By Audubon Naturalist and Refuge Manager Kim Calcagno
As the days lengthen and the air warms with sweet renewal, like clockwork, the annual rites of spring commence. Songbirds return from migration. Mammals wake from their winter slumbers, and the thawed ponds and vernal pools begin scurrying with life. It is also then that Audubon's phones begin to ring-- and ring --and ring.
From territorial birds attacking their reflections in windows and car mirrors; to nest and den building in inconvenient places; to woodpeckers drumming on people's homes, spring breeding behavior gets human attention. Nothing seems to get our attention more than the appearance of spring babies. Hundreds of calls from concerned individuals and businesses want to know what to do about the spring babies. The answer, nine times out of ten, is 'nothing' – just watch – from a distance, and let nature "do its thing" without human interference. In fact, interfering is often against the law (i.e. active nests and nesting birds are protected by law).
From late March until early July, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects and others all sing, court, mate and reproduce. That has always been the way. Even in these modern times, when encroachment by humans has left little space for other living things, the instinct to reproduce is the strongest, most undeniable instinct organisms possess. They know what to do, and they need the space and time to do it.
It is very tempting to investigate that young squirrel on the ground or to rush out and scoop up that baby bird you see hopping around on the ground, but often very well-meaning people unwittingly "rescue" animals that are in perfectly normal 'growing up' situations and don't need any help. Young animals need time to explore and learn about avoiding predators, finding food and getting from place to place. The parent animals are often not far off (and may be waiting for you to leave the area) and often continue to care for youngsters outside of nests, burrows and dens. Other animals are on their own from the time they are born (like turtles and tadpoles) and receive no parental care. Just because it's a baby alone does not mean it's in trouble.
Song birds, for instance, all jump out of the nest (fledge) when their wing feathers grow in, and they spend a few days hopping about and practicing flying and foraging before they are off on their own completely. The parent birds continue to feed the youngster on the ground until they learn to feed themselves. Alternately, little fox pups or tiny baby skunks are animals that need to practice hunting and foraging if they are to survive. Although we may get squeamish or feel sorry for the prey, they rely on that practice time to hone their skills at catching food. We need to let them catch prey, learn to fly or climb and learn to get away from predators. We need to let their parents decide when to step in. They have been doing it since the dawn of time and most do not need any human help. Indeed, countless baby animals die at the hands of well-meaning humans who don't know the needs of young non-humans.
You will often hear the phrase, "If you care, leave them there." Never try to feed young animals or make pets out of them. It is illegal and most often ends up with the animal becoming sick, malnourished or dying. Many people feed babies the wrong thing out of ignorance (e.g. milk to non-mammals, or worms to seed-eating birds etc). To a delicate baby, this can be a death sentence. Most baby animals do not make it to adulthood due to natural attrition, but the rate of survival actually decreases not increases when humans get involved. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators often lament all the healthy babies that end up in their clinics and will strenuously advise people to put the babies back and let the parents care for them.
If an animal is visibly injured or sick or truly orphaned (e.g. mom was hit by car etc), that is a different story. Licensed rehabbers can determine by phone whether an animal needs rescuing and advise you as to what to do. Audubon can refer you to one of the licensed state rehabilitators if you need them.
Nature is truly amazing. Springtime in nature is doubly so. When you observe wildlife in your yard or travels, take the time to watch their behaviors and actions. Feed your interest and respect for them, by learning about
them. Look them up on the internet or in a field guide. Come to one of Audubon's many programs about wild animals and plants.
Some spring babies you may observe:
Woodchucks (Marmota monax)
Nothing inspires a chuckle more than a momma 'chuck' with two or three little gray/brown furballs following close behind. Babies are born in April or May in the woodchuck's labyrinth-like burrow. When they reach about a month old, they may emerge to begin feeding around the entrance of the burrow. By the time they are weaned at over two months old, they will often follow momma around from one plant food source to another.
Eastern Cottontail Rabbit (Silvilagus floridanus mallurus)
Rabbits in North America do not live in holes in the ground (warrens), but instead will create a shallow, bowl-like nest, called a form, in the grass and often line it with fur, shredded leaves and cover it with grass. Most mothers will have two to five hairless, blind babies, and can have up to four litters a year. Babies are helpless and dependent on their mother for the first three weeks of life. They require her milk, but also will eat her feces so that they can inoculate their gut with bacteria that allows them to digest the plants they eat. Without this, they won't survive. Momma does not want to attract attention to the nest and will only visit the young at dawn and dusk to nurse them. At about three weeks old, the young begin to fend for themselves. They are still quite small at this age, but are not depending on their mother anymore. If you (or your dog or cat) happens to accidentally uncover a rabbit nest, DO NOT handle the babies. Rabbits are one of the mammals that will sometimes kill their young if they smell the scent of humans or other predators. Always supervise your pets, and keep dogs and cats away from nesting bunnies.
Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa)
Wood ducks are one of the few species of 'perching' ducks in Rhode Island and they make their nests in tree cavities or specially-made nesting boxes – usually over water. When the ducklings hatch out, momma will fly out the nest and call for her babies. One by one they will jump out of the cavity and fall to the ground or water below. Babies have been known to fall well over 100 feet and be unhurt. Once out of the nest, they do not return, but instead, follow their mother to different feeding grounds. Wood ducks may have over ten babies in a brood.
American Toads (Bufo americanus)
Male American toads greet spring with a loud hummy trill when they arrive at the ponds and pools to call for a mate. Arriving after the loud spring peepers and wood frogs, these toads join in the spring chorus around the beginning of April. Males will amplex or ride-piggy back with females waiting for just the right time. When the female is ready, she will begin extruding two long strings of jelly eggs (one string from each ovary) and the male fertilizes them externally as they are laid. The eggs hatch after a week or so and hundreds of tiny, dark tadpoles can be seen in dense congregations in the ponds. They start metamorphosing into toads after about three weeks and by mid-summer hundreds of tiny toadlets emerge from the ponds. They will stay near the water for up to three weeks before dispersing back into the woods.