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Tip for Spring Yard Cleanup: Look First for Baby Wildlife

An orphaned baby squirrel approximately one month old suckles the formula fed four times daily at the Cape Wildlife Center.

Spring has sprung, the grass is riz,
I wonder where the birdies is?

This childhood poem comes to mind each year as spring approaches. For many it's time to get outside and start the annual yard and garden cleanup: whack weeds, clear out brush piles, trim trees, and put nature in order after the long winter. The ritual often occurs just in time for an Easter egg hunt.

But not so fast! At the Cape Wildlife Center in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, we encourage everyone to remember one thing. Your desire to “clean up” coincides with birthing season for many wild species, and those areas you wish to get rid of may be exactly where the babies are hidden. When people prune trees, trim hedges and mow down areas of tall grass, nests and boroughs are often destroyed. Sometimes the babies are injured or killed outright by our noisy machinery. Each year homeless and injured baby squirrels, rabbits, and birds arrive at wildlife centers because someone cut down a tree or mowed over a rabbit’s nest.

Before you pick up that saw or start that mower...

Before you disturb trees and mow over tall grasses, inspect these areas visually. Squirrel nests are large spheres of leaves built high in trees. Rabbits, at least Eastern Cottontails, do not borough but place their babies in a shallow depression in the ground, lined with their own fur. Lawn mowers frequently destroy all or part of the nest, exposing and sometimes killing the babies. Use a small branch or yardstick to gently part the grasses and look for these signs near the base of the grasses.

This baby Eastern Cottontail, about 8 days old, still has its eyes closed.  They are born naked and blind.

Baby mammals must be nursed by their mothers. If the mother has been killed, the babies must be brought in for rehabilitation. Caring for baby squirrels, bunnies and other mammals in rehabilitation is a round-the-clock job, and there are no guarantees that the orphaned animals will survive. In 2006 over 150 baby squirrels (spring and fall litters) were orphaned due to nest destruction and brought to Cape Wildlife Center for care.

When baby mammals are found, check with your local rehabilitation center for advice on how to proceed. Do not remove baby mammals from nests unless the nest has been destroyed. Depending on individual circumstances, age of the animal and species, you may be advised to

  1. leave them alone
  2. “renest” them in a nearby location, or
  3. bring them in for rehabilitation.

If you find a baby bird that is uninjured and has some feathers, place him on a branch in the nearest tree. It is a myth that touching a baby bird will cause his mother to abandon him. The parents have no sense of smell and will not know a person has touched him. If the baby can’t perch and has fallen out of the nest, put her in the tree in a berry basket, plastic margarine cup or shoebox. Poke holes in the bottom for drainage and line the container with natural materials like those of the original nest. If you can’t reach the tree limb replacement nests can even be duct-taped or nailed to the trunk quite successfully. Stand out of sight and watch to make sure the parents return. Parents will come feed if they are not frightened by the presence of people.

A baby bird needs help and should be brought to a wildlife rehabilitator when:

* The parents are known to be dead.
* The bird is newly hatched (no feathers), and the nest is out of reach.
* The bird fell from a tall tree and attaching a substitute nest high on the trunk failed to attract the parents.
* The bird is injured.
* A cat or a child has brought the bird in from somewhere unknown. 

To find a local rehabilitator, go to the website of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. This website also has good tips for things you can do while waiting to reach a rehabilitator. You can also call your state’s department of natural resources to ask for the name and contact information for a rehabilitator near you. Being a good neighbor will enable you, your family, and your local wildlife to enjoy spring without anyone losing their home or family members.

Posted March 21, 2007