Injured & Orphaned Wildlife

More often than not, handling injured, sick, or orphaned wildlife can do more harm than good. Although our intentions are well-meaning, human interaction with wildlife should always be kept to a minimum. Humans often misinterpret normal wildlife behavior as abnormal and may unnecessarily disturb and stress wild animals by attempting to catch them.

Injured or Orphaned Mammals

Often, particularly in spring, concerned people pick up animals that they think are orphaned. More than 75 percent of such orphans “rescued” every spring should have been left alone. Most wild animals are dedicated parents and will not abandon their young, but they do leave them alone for long periods of time while looking for food. Additionally, many behaviors that people may view as abnormal actually are not in wildlife, and people may do much more harm than good by attempting to catch them for rehabilitation. Unless one of these guidelines applies, leave wildlife alone.

First, make sure it really is injured or orphaned. Sometimes a parent is close by but waiting for the human intruder to leave. Other times a dazed or unconscious animal is only temporarily stunned. The kindest thing you can do for these animals is keep them out of the way of predators by placing them in a box or elevated place.

Second, if the animal is hurt and you are able and willing to pick it up, do so with care (this includes heavy gloves), handling it as little as possible and keeping your hands away from its mouth (there is always potential for rabies among wild animals). Place the animal in a well-ventilated cardboard box in a dark, quiet, warm place. Do not feed it. Call a rehabilitation facility and follow their instructions. Do not attempt to rescue skunks or bats. These are high-risk animals that are potentially dangerous to your health. Never attempt to capture an adult sick or injured mammal. They are frightened and/or in pain and see you as a threat and can bite severely.

If a fawn or rabbit has been “rescued” when it shouldn’t have been, it can often be released at the same location — if it is on the same day. Parents tend to remain in the area for at least a day, looking for the lost youngster. Leave him as close as possible to where he was found and withdraw at least 50 yards and observe with binoculars until dusk. If the parent hasn’t picked up the little one by nightfall, you will need to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.


Many cottontails living in backyards or other populated areas are quite habituated to people and may sit, unmoving, for an extended length of time. This may be normal behavior. Sick or injured rabbits may be identified by abnormal behaviors such as lying on their sides for extended periods of time, head tilting, falling over, or inability to run in a straight line. Injured or sick adult rabbits are extremely susceptible to stress, and the stress of capture and time spent in a travel carrier is often enough to hasten death. In addition, cottontails are prone to fractured spines when they are handled by inexperienced individuals. The best course of action when a cottontail is suspected to be injured or sick is to avoid disturbing or bothering the animal. Keep all pets and small children away from the rabbit.

The above guidelines should be followed for all rabbits suspected to be ill. Dead rabbits should be handled with a shovel and placed within two sturdy plastic bags (i.e. double-bagged). The bags can then be placed with the regular trash for pick up. After disposing of a dead rabbit, thoroughly wash and scrub your hands with soap and hot water and rinse the shovel with bleach.

Cottontail rabbits nest from March through September and may have as many as four litters per year. The average litter contains four to five babies. Young rabbits disperse from the nest at 15-20 days old. By three weeks of age, they are on their own in the wild and no longer require a mother’s care.

If you find a baby rabbit:

  • Is the rabbit injured (bleeding, broken bones, puncture wounds, been in a cat’s mouth, open wounds, etc.)?
    • If YES, contact your nearest veterinarian that is capable of and willing to see wildlife patients (always call the veterinarian prior to bringing wildlife to the hospital) or rehabilitator for treatment.
    • If NO, see below.
  • Is the rabbit fully furred with its eyes opened?
    • If YES, if the rabbit is larger than a baseball and weighs more than 4 ounces or 100 grams, it is on its own and does not need human intervention.
    • If NO, attempt to locate the nest (a shallow depression on the ground possibly lined with rabbit fur and/or grass, cottontail rabbits do not burrow) and put the rabbit back. Nests that must be moved (due to construction) may be relocated up to 20 feet away from the original site (scoop up and rebuild the nest with the mother’s fur and place the babies inside). Check back briefly once a day for two days. If the rabbits appear to be plump and healthy, leave them alone. Mother rabbits feed at dusk and dawn. You are not likely to ever see the mother. If the rabbits appear thin and weak, have wrinkled, baggy skin, contact a state licensed small mammal rehabilitator in your area immediately. Rabbits may be temporarily moved for mowing if they are returned to the nest before dusk. Do not attempt to mow within 10 feet of a rabbit’s nest if there are babies present. If you suspect the nest is abandoned, you can sprinkle the area with flour or cross two twigs over the nest and check back in 24 hours. If there is no sign of disturbance to the nest, you will then need to intervene.


Gray squirrels nest twice each year, in early spring and in late summer. Gray squirrels commonly have litters of three or four. Babies’ eyes open at four weeks of age and the young are often out of the nest by six weeks. At 8-9 weeks of age they are on their own in the wild and no longer nurse from the mother.

