By Paula Musto
On a spring day in Asheville, there’s a good chance you will catch a glimpse of a fawn with a wide-eyed doe at her side. Or bump into a bunny nest while gardening. Birders enjoy watching parents nurture their young, feeding the babies from sunup to sundown. And who hasn’t seen a mama duck with her ducklings waddling behind?
Springtime is wildlife baby season. If you take time to observe these animals, it quickly becomes apparent that parenting behaviors among the species vary tremendously. Some wildlife parents, much like humans, care for offspring for relatively long periods, providing food and protecting them from predators, while others release the eggs and hope for the best. A number of factors influence parenting styles in the wild including mating patterns, the number of offspring, available food supply and just basic instinct.
“There is an innate desire to parent,” says Savannah Trantham, a certified wildlife rehabilitator and executive director of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge, a nonprofit that cares for injured and orphaned wildlife. Spring is the organization’s busiest time of year when young critters arrive at the organization’s Candler facility in droves, often victims of human activities—habitat loss, vehicle traffic and carelessly tossed debris which can be detrimental to animals.
“I am always fascinated by wildlife and how they care for their babies,” Trantham says. “They instinctively know what to do.”
Take squirrels, for example. The females are dedicated to the care of their babies who are born hairless, blind and totally dependent. For the first few weeks of life, baby squirrels only drink their mother’s milk, but once they are old enough to eat solids, the mom will chew up foods into tiny bits to feed her babies, teaching them what and how to eat. As the kits mature, she instructs them on how to climb trees, scale fences and find tasty acorns. Squirrel moms are super maternal—if a baby falls out of its nest, the mother will go to great pains to rescue it. And if they come upon an orphaned baby, female squirrels are known to adopt and raise the youngster.
Birds also rate high as devoted parents, says Trantham, and unlike many species, the males are involved. Newly hatched babies need to be fed every 15 minutes, requiring both parents to work tirelessly foraging for food and bringing it back to regurgitate for the young chicks. It’s a full-time job for the parents.
Waterfowl are known to be especially dedicated and protective parents. Baby swans, called cygnets, often ride on the backs of their hyper-vigilant parents and, if threatened, the parents are known to attack others, even humans, to safeguard their young. Geese are also bi-parental and the males do not take their protective duties lightly. If you’ve ever encountered a gander and his family, there’s a good chance the hissing, honking, flapping creature will send you running.
Unlike species of waterfowl, black bear males have little to do with their family. Solitary females give birth to tiny, helpless cubs weighing less than a pound. When compared to the mother’s size, mama bears hold the record for birthing the smallest newborns. Cubs grow quickly, though, and can weigh in at 80 pounds or more by their first birthday. Females keep offspring close by for up to 18 months during a period of intense nurturing. The cubs need to be fed, groomed and taught survival skills including how to a climb tree at the first sign of danger.
Many mammals are diligent parents, but some take a more casual approach to parenting. Rabbits, for example, are known to leave their babies in the nest for long periods during the daytime and may, or may not, return. Opossums’ moms carry their babies (called joeys) in pouches, but if one, or all, fall out, chances are the babies will be orphaned. Most reptiles lay eggs and leave their offspring to fend for themselves. Same goes for turtles and insects.
May is the height of the baby season for wildlife. Appalachian Wild staff and volunteers are busier than ever tending to the needs of animals injured or orphaned largely through human activity. The organization has an urgent message for anyone who finds a wild animal in distress: reach out to a wildlife rehabilitator before touching the animal or attempting aid. Those cute bunnies hidden in the grass may not be orphaned; rather the mother may just be out grazing. Same goes for fawns found alone in grassy areas. A doe instinctively knows how to camouflage and hide her offspring while foraging for food nearby. It’s best to leave the little one alone. The same goes for other critters.
If you are lucky enough to spot a springtime baby, enjoy the experience. But remember: if you care, it’s most often best to leave them there.
Paula Musto is a volunteer for Appalachian Wild. If you encounter a wild animal in distress, call the organization’s hotline at 828.633.5354. Help save wildlife, donate and learn more by visiting AppalachianWild.org.