Conservation Sustainability

The Wild Truth: Animals Rarely Abandon Their Young

Animals Rarely Abandon Their Young

Baby barn owl. Photo by Carlton Burke

By Winslow McCrory Umberger

Has something like this happened to you? Looking out the window you see what you believe to be an injured or orphaned wild animal. Often it’s a young bird struggling to fly, but it could be a fawn or a warren of baby rabbits seemingly alone with no mother in sight. Wanting to help, you move the baby bird or animal to safety only to learn later that it was fine. Now you worry that your touch and human scent will cause the mother to reject it.

“That’s a common myth,” says Carlton Burke of Carolina Mountain Naturalists. It’s one he hears frequently as a state- and federally-licensed wildlife rehabilitator. “It’s not unusual to see what appear to be abandoned young, particularly during springtime. Many birds and animals leave their offspring alone for long periods of time, hidden from predators, while they search for food. Some animals, such as cottontail rabbits and whitetail deer, only visit and nurse their young about every 12 hours. Nesting birds not only have to find food for themselves, but they must also find food to feed their young. All of this takes time.”

So, if a healthy baby bird or squirrel has fallen out of its nest and has no apparent injuries, no worries—you can safely return it. “But first, in the case of the fledglings and baby mammals, watch them from a distance, well-hidden from sight, for several hours to determine if they are truly abandoned,” Burke advises. “It is very rare for parents to abandon their young unless they sense something is physically wrong and they are not likely to survive.” Squirrel nests are high, so place the baby in a cardboard box at the base of the tree from which it fell, while keeping pets away.

It is often obvious when the animal needs help. “A bird may drag its wing, for instance, while any animal will show obvious signs of serious illness, poisoning or trauma,” says wildlife expert Savannah Trantham. “Before you touch it, get in touch with a wildlife rehabilitator, naturalist or wildlife organization that can point you in the right direction.”

Misconceptions and myths abound and Burke, along with retired naturalist Dan Lazar, frequently address them Saturdays at 7 a.m. on their weekly, one-hour radio show, Nature News, on WTZQ (1600AM/95.3FM). Burke and Lazar, formerly curator of exhibits and director of education at the WNC Nature Center, report on what’s occurring each week in the natural world around the WNC region. Nature News—which covers both flora and fauna—is proudly celebrating its 25th anniversary.

Burke is also a founding board member of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, which is set to open an urgent care center for wildlife in Candler. “This facility could not come online at a better time,” says Trantham, co-founder of Appalachian Wild. “Our volunteers will make sure your injured or orphaned wild animal is transported safely to the care of licensed wildlife rehabilitators.” Help can also be accessed online at under ‘Found an Animal’ or via email at

Appalachian Wild is a 501(c)(3) organization providing aid to our forest friends as well as support for North Carolina’s volunteer wildlife rehabilitators. Learn how you can help at

Leave a Comment