Backyard Wildlife

Backyard Wildlife: How to help wild baby animals

CorrespondentApril 25, 2014 


A cedar waxwing tosses up a fruit from a flowering crab tree. The elegant birds are North America's most specialized fruit eater.


  • April: Wildlife watch

    Cedar Waxwing

    What to look for: The Cedar Waxwing has a pale brown head and chest, with a brown crest that often lies flat over the back of the head. Its wings are soft gray, its belly is pale yellow, and it has a gray tail with a bright yellow tip. Its face features a black mask with a white outline. The name comes from the red waxy tips on its wing feathers, but these are not always easy to see.

    Where to look: Cedar Waxwings can be found in woodlands, on farms and in orchards, and in suburban neighborhoods. They are often spotted in fruit trees or near water looking for insects. They nest in tall trees such as pines and seek out established areas of forest with some clearings nearby.

    How to feed: Include elements in your garden that bear fruit. They love to eat berries and swallow them whole.

    Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

“What is that behind the ivy?” I thought as I gently pulled some dead vines from the trunk of a large maple tree.

I spied a curly shape in a nook behind one particularly thick vine.

I first thought it was a large worm – about the width of a No. 2 pencil and matching the color of the tree’s medium-brown bark. Then I noticed a pair of pinhead eyes and the flick of the tongue. A tiny snake was staring back at me.

Gardeners know spring has sprung when they start finding babies in their backyards.

The best thing we can do in when we encounter wildlife babies, says Sara Marschauser, conservation coordinator at the Piedmont Wildlife Center in Durham, is just what I did when I saw the snake. Back away.

Baby animals of all sorts begin the regeneration process in spring. And that’s also the time of year when the Piedmont Wildlife Center staff braces for a flood of calls about abandoned or threatened babies. Songbirds are a particularly common concern.

“Baby birds are only in the nest a couple of weeks before they begin to fledge,” Marschauser said. “Fledglings are curious and they want to explore, so they leave the nest and wind up on the ground, hopping around a lot while they are trying to learn to fly.”

These babies look tender and helpless, and are easy prey to most predators – including domestic cats. But they tend to stay beneath bushes and hide in the scrub brush as they master the art of aviation.

And their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Songbird, stay close to bring their babies food and call out shrill alerts whenever predators approach too close to their offspring.

A similar process happens with baby deer, rabbits and other small mammals. The mother leaves babies alone for long periods, while the offspring learn to tackle life on their own. Typically, wildlife babies remain camouflaged and protected by hiding in tall grasses, tangled brush and the like. (This is another reason why the yards of wildlife-minded gardeners might appear slightly raffish if they have lawn-loving neighbors nearby.)

By late April, most songbirds have laid their eggs. It only takes 10 to 14 days for those eggs to hatch and little beaks to start begging for bits of food. In just a few more days, the baby birds’ eyes open and feathers begin to appear.

Soon they plop from the nest and embark on a seven- to 10-day self-taught flight school. Finally becoming airborne, the baby birds typically relocate in another neighborhood, although certain owl and hawk species stay close to their parents for up to a year, Marschauser says.

The takeaway for wildlife gardeners is to leave baby birds, deer, bunnies and other backyard creatures alone – unless you spot an obvious injury or hear near-constant crying.

“If you see a baby animal on the ground calling a lot or crying or one that is wandering around in the vicinity of humans, it’s probably a hungry orphan,” she said. Those are the animals that the Piedmont Wildlife Center is there to help.

If you find what may be an injured or orphaned wild animal, the center welcomes your call.

In general, they recommend against trying to feed the animal or make it drink. If an infant is injured or obviously orphaned, place the newborn into well-ventilated box lined with soft, unfrayed cloth. Maybe even tuck a slightly warm heating pad beneath the box to help the baby stay warm.

Do not allow pets or children to play with wild animals, but keep the injured or abandoned animal in a quiet area until you can talk with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

A word of warning, however, about foxes and raccoons. The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center does not rehabilitate them because they can carry rabies but not ever develop outward signs of disease. Other animals that get rabies show symptoms, including vicious aggression and paralysis.

Phone the Wildlife Center at 919-489-0900 or go online at for more information.

Update on pond with runoff water

A couple of readers expressed concerns about last month’s column about a backyard pond that was replenished with water from air conditioner and dehumidifier runoff.

Their concern centered on whether bacteria and other microbes in the water could pose a health threat to wildlife.

Mark Sobsey, director of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC-Chapel Hill, says any threat to wildlife from such runoff is highly unlikely – especially in an outdoor setting.

Mold or bacteria may grow in standing water, but it poses a threat primarily when expelled into the air via a large air conditioning or ventilation system, he said. The most famous case was a type of pneumonia known as Legionnaires’ disease that claimed 29 lives in 1976. Those affected had been attending an American Legion conference in a large hotel in Philadelphia.

“That was an indoor-air problem and a human health risk,” Sobsey said.

And not something that would likely pose a threat to wildlife at an outdoor pond.


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