance on feeding animals is not to, but there really is not much compliance on the part of the public. Local agricultural stores and orchards sell tons of feed, seed and apples each year and, at times, even run out of supplies because the demand is so high, particularly during the winter months. I feed them all and accept the consequences (cost and damage), figuring that a glimpse of a Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager, indigo bunting or rose-breasted grosbeak is fair compensation.
I don’t try to capture, rescue or save any of the critters that come to my feeders; I just observe them and study their behavior while they nosedive into the bounty of seed and grain I provide. An occasional hawk or owl will swoop in to steal a songbird now and then but, after all, it is a “bird” feeder and these winged predators are birds!
Feeding wildlife is a choice, of course, but attempting to rescue seemingly abandoned wild babies is not an approved alternative. At this time of year it’s all but certain that you’ll encounter fawns, rabbits, grouse and other wild babies even on a short walk through the woods. Remember that it is acceptable to observe them but not to pick them up or create a disturbance that will surely attract predators to the site. Watch and enjoy but then move on quickly. It’s all but certain that the youngster’s parents are nearby doing what wild parents do and their offspring is in no danger as long as you leave it alone.
Keep in mind that most wild birds and animals can survive on their own by late summer. They’re not real good at it and they don’t go far but they can evade predators and that’s all that matters!