Do's and don'ts of dealing
with injured, orphaned wildlife

It's easy to do more harm than good


Spring is often the time of year when some animal lovers can’t help but intervene if they see a newborn creature that appears to be orphaned or a wild animal that is injured.

But you should be cautious and refrain from acting too quickly or doing something that could cause more harm than good, warn nature and rescue organizations.

"When people come in contact with young wildlife, they may jump to the conclusion that the animal is orphaned and in need of assistance,” according to the University of Illinois Extension’s "Wildlife Illinois" website. “However, most often this is not the case. Many orphaned animals that are rescued each year by well-meaning individuals are not orphans. Young animals are often left alone while their parents are away searching for food."


The website goes on to give wildlife advice and tips for animals that may or may not be orphaned:

  • Do not touch or remove the young animal unless you are absolutely sure that it is an orphan or severely injured.
  • If you are not sure if the animal is orphaned, watch it from a distance so that the parents will not be afraid to return. Many species return to their young near dusk and dawn. A young animal that looks well-fed with bright eyes and clean fur or feathers is probably not orphaned.
  • If the animal does need help, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice.

The extension service's website features a page called "Find a Wildlife Rehabilitator" that lists licensed rehabilitators by county. And the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also maintains an online "Find Wildlife Rehabilitator" list.

Species specific tips

A robin fledgling on the ground.

A robin fledgling at Hickory Creek Preserve. (Photo by Suzy Lyttle)

There also are species specific recommendations from the extension service and area wildlife rehabilitation organizations.

For instance, if you see a baby bird out of the nest, determine whether it’s a nestling or a fledgling, the extension service recommends on its "Help for Orphaned Wildlife" page. Nestlings are not fully feathered. If you find one out of the nest, try to put it back into the nest. If it has more feathers and is a fledgling, it most likely does not need your assistance. One exception to this rule is waterfowl. Ducks, geese and swans do not leave their young alone, so if you see one on its own, call a wildlife rehabilitator.

If a rabbit’s nest appears to be abandoned, but all of the babies are alive and uninjured, leave the nest alone, especially if the babies are alert and have their eyes open and ears up, Barrington-based Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation recommends on its "Found an Animal" page for baby bunnies.

A rabbit with her babies.

Photo courtesy of John Sullivan

Mother bunnies only feed their kits once or twice a day, so it’s most likely she will return. If a bunny is out of the nest, place it back in the nest. If you can’t find the nest, put the babies in a box, keep them warm and call a licensed rehabilitator.

Don't give wildlife food or water

One critical piece of advice from Flint Creek is to refrain from giving food or water to orphaned wildlife.

“The leading cause of death of orphaned wildlife admitted to Flint Creek Wildlife is because well-intentioned members of the public fed the animals before they brought the animals to us,” the group’s website stated.
People who aren’t experts do not have the knowledge, equipment or food necessary to properly care for these creatures, Flint Creek explained.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Willowbrook Wildlife Center urges interveners to interact as little as possible with wildlife unless it truly needs assistance. 

"It's always best for parents to raise their young in a natural environment," the website states. "Unlike humans, songbirds and other young wild animals are not constantly supervised by their parents. They spend much of their time alone or with siblings. Because they learn how to find food and shelter, recognize their parents and avoid predators, people should leave them alone when possible."



If you do wind up handling a wild animal, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly and clean any container you want to reuse with bleach. Wild animals have diseases that humans and their pets can catch.

Also, it’s important to be cautious when intervening with wildlife because of state and federal laws that protect them, the nature organizations advise. Act quickly if you shelter an injured or orphaned wild animal because it’s illegal to hold them for more than 24 hours, according to Willowbrook.

So find a wildlife rehabilitator or call a rehabilitation facility, such as Willowbrook or Flint Creek, as quickly as possible. 


(Lead image courtesy of Paul Dacko)


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