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Wildlife Rescue Rules

How to Evaluate if and when a Rescue is Needed

First, a Note about Cats

Keep cats indoors. Every year, WWI receives numerous calls from cat owners about animals injured by their pets. Many are admitted and most do not survive. Sadly, it is pet cats' instinct to hunt - not real hunger - that usually drives them to kill wildlife. It is a fallacy that cats need to roam outside to be happy, and the common strategy of putting bells on their collars has been found to be ineffective for alerting wildlife to their danger.

Allowing pet cats to roam outside is not just bad for backyard birds and wildlife, it is bad for the cats as well. Outdoor cats are exposed to disease as well as the dangers of traffic, traps, poisons, abuse, and attacks from other animals. In fact, outside cats frequently do not live past the age of five, while indoor cats often live for 17 or more years. 

Baby Birds

It's a fact, a large percentage of young animals rescued by well-intentioned people do not need help. Out of the thousands of baby birds we have admitted to WWI, many would have had a greater chance of survival if they were left alone or moved to a safe place. Knowing the difference between a nestling and a fledgling is a key factor in determining whether or not to intervene. A fledgling is no longer a baby. It is a young bird in the process of learning to fly. These birds try, but do not quite get into the air. Instead, they end up on the ground, hopping and fluttering about. Nestlings, on the other hand, do not yet have flight feathers. They may be un-feathered or partially feathered with some skin visible.


If you see a baby bird on the ground that seems to have all of its feathers, but still looks a little downy, it is a fledgling. Unless you know of an immediate threat such as a dog, a cat, children, or a busy road, you should not approach the bird, but watch it from a distance. Watch and wait. Make sure the parents are checking on it every few hours. If the fledgling is otherwise healthy but there is an immediate threat, move the fledgling to the safety of a nearby dense shrub or tree. If the fledgling is wet or listless, or if it is still where you placed it after several hours, call WWI for further advice.


If you find a nestling, examine it carefully. If the bird is not injured, is alert, dry and warm, carefully pick it up and return it to the nest. Touching a baby bird will not keep the parents away, but do not handle the baby a lot. Remember, their bones are fragile. If you cannot re-nest the bird, or if you are sure the parent is dead or if the bird is cold, wet, and/or listless, place the bird in a small container lined with tissue, keeping the legs and wings snug to its body. Cover a heating pad (set on low) with a folded towel, then place the substitute nest on the towel and pad. Again, do not attempt to feed or water the bird as this could be fatal. Call WWI as soon as possible.

Baby Bunnies

Wild cottontail rabbits "nest" in shallow holes dug in the ground by the mother rabbit. Nests are often found in lawns, gardens or under shrubs. The mother, called a doe, lines the shallow hole with fur pulled from her body and covers it, and her babies, with a mixture of dry grass and twigs to hide it from predators. The doe feeds her babies 2-3 times per day, once before early morning (dawn), and a couple of times right after it gets dark (dusk). She squats over the nest so the babies can reach up and nurse her milk. The mother does NOT continually sit on the nest or stay with the baby bunnies. Doing so would signal carnivorous (meat-eating) birds and animals (like owls and foxes) as to where her babies are living. By staying away from the nest, the doe protects her young.

Cottontail Nests

If you know where a nest is, mow around - not over - the site. If you have made your discovery after the fact, recover the nest with the disturbed debris from the nest top or other suitable material such as dry grass and leaves. Baby bunnies that have been removed from the nest can be returned if they are healthy, uninjured, warm, dry, and no flies are present. Replacement should be done without the presence of children or pets. Cover the nest. Use twigs or short pieces of yarn and crisscross the pieces over the cover. Use these as markers to identify the nest site for future mowings.

Remember, the doe visits the nest at dusk, dawn, and sometimes in the middle of the night, so watching for her during the day is futile. If the markers you left have been disturbed the next day, it is an indication that she has returned to feed, and that all is well. 


Fawns in Pennsylvania are generally born in late May and early June. During their first days of life, these delicate creatures are often left alone for long hours while their mother forages for food. Returning only to nurse their young, the mother knows that the hidden fawn is safe from predators because he has little or no scent and remains motionless in his bed. Though primarily crepuscular (active during twilight), nursing doe may be active throughout the day, so it is possible to stumble onto a seemingly "abandoned" fawn at any time. In most cases, the mother is nearby nervously waiting for the intruder to leave.

Fawns and their Mothers

Since fawns are not completely weaned until they are approximately four months old and have shed their spotted coats, they must remain in their mother's care. Even after they are weaned, fawns usually stay with and are cared for by their mothers until they are about one year old.

If you find a fawn:

  • Do not touch or move the fawn unless it is in imminent danger or is obviously injured.
  • Watch with binoculars from a distance for several hours to see if the mother returns.
  • If you have concerns about the fawn's safety or well-being, call a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.

Remember that White-tailed deer are very easily stressed by captivity and contact with humans. So, please, if you find a fawn, be courteous and respectful, and do not try to touch or move it. 

Summary of Rescue Rules and Procedures

Rescue If:

  • The parent is known to be dead, and the baby is too young to be on its own
  • The animal is weak, thin, cold, or appears sick.
  • The animal is injured in any way; or there are flies, ants, or other insects around the animal.
  • The animal is in danger, including problems with other animals, people, or any life-threatening situation.

Leave Alone If:

  • The parent is nearby. Parents rarely abandon healthy offspring. It is natural for some species, including rabbits and deer, to leave their young for a few hours while foraging for food.
  • The animal is fat, bright-eyed, appears healthy, and isn’t in apparent danger. Parent animals have strong self-preservation instincts. Watch from a distant place. Keep children and animals away so the reunion can take place

Intervene If:

  • A nest has been blown from a tree. Pick it up, place it in a berry basket, and tie the basket to a limb of the tree using heavy twine, or place in a crotch of a tree.
  • A baby has fallen from the nest. Pick up the baby and return it to the nest. Do not handle the baby a lot since their bones are fragile. Call Wildlife Works for more advice.

Always: Use gloves and caution when handling wildlife. Wild animals normally don’t attack people, but when threatened they will defend themselves. Even small mammals can bite or scratch; birds can peck. Larger species are dangerous.

Never: Never touch raccoons, skunks, bats, woodchucks, or foxes without using gloves. These species could be carriers of rabies. Contact a wildlife rehabber ASAP if you find any of these species in trouble.

After Rescue:

  • Place the animal in a secure box equipped with air holes and a lid. Use a box that is the right size – not too large or small. Provide a clean ravel-free cloth for the animal to grasp, and make certain there is nothing inside the box the animal can get caught in. The box should be placed in a warm, dark, and quiet area until transportation is arranged.
  • Do not feed or water the animal; good intentions can be fatal to wildlife.
  • NEVER house or transport a wild bird in a cage. The wire will damage their feathers.
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