Kyle McCarthy

Care of the wild

Spring means baby animals and a busy time for Delaware's wildlife rehabilitators

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3:31 p.m., April 19, 2012--Every spring, Cathy Martin cares for baby animals that wouldn’t have needed help if humans hadn’t “rescued” them, thinking these wild creatures were orphaned or abandoned by their mothers.

“Springtime is baby season for wildlife. If you encounter young animals, take a few minutes to assess the situation. Wild animals rarely abandon their young,” says Martin, president-elect of the Delaware Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators and Educators. In addition to this volunteer position, Martin is a fisheries biologist with the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

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More than 1,500 birds and mammals are brought to wildlife rehabilitators in Delaware each year. Many of these animals are in genuine need of assistance but others would have been better off left alone.

If a baby animal is bleeding or shows other signs of injury, put on gloves and use a towel or dustpan to push the animal into a box. Then call Martin or another local rehabber (see contact info below).

However, if the animal doesn’t appear injured, leave it where you found it. If a bird has fallen from a nest, either put it back in the nest or place it in a cardboard box with a hot water bottle to keep it warm. Give the parent a chance to retrieve it.  (It’s a myth that a parent won’t care for a baby animal if it has been touched by humans.) 

Whatever you do, don’t stick around to see if mom is coming back, says Kyle McCarthy, a University of Delaware assistant professor of wildlife ecology. 

“You may think that you’re well hidden or that you’re far enough away but a mother deer will smell you and a mother rabbit will see you,” says McCarthy. “She views you as a threat and won’t return until you leave.” 

Even without the prospect of danger, some animals don’t devote much time to their newborns. In fact, mother rabbits usually only spend about five minutes at their nests each day. 

In the world of ecology, rabbits are known as r-strategists. “Rabbits and other r-strategists give birth to lots of young but invest little parental care in these offspring,” says McCarthy. 

Mice and other small rodents, insects, fish, some birds and bacteria are all r-strategists. The results of this laissez faire parenting style can be disastrous. “It’s not uncommon for a mouse to give birth to 20 babies in one season and only one survives through the year,” says McCarthy.

But since rabbits and other r-strategists breed like, well, rabbits, another brood of offspring will arrive before long. Rabbits begin giving birth in spring but have additional litters throughout the warm season.

Bears, deer, fox, some birds and humans are K-strategists. Compared to the r-strategists, fewer young are born in each litter. Deer less than one year old often give birth to just a single fawn; older does usually produce twins. Four kits in a litter is typical for the red fox.

K-strategist parents are heavily invested in the care of their young. After the red fox vixen gives birth, she doesn’t leave the den for about two weeks, relying on the male to bring her food.  The new kits weigh only about 3.5 ounces, are blind and totally helpless. 

The parents bring live mice to the den once the kits are about a month old to help them learn how to hunt. The kits continue to live with their parents into mid-autumn. 

Groundhogs, which are native to Delaware, usually have April birthdays. Not that you would know it. 

“You aren’t going to notice any baby groundhogs running around until much later in the spring,” says McCarthy. “They aren’t able to leave the burrows and walk for a full month.”

McCarthy has a lot of respect for the volunteer work that Martin and other wildlife rehabbers do and he knows that their success stories are hard-earned.

Mortality rates vary for rescued wild animals raised in captivity but generally aren’t good. Baby rabbits are one of the hardest to raise while fawns have a much better survival rate. McCarthy’s own memories confirm this fact. His father was a bear biologist in Juneau, Alaska, and became the town’s de facto wildlife rehabilitator. 

“People brought my Dad sick or abandoned porcupines, deer, squab, raptors and other animals,” recalls McCarthy. “As kids, we were always getting attached to the babies and naming them. One of my favorites, ‘Punky,’ a porcupine, was successfully rehabilitated back to the wild but many other animals died despite Dad’s efforts to save them.”

To locate the volunteer wildlife rehabilitator nearest you, go to this website and click on “contact us.”  You also can find info there on how to donate animal products or make a financial contribution to the Delaware Council of Wildlife Rehabilitators and Educators.

Ag Day, April 28

Love baby animals? At Ag Day you can see both juvenile and adult raptors and lots of baby farm animals, including calves and lambs. This annual, free community event takes place on the grounds of UD’s Townsend Hall in Newark. For more information, call 831-2508 or go to the Ag Day website.

Article by Margo McDonough

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