It’s that time of year again. Iowa’s baby bird and bunny season is officially underway. For me, each new sighting of a recently hatched brood of Canada geese, spindly-legged fawn, or baby robin is cause for celebration – a vivid portrayal of the annual renewal of life.
The sightings also serve as a visual reminder for me to fire off this column. Doesn’t take long to put this one together. Filed under the title -- “Leave the Wildlife Babies Alone” -- I’ve been blowing the dust off and rewriting this same piece since the late 1970s. The original version was pounded out on a noisy manual typewriter and then dropped in the mail. Today’s column emanates from the silent keyboard of a laptop computer. Once finished, text and photos are distributed instantaneously through the wonder of the Internet. Times change. But although those methods of communication are galaxies apart, the message remains the same.
From now until mid-summer, this year’s crop of furred and feathered wildlife babies will be leaving home and begin learning the outdoor skills critical to their survival. Many of those babies will be coming into contact with humans. As a result, DNR and County Conservation Board offices across the state will be inundated with hundreds of phone calls and scores of deliveries involving "orphaned or abandoned wildlife." Deliveries – many arriving anonymously after hours -- will include everything from fawns and baby cottontails, to raccoons, ducklings and robins.
Leaning toward the more exotic, I’ve even been treated to the surprise arrival of a box full of “abandoned” skunk kittens – a feat that, I must admit, required the upmost dedication on the part of the person delivering the potently fragrant package.
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This year’s calls and deliveries are well underway. Earlier this week, I talked to one conservation officer who told me that, so far that day, he had been receiving an average of two “orphaned fawn calls” per hour – a new record for the 11-year enforcement veteran. So why do so many wildlife babies end up inside cardboard boxes or confined to a makeshift pen in the corner of the garage? The answer is simple. From fuzzy yellow ducklings to brown-eyed baby bunnies, nothing appears more cute and cuddly than a baby animal. Right or wrong, it's no mystery why humans feel compelled to come to their rescue. But in reality, the vast majority of wildlife babies that people encounter are not really orphaned or abandoned at all. And while those folks who attempt to "save" these babies may have the of best intentions, they are in fact dooming the creatures they attempt to help.
Regardless of whether they’re birds or mammals, the young of most wildlife species leave their nests or dens well in advance of being able to care for themselves. Although broods or litters may become widely scattered during this fledgling period, the developing adolescents remain under the direct care of their parents. White-tail does, for example, will leave fawns hidden and temporarily unattended while foraging for themselves, but return every few hours to nurse their offspring. Unfortunately, this parental care is abruptly terminated when deer [or other wildlife species] come in contact with humans.
Whenever a newborn fawn, infant cottontail, or den of baby raccoons is discovered, it is most often assumed that the animals are orphaned. The youngsters’ fate becomes sealed as they are promptly scooped up and "rescued from the wild." Many babies perish soon after capture -- often from the overwhelming stress of being captured, handled, confined and force fed. Should an animal survive the initial trauma, it often succumbs more slowly to pneumonia, other diseases, or undernourishment.
Whether they’re young or adult, wild birds and mammals have highly specific needs for survival. "Rescuing a baby from its mother" not only exhibits extremely poor judgment -- it is also illegal. Observing wildlife in its natural habitat is a moment to cherish. Sharing that experience with others or obtaining souvenir photos provides an even more lasting memory. But once you've done that, step back and walk away. Leave wildlife babies where they belong -- in the wild. As opportunities arise, I hope you’ll help share this message.