How to Tell if Wildlife Babies Need our Help

So, you’ve found a baby animal and you’re unsure what to do. Here’s how you can tell if your help is truly needed.

Jun 12, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
how to tell wildlife babies need our help

As Spring approaches, wildlife rehabilitation centers around the country will soon be flooded with calls about baby animals. “This baby bird fell out of the nest!” and “This fawn was abandoned by her mother!” are concerns wildlife rehabbers hear every day. But does that baby animal really need your help? At what point should we interfere with nature? And how can we tell?

These questions are vital to take into consideration because the likelihood of an infant animal’s survival decreases significantly in human care. Read on to find out how you should approach these situations.

Where are the animals’ parents?

Fawn in Grass

You’ve spotted a baby animal with no parents in sight. Does that mean help is needed? Most of the time, the answer is no. But there are circumstances in which your help could be required. Some people might be surprised to find out that some mammals can leave their young behind for up to twelve hours at a time!

Wild parents are busy creatures, out foraging for food and nutrients to keep their babies healthy. Hummingbirds are highly attentive parents, feeding their hatchlings every 15-30 minutes. Tree squirrels leave their newborn babies for 2-3 hours at a time. Deer and some rabbits, however, will leave babies for twelve hours. Deer are not nesting animals, so people are often surprised to find fawns curled up alone in the brush. But don’t worry- the doe has placed her fawn in a place she feels is safe and will be back to her baby by the end of the day.

To summarize, a baby animal being alone is not reason enough to “rescue” them. Most are simply waiting for their parents to return!

The 5 C’s: How to Tell Whether an Infant is in Distress

baby raccoons

If you’re worried about a baby animal and call your local wildlife rehabilitation facility, they will likely tell you about the five c’s. This tried-and-true list will tell you if an animal needs help.

  1. Crying: Excessive, frantic, ongoing crying is a sign that an infant is in distress. Sure, you might hear some excited chattering when the animal’s’ parent returns. But calling out continuously could mean a baby is hurt, lost, or hungry.
  2. Coming towards you: Following humans is not a normal behavior for wildlife of any age. An infant chasing or following human beings could mean they are lost or confused.
  3. Covered with blood or insects: This animal needs medical attention from a licensed wildlife rehabber. Insects, especially ants, can quickly kill a baby animal.
  4. Caught by a dog or cat: Any animal who has been caught by a dog or cat is likely to be injured. A single bite from a cat contains deadly bacteria, so that animal needs to get to a wildlife facility as soon as possible to start on antibiotics.
  5. Cold: A well-fed baby should never be cold to the touch. Cold skin on a mammal or bird is a likely sign that this infant is close to death. Note that touching a wild animal is a last resort, and proper precautions (read on) should always be taken.

Found a baby bird? Is it a nestling or a fledgling?

Nestling vs fledgling

Every spring, countless fledgling birds are “kidnapped” by well-intentioned people and brought into wildlife rehabilitation facilities. But did you know that most birds go through a developmental period of living on the ground while learning to fly? A fledgling bird can hop from place to place and might be able to fly short distances. Large tufts of baby down feathers might still be visible. The fledgling is learning to fly while his parents tend to him on the ground. Unless a fledgling is visibly injured, the parents are likely nearby.

A nestling bird has little to no feathers. It looks a bit alien-like, incapable of standing upright, walking, or hopping. If you find a nestling on the ground, call your local wildlife rehabilitation facility. They will instruct you on how to find the bird’s nest, and if it is not injured, you can place it back where it fell from. The idea that birds’ parents will reject it if a human has handled it is actually a myth. The birds’ parents will be happy to have them back!

Wildlife handling precautions and rabies vector species

bat rabies vector

So, you’ve determined that a wild animal needs your help. Time is of the essence. Baby animals are vulnerable and need to get to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. There are a few things to take into consideration before acting.

First, handling is extremely stressful to wildlife. You might have seen viral videos in which an animal in need behaves seemingly calm, almost as if they “know” a person is helping them. In reality, those animals are likely paralyzed by fear. Death by stress is common in wildlife and can take effect hours or even days after the stressful event. Wild animals are not pets, and minimizing stress can save a life. Follow these steps carefully to take action:

  1. Call your local wildlife rehabilitation facility and confirm they can intake the species you are about to rescue. If they cannot, ask them for resources. Explain the situation and be sure that rescuing the animal is the right thing to do.
  2. Use a towel, thick gloves, or another physical barrier to pick the animal up. Wild animals can carry zoonotic diseases and parasites and may bite when frightened.
  3. Place the animal in a dark cardboard box. Cover with a towel.
  4. Do not offer food or liquid of any kind. Newborn animals can easily aspirate or become sick if offered the wrong milk. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  5. Do not pet, talk to, or interact with the animal. Even human voices can be very frightening! Drive them to the wildlife rehabilitation facility as soon as possible. If the facility is closed for the night, place the animal in its box in a quiet, warm corner of your home where it cannot escape, and children or pets cannot access it. A bathroom is ideal! Drive it to the wildlife facility as soon as it opens the next day.

If the animal is a rabies vector species, do not attempt to handle it. If you make any physical contact, many regions will legally require that the animal be euthanized and tested for rabies. You don’t want this to happen! North American rabies vector species are bats, raccoons, foxes, and skunks. Bats carry the highest rabies risk. Call animal control for assistance.

Call your closest wildlife rehabilitation facility before taking action


Your local licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility is the most credible source of information. A wildlife rehabilitator is a person specially trained and licensed to handle and care for native wildlife. A wildlife facility is different from an animal shelter. Ideally, getting in contact with a wildlife professional is the first step to take before attempting to rescue an animal. Getting the right information can save an animals’ life!

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!