The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
Spring is the time for babies in nature: Birds are nesting, bunnies are cavortin’, and deer fawns are dropping like last fall’s leaves. RVers may encounter some of these young animals while interacting with our wild outdoors, whether taking a serious hike or even just overnighting in a parking lot. But do you know how to deal with the inevitable “lost baby”: the bird on the ground, the fawn lying very still in tall grass, or a hutch of baby bunnies in a nearby grass clump? Our hearts tell us one thing, but we need to let reason prevail here.
All species of animals have that insatiable “need to breed.” After all, it’s what keeps a species going generation after generation. Otherwise, we would all be extinct and nobody would be reading this column! That being said, the next stronger instinct an animal can have is to protect its young, almost at all costs. A few exceptions are cowbirds and most fish.
So what do you do when you find a “stranded” baby bird or that fawn in the woods? NOTHING! I emphasize this to encourage you to overcome our own animal instinct to want to help that poor, innocent, helpless creature. They are none of these. Animal parents have ways of protecting their young that we don’t readily see or understand, but it’s perfectly normal for them. Birds that drop out of nests are fed by busy mothers and fathers who spend a lot of time away in nature’s grocery. The baby is watched, usually from a secluded spot that only the skilled birdwatcher can detect. If we would take the time to back away and observe the wayward chick, we would find that the parent is on the job and caring for its youngster appropriately.
With rare exceptions, birds cannot smell. The scent of your hands on the baby has no bearing on whether mom will again accept it after being handled. But don’t. Once displaced by our good intentions, momma bird has to relocate the baby, causing delay in feeding or care. At worst, parents may actually give up looking, thinking the youngster has been eaten by predators. In this case, they might as well have been. Parents may frantically try to lure us away, but we do not notice their efforts as we can’t speak their language, or are more intent on “helping” than paying attention.
If a baby is truly injured, there are wildlife rehabilitators that can care for the patient. These are usually only near larger cities. Even with their training, most of the time there is little they can do. The very best thing you can do is to steel yourself and let Nature take its course. Animals produce more offspring than they can raise, and this “surplus” is not a waste. Predators have babies to feed too. It is part of the grand cycle. Even the soil reclaims its nutrients with the bodies of those who don’t make it to adulthood. Sad to hear, but that is a part of the food chain we dare not break. It is vital to carry on a system that has worked for millions of years, and continues today despite our otherwise good intentions.
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.