If you find a baby squirrel:

  • Is the squirrel injured (bleeding, broken bones, wounds, been in a cat’s mouth, etc.)?
    • If YES, contact your nearest veterinarian that is capable of and willing to see wildlife patients (always call the veterinarian prior to bringing wildlife to the hospital) or rehabilitator for treatment. (For juvenile squirrels, wear thick leather gloves when handling. Even young squirrels can have a vicious bite!)
    • If NO, squirrels whose tails are fully fluffed out like a bottle brush and weigh more than 6.5 ounces or 180 grams, are on their own in the wild and do not need human intervention. If the squirrel does not meet these criteria, see below.
  • Is the squirrel fully furred with its eyes opened?
    • If YES, and the squirrel weighs between 75 and 150 grams (2.6-5.3 ounces), his tail is flat or not quite full, and may seem “friendly”, the squirrel still needs nursing and care from it’s mother. Mother squirrels may “rescue” stray babies by carrying them by the scruff back to the nest. For very small squirrels, attempt to locate the nest (big ball of dried leaves at the top of a tree) and try to get the baby to climb up the trunk. Check back several hours later to see if the baby is still there. If the baby has not been fed or attended to for an entire day, contact a state licensed small mammal rehabilitator immediately. If the squirrel is old enough to run from you, it is old enough to be on its own and does not need human intervention.
    • If NO, and the baby is not retrieved by the mother for an entire day, contact a state licensed small mammal rehabilitator immediately. Keep predators (cats and dogs) away from the area if the baby is on the ground.


Opossums breed two or three times each year, from February through September. The average litter contains six to nine babies. Opossums remain in the mother’s pouch until they are 2 months old. Between two and four months of age, they may ride on the mother’s back and are dependent on the mother for help in finding food and shelter.

If you find a baby opossum:

  • Is the opossum injured (bleeding, broken bones, wounds, deformity, etc.)?
    • If YES, contact your nearest veterinarian that is capable of and willing to see wildlife patients (always call the veterinarian prior to bringing wildlife to the hospital) or rehabilitator for treatment.
    • If NO, opossums that are at least 8 long from tip of nose to the base of the tail (do not include the tail) and weigh more than 7.25 ounces or 200 grams are old enough to survive on their own in the wild and do not need human intervention. If the opossum does not meet these criteria, see below.
  • Is the opossum fully furred with its eyes opened?
    • If YES, but does not meet the size requirement for release, and is between two and three and a half months old and weighs 40-190 grams (1.5-7 ounces) contact a state licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. Opossum babies are often found crawling around next to their dead mother and will not survive at this age without human care.
    • If NO, the baby needs immediate assistance. Contact a state licensed wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife veterinarian immediately. Babies separated from their mother at this stage have a slimmer chance of survival.


White-tailed deer fawns are born April through July, with the majority of births in June. Most does will have one fawn each year, but occasionally twins or triplets are seen. From birth the fawns are left alone while their mothers go off to feed. The mothers will stay away from the fawns to avoid leading predators to their location. They will return at dusk and dawn to move and/or feed their young.

If you find a deer fawn:

  • Is the fawn injured (bleeding, broken bones, wounds, caught on a fence, etc.)?
    • If YES, contact your nearest veterinarian that is capable of and willing to see wildlife patients (always call the veterinarian prior to bringing wildlife to the hospital) or rehabilitator for treatment.
    • If NO, it is normal for fawns of any age to be left alone all day. Never expect to see the mother come back to the fawn while you are in the area. The mother will return to care for it if you leave it alone. You can check back in 24-48 hours. The mother should have moved the fawn. Never chase a fawn to capture it. Exception: if the mother is known to be dead (you have seen the fawn near the body and know it to be the mother), contact a state licensed deer rehabilitator in your area. Orphaned fawns will need to be cared for until they are old enough to be released in early Fall.

Note: Each animal’s nutritional, housing and handling requirements are very specific and must be met if they have any chance of survival. Raising a wild animal in captivity is illegal unless you have a state permit. For information on how you can become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, contact The Wildlife Center of Virginia or the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The information in this article was provided by THE WILDLIFE CENTER OF VIRGINIA, P.O. BOX 1557, WAYNESBORO, VIRGINIA 22980. Phone (540) 942-WILD, FAX (540) 943-WILD, Website: E-mail address:


This is the time of year for bears to be on the move. From the Tidewater region to the Alleghany Mountains, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries personnel are receiving numerous calls regarding bear sightings. With a healthy and growing black bear population, bear sightings during the spring and summer months are not unusual in Virginia. However, bears showing up in areas where they have not been seen before can cause quite a stir.

While the highest concentration of bears occur in the Blue Ridge and Alleghany Mountains and around the Great Dismal Swamp, bears are likely to be seen just about anywhere in Virginia. In a recent survey of VDGIF field staff, during the last 4 years bears have occurred in 85 of Virginia’s 98 counties/cities.

Late spring to early summer is the breeding season for the black bear. Adult males may roam well beyond their normal range searching for mates. Adult females breed every other year and give birth from mid-January to early February. Females that have raised cubs for the past 1½ years are ready to breed again, and the young are ready to be on their own and establish new home ranges. While young females generally establish a home range near that of their mother, young males may need to roam widely in order to establish a new home range.

