Wild neighbors: what to do if you encounter young wildlife

A small fawn tucked deep under wet vegetation, resting its head on the ground, waiting quietly for its mother.
Photo by Rheajean Walker

There’s something so special about witnessing wildlife close to home — in your backyard, in a local park, or on your favorite walking path. This time of year, these experiences can include seeing young wildlife as spring ushers in nature’s new beginnings.

What happens, though, when you find wildlife offspring alone, with no adult to be found? What do you do? Should you intervene?

Every spring, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) receives calls from people who find young wildlife alone in nature and think they’ve been abandoned. Sometimes, concern for the young animal’s wellbeing drives people to remove the wildlife from their habitat and bring it to a wildlife rehabilitator, or into their own home to try to raise it themselves.

Unfortunately, this “help” often does more harm than good. Just because wildlife babies are alone does not mean they need help! Many wildlife species may leave their young unattended, even for long periods at a time, while the adult searches for food or to keep their own presence from attracting unwanted attention to their offspring. Every year, hundreds of young wild animals such as fawns, baby seals, and baby birds are needlessly “rescued” and referred to wildlife rehabilitators. This can be harmful or fatal to the young animal, and disruptive to wildlife rehabilitators who need to concentrate limited resources on truly orphaned or injured wildlife.

In this article, we’ll discuss several wildlife offspring you may encounter, and when you should (or shouldn’t!) intervene.

A Canada goose swimming with three yellow, fluffy goslings
Photo by Larry James

Wildlife Rehabilitation in Washington

WDFW relies on wildlife rehabilitators to take in wild animals that need care. While WDFW manages wildlife populations on a broad scale, the Department is not equipped to rehabilitate individual animals and values the services provided by permitted wildlife rehabilitators. Rehabilitators are trained and highly skilled in providing the unique care needed for injured or orphaned wildlife, and care deeply for the animals entrusted to their care.

If you contact a wildlife rehabilitator about a sick, injured, or orphaned animal, be aware that rehabilitators — including veterinarians holding a wildlife rehabilitation permit — are volunteers and are not paid for their services, except by donation. In addition, rehabilitators are:

  • Generally not able to provide services to pick up wildlife.
  • Not on-call 24 hours a day, and may be operating out of facilities at their private property.
  • Limited by state and federal permits as to the number and species of animals they may admit to their facility.

Visit our website to learn more about wildlife rehabilitation in Washington. Remember to thank the rehabilitators in your region for the important work that they do on behalf of our state’s wildlife!

Two young fawns curled up resting in tall grass
Photo by Holly Weiler

Baby deer

Baby deer, called fawns, are often found alone by well-meaning individuals concerned that the fawn has been abandoned. However, most fawns spend time alone on purpose! A doe will often leave her fawn alone for long periods to feed herself and to rest. Separating herself from her fawn can also keep her from drawing attention to her offspring. She may only return at dawn and dusk to feed and check on her fawn.

While mom is away, fawns will instinctively lie low and wait for her to return. Fawns are born without scent, so if they remain still and stay quiet, they do not attract carnivores.

Deer may leave their young in odd places, like on porches or in backyards. A doe may leave her fawn in the same spot for several days until it is strong enough to travel with her.

Chances are, if you find a fawn alone, it is safe and healthy. Please do NOT touch or relocate a fawn. If you encounter someone who has made the mistake of moving a resting fawn, you may be able to return it to the wild with these tips:

  1. Rub a towel on grass.
  2. Gently wipe the towel on the fawn to remove your scent.
  3. Using gloves, return the fawn to where you found it. The doe may come back if you return the fawn within 24–48 hours.
  4. Contact a permitted wildlife rehabilitator if the doe does not return.

You should also contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if a fawn appears obviously weak, ill, or injured.

A close photo of a baby robin bird peeking up over the edge of its nest.
Photo by Arnold Hampton

Baby birds

If you come across a baby bird on the ground, it’s best not to interfere. If the bird is fully or partially feathered, chances are it doesn’t need your help. Fledglings (partially feathered birds) typically leave the nest and move on the ground and low branches for a few days before they can fly. During this time, their parents are nearby and continue to care for them.

Unless injured, a fledgling bird should be left where it is. You can help by keeping cats and dogs away from the bird so that it stays safe while the mother continues to feed it.

If you find a baby bird with sparse or no feathers, it is a nestling that has likely fallen or been pushed from a nearby nest. You can give the bird a helping hand by returning it to the nest, if you can find it. It’s best to wear gloves, mostly for your own protection.

Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if you are certain the parents are not caring for the nestling, or if the bird is sick, has drooping wings, is shivering or lethargic, is injured, or has been attacked by a cat, dog, or other animal.

While waiting for or during transport to a wildlife rehabilitator:

  • Find a well-ventilated container, and line it with a clean, soft cloth (not terry cloth) or paper towels.
  • Gently pick the bird up with gloved hands and place it in the container.
  • Keep the baby bird in a warm, quiet, dark place. You can put one end of the container on a heating pad set on the lowest setting.
  • Do not give the baby bird any food or water.
  • Wash your hands and anything that contacts the bird to prevent the spread of disease and/or parasites to you or your pets.
Photo by Melissa Calderon

Baby rabbits

If you see a rabbit in Washington, it is likely an eastern cottontail. They are prolific breeders that nest in shallow holes on the ground.

If you find a nest of baby rabbits (called kits), leave them alone. Even if you see no adult rabbits around, it’s unlikely that the kits have been abandoned. Mother cottontails are very secretive about visiting the nest in order to keep carnivores away. She feeds her young only twice a day at dawn and dusk. By three weeks old, baby cottontails are on their own, even though they are still very small — approximately 4 ounces, about the size of a tuna can!

Cottontail nests are difficult to detect, even in lawns. Check your yard before you mow. Kits are sometimes injured or killed by lawnmowers and weed eaters. Try to stay at least 10 feet away from the nest if kits are present and leave the nest area as undisturbed as possible.

If the rabbit has any signs of injury, illness, or lethargy, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for instructions. If the young rabbit does not exhibit illness or injury and is fully furred with its eyes open, it has left the nest and can survive on its own. If the rabbit is small, eyes closed, and appears weak, try to locate the nest and place the it back. If you cannot locate the nest, call a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.