Friday, May 14, 2010

Back away from the baby animal

When I was in 6th or 7th grade, my mom committed infanticide.

Surveying our yard after a tornado passed nearby, she spotted an overturned nest, flipped it upright and placed three tiny, bruise-colored birds back inside. Then she remembered the myth that once you touch a baby animal, its mother will refuse to raise it. So she brought them into the house – nest and all.

Sadly, like most baby birds scooped up and swaddled in blankets by people with good intentions and milk-filled eyedroppers, my mom’s trio of early-risers died on the kitchen counter. But even if she’d been able to raise them to adulthood and release them, says Lake Erie Nature & Science Center wildlife director Dave Wolf, they’d have lacked the survival skills that animal parents teach their young.

“When a hawk flies over, and [the baby] sees what mom or dad does, it learns what it should do,” Wolf says. “And, we humans don’t like to think of it, but when a cat pounces on one of [the bird’s] siblings, that’s invaluable learning. That cat means big-time danger, and I, as a baby bird, will do everything in my power to avoid the next cat that comes around.”

The belief that animals won’t raise their young once humans touch them is completely unfounded, according to Wolf, who’s been with the nature center for 15 years. “Our common birds have no sense of smell. In programming, I often make a bad joke and say you could probably dust garlic powder on that baby bird, take it back, and its parents wouldn’t care.”

Mammal mothers, with a keener sense of smell than people, will approach a human-tainted nest more warily -- “but that level of danger is not nearly enough to cause her to go against all those hormonal chemical signals telling her to be a mother and do mother behaviors.”

So what should you do the next time you stumble upon a palm-sized tuft of feathers with big brown eyes seemingly pleading for help?

First, says Wolf, ask yourself if the bird is a fledgling or a nestling.

A fledgling, hopping all over the yard, talking like a kid on a sugar high, doesn’t need human intervention. But a quiet, pink, featherless nestling should be placed back in its nest if you can reach it. If you can’t, place the baby in a flowerpot – or cut holes in the bottom of a margarine tub so it doesn’t fill up with rain water – and hang it from a branch. The mom will hear her child chirping and come to its rescue.

When in doubt, says Wolf, call the nature center at 440-871-2900 or download its baby wildlife fact sheet (pdf). Each year, the center examines 1,000 baby animals, three-quarters of which are suburban birds like robins and sparrows.

Tomorrow at 3 p.m., the center, located at 28728 Wolf Road in Bay Village, hosts “The Ins and Outs of Wildlife Rehabilitation,” when a wildlife specialist will tell you why bunnies, possums and other babes in the woods can survive just fine without you, thank you very much.

(Photo from


Paulbyl said...

Good story. I heard the same thing about baby birds when I was a kid. (Contaminate it with the human touch and its life is over.) I can't remember if it was my school teacher or my mother that told me such a myth, but this invites the question of how such a myth ever got started in the first place. And now I wonder about baby rabbits, moles, and snakes, which I also recall finding in the yard quite often. Are they also not susceptible to the human "contagion" but feeble is raised by human? Moles and snakes of course have their own built-in "back away" mechanism of being ugly and smelly. But the Easter bunny?

Patricia said...

Great advice! A baby bird hit my bathroom window; and I thought it died. The bird laid upside down for awhile, flipped over and sat on the sidewalk fluffed up and breathing very hard for about one hour. Though I was very hysterical and wanted to help it, I remembered about "leaving the bird alone". I might have stressed the bird more by trying to "help it". The bird flew away; and I was very relieved. If the bird stayed another hour, I probably would have tried to take it to LENSC (Lake Erie Nature and Science Center). I'm glad a stray cat did not see it!