Bears generally avoid humans, but they may wander into suburban areas. So, what should you do if you see a bear? The most important response is to keep a respectful distance. A black bear would rather flee than have an encounter with people. Always remember that a bear is a wild animal, and never, ever feed a bear under any circumstances. When bears lose their fear of people, trouble is not far away.

The best way to encourage a bear to move on is to remove the food source that is attracting it. Do this by cleaning up or removing trash, pet food, livestock feed, grills and bird feeders. Do not store household trash in vehicles or on porches or decks. Take your garbage to the dump frequently, and if you have a trash collection service, put your trash out the morning of the pickup, not the night before.

If you do see a bear in your area, enjoy watching it from a distance. Report any problems by calling the Department at (804) 367-1000 so that the information can be passed on to a State Game Warden assigned to your area.

Baby Birds

Before rescuing baby or juvenile birds, you must first assess the situation.

  • Make sure the bird is really in need of help. Birds do not abandon young feathered chicks. It is normal for birds at fledging to be on the ground unable to fly! Birds need several days up to four weeks, depending on their species, to learn how to fly and forage for food. The parents will feed them during this period.
  • Know where nesting sites are located and keep cats and dogs indoors around the time you think the birds will fledge to avoid predation. Ask neighbors to take responsibility for their pets as well.
  • If a featherless or down-covered bird is out of its nest, try to put it back. However, make sure the young are warm to the touch. If the baby is not, you can simply warm the bird in your hands before returning it to the nest. Returning a young cold bird to the nest will sometimes encourage the parent to push the baby out of the nest, as it is trying to remove a cold object away from other warm eggs or young. Contrary to popular belief, the parents will not be frightened off by your “scent” and will return to feed the baby if it calls for food.
  • If you can’t find the nest or it is unreachable, put the bird into a bush or tree close to where it was found. You may also construct a substitute nest (a grass lined plastic container with holes punched in the bottom) and secure it to the nearest place where the nestling was found. Keep pets away and watch from indoors to see if a parent returns (be patient, it may not happen immediately). If you know the parent of a young bird is dead, take it inside to a warm, quiet, dark place. Very young birds won’t try to get away when you approach them slowly, talk to them quietly, and handle them gently. They seem to like the warmth of your hands. Older birds, however, never get used to being handled and may even die after being handled or forced to eat.
  • Do not give baby birds anything to drink. They may drown or get inhalation pneumonia.
  • If a parent does not visit the nest after a half day, contact a licensed songbird rehabilitator for advice. Baby birds require much more attention than any household pet. If you find a baby bird on the ground that is in danger of being attacked by a predator, try to locate the nest. If at all possible, return the baby to the nest.

A Fallen Nest

Wedge the nest into a convenient crotch and tie down with thick string. Thin thread or fish line can strangle the young. Watch from an indoor location to be sure the parents return.

Adult Birds

An adult bird needs help if there is blood, an open wound, it cannot stand or fly. However, never handle a bird that is too large. Adult birds see you as a threat and species such as hawks or owls have beaks and claws that can rip flesh with lightning speed. It is best to leave handling these birds to a wildlife professional.

Injured Birds

A bird that needs help will have a physical injury (broken bones, lacerations, bleeding) or will run but cannot fly away (never chase an injured bird. This will frighten it and possibly cause more injuries). Also, a young bird that feels cold to the touch needs help. Any bird that has broken bones, bleeding, deformity, cat bites or other puncture wounds, maggots or warbles, tilting head, or large bubbles under the skin needs to be taken to your nearest wildlife veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator for diagnosis and treatment.

  • For an injured bird: Place a towel over the bird to calm it. Then gently put it into a box lined with soft material such as shredded newspaper, dried grass, or tissue. Contact a rehabilitator (or contact VDGIF).
  • If you find a wet and chilled bird: Place it in a box near a 75-watt bulb as a source of heat. Make sure the bird can move away from the light if it gets too warm. After they are fully warmed and their feathers are dry, you can release them.
  • If a bird hits a window: Check it for signs of injury such as bleeding, head tilt, broken wing etc. If it is injured, contact a rehabilitator. If it appears to only be stunned, put it in a covered box and wait for 2-3 hours, and then see if it will fly away.

Reasons Humans Should Not Attempt to Raise Healthy Songbirds

  • Hand-reared birds that are kept indoors will not be unable to judge direction during migration since they cannot orient to the constellations.
  • Birds deprived of hearing songs from a male of their species during their “critical period” will be unable to learn these songs later in their development and may be unable to attract a mate, breed, acquire territory, and understand others of their species.
  • Even experienced wildlife rehabilitators are unable to teach young birds the skills they need for survival, such as predator avoidance and where to forage for food. If at all possible, allow baby birds to be raised by their parents in the wild.

Note: It is illegal to raise wild birds in captivity unless you have both state and federal permits. For information on how you can become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

For a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Virginia, please view the following links: