FRANKFORT – Encounters with young wildlife increase in spring as people spend more time outdoors.
An unattended deer fawn curled up in tall grass. A litter of rabbits discovered alone in the backyard. A baby bird furiously flapping its wings but struggling to get off the ground.
It’s human nature to want to take matters into your own hands in such instances. After all, we see and read stories about firefighters rescuing kittens from burning houses or technical rescue teams saving horses and livestock that have fallen into icy ponds. In nature, however, human intervention is not always what is best for wildlife.
“This is the time of year when white-tailed deer and other animals have their young,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “It’s best to leave them alone.”
The Information Center at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s headquarters fields about 100,000 phone calls and upward of 40,000 emails from the public each year. Invariably, spring brings an influx of communications from well-intentioned people concerned about young wildlife seemingly abandoned by their parents.
This coincides with the peak of deer fawning season.
Newborn deer spend much of their time bedded down until they are about a month old and strong enough to follow their mother. Their reddish-brown coat patterned with pale spots helps camouflage them in dappled sunlight.
“Just like human babies, they’re small, weak and need time to grow,” Jenkins said. “They eat, they sleep and that’s about it. The more they venture out and move around, the greater the chances are of them being preyed upon. Mom puts them in a spot or leaves them. The more she comes back and spends time there the more she brings her scent to that spot. The fawns are essentially scentless.”
The mother deer will visit her fawn to nurse and typically does not stray far from it between feedings. The separation may alarm somebody who discovers an unattended fawn but it helps divert predators’ attention away from the baby deer.
“Momma didn’t abandon them,” Jenkins said. “She placed them there. She knows where they’re at, or is very close, and she will come back.”
In instances where a fawn has been calling for its mother for several hours with no response, is obviously injured, or where the mother deer was observed being hit by a car, a call should be placed to a wildlife rehabilitator.
“We don’t want you to go pick it up and hold it or keep it,” Jenkins said. “They are wild animals.”
Orphaned and injured wildlife may be possessed only by a permitted wildlife rehabilitator. A searchable list of these rehabilitators is available on Kentucky Fish and Wildlife’s website at fw.ky.gov. Click on the “Wildlife” tab and choose “Injured & Orphaned Wildlife” from the dropdown menu. Only persons with a captive cervid permit may keep deer in captivity.
Landowners who encounter a deer fawn that is in the way while cutting hay or mowing can be moved a short distance out of the way. The mother should still be able to find the fawn when she returns to nurse it.
Encounters with rabbit nests in suburban settings are fairly common this time of year.
“Rabbits can start nesting as early as February and they’ll go throughout the spring and summer months,” said Ben Robinson, small game biologist with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “Maybe somebody stumbles across a litter of rabbits in their yard or in their field and they call and wonder what to do. Many times nothing needs to be done.”
Placing a flag or a stake near the area can help mark the nest site for reference when mowing in the future.
“Unless something traumatic has happened to the mother, they’re probably close by,” Robinson said. “So they’re going to do just fine taking care of those babies. So the best thing you can do is leave them alone.”
Wildlife have successfully reared their young for ages relying on instincts that have evolved over time. It’s best to observe them, not handle them. People are no substitute for natural wildlife parents.