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Keeping Wild Families Together: Simple steps for what to do when you find young wildlife

Keeping wild families together: Simple steps for what to do when you find young wildlife
Signs of spring come in many forms here in Minnesota. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know that with the warmer temperatures comes the hope that the ground will begin to thaw and that spring isn’t far behind. As sunny days lure you outdoors to clean up your yard or garden, we wanted to share some advice from the team at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge about what to do if you find young wildlife on your property. Take a few minutes to learn some simple steps to protect wildlife.

As the spring season ushers in a new generation of wildlife, your yard might be just the right mix of safety and shelter for wildlife that were recently born in underground dens, like American badgers and red foxes, and others that are hatching in high up nests, like bald eagles and great horned owls. While those youngsters might be harder to spot, white-tailed deer fawns are a more common sighting.

Hidden in plain sight 

Spring is a vulnerable time for young deer. For the first six weeks after they give birth, female deer leave their newborn or young fawns curled up in a safe space while they venture off to find food. This may not seem safe to you, but for deer, this is all about safety. If adult deer took their young with them to find food, the journey would be slow, given the wobbly legs of their offspring. Curled up, a fawn’s spotted coat and lack of scent allows them to largely remain undetected by predators while the adult is off finding food. If you spot a fawn in your garden, on your porch or even in a roadside ditch, leave them be and monitor them throughout the day from a safe distance. If the doe doesn't return within several hours, or the fawn has been crying at length without the parent responding, call a permitted wildlife rehabilitator for next steps.

Similarly, eastern cottontail rabbits leave their young alone in shallow nests, only returning to nurse them in the early morning and late evening. If you discover a nest in your yard, it’s best to put the young rabbits back in their nest, cover them back up and keep your pets and children a safe distance away. If you’re worried that the adult has abandoned them, call a permitted wildlife rehabilitator for next steps.

While you might discover these animals in the relative open area of your yard, your property might also welcome wildlife who seek shelter. Raccoons might choose to take up residence under your porch or in your boat under the cover. These types of locations are similar to the tree cavities that they usually nest in and provide them a safe and quiet environment to raise their young. Early spring is the time to secure any holes or gaps and to add lighting (even a shop light) to any dark and cozy areas, before they have their young in May and truly set up shop. Similar to the rabbits, if you suspect that young are orphaned, call a permitted wildlife rehabilitator for next steps. We bet you’re starting to see a trend in our advice! Simply put, when in doubt, keep a distance and contact your local wildlife rehabilitator for next steps.

Found a baby bird?

Another common animal you might come across in the spring are baby birds. If you spot a baby bird on the ground, the first step is to determine if it’s a just-hatched nestling or a teenage fledgling. Nestlings will be pink with minimal feathering and won’t move much on the ground. Fledglings, in contrast, will be mostly feathered, though they might look awkward as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service News Release they hop on the ground. Nestlings should be gently returned to their nest if you can find it. Don’t worry that your scent will deter their parent from caring for them – that's a myth that needs to be busted. If you’ve instead encountered a fledgling, the best thing you can do is leave them be. This allows them to continue learning how to hop, fly and find food under the loose supervision of their parents.

If a bird starts building an unwanted nest on a structure, like over a light or under an overhang, you should address it sooner rather than later. Almost all birds native to the United States, including their nests and eggs, are protected by federal law. Once migratory bird eggs have been laid, federal regulations require that you leave the nest undisturbed until the chicks have left the nest.

Call first and save a trip

While we are happy to provide you with information, we’ll most likely direct you to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville (651-486-9453) or Wild and Free in Garrison (320-692-5417). Both locations are permitted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and specialize in taking care of orphaned or wounded animals. Unless the animal is injured or obviously sick, please call prior to bringing them in, as the trip is likely unnecessary. If the young rabbits or other animals are healthy, and the rehabilitator doesn't suspect that the parents have abandoned the young, you’ll likely be sent back home and advised to return the young to their nest. It’s always better for the wild family to stay together, if at all possible.

If you do need to bring wildlife to a rehabilitation center, there are a couple things to keep in mind. Most wildlife are protected by state and federal regulations which means that only permitted rehabilitators can take in and keep animals onsite. These regulations also can apply to transporting animals, so it’s safest to call your local conservation officer before beginning the capture and transport process. If you are unsure what agency to call, call the Department of Natural Resources at 651-296- 6157. Also keep in mind that there are always risks when trying to capture wildlife, and you need to keep your personal safety in mind.

Please note that we are unable to accept animals at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge and that releasing animals onto the refuge is not allowed. Not only is this illegal, releasing wildlife from outside the refuge displaces other native animals and can potentially spread disease.

The best way for you to protect wildlife that you discover on your property is most often to give it space to move through the vulnerable time of raising their young. Keeping a respectful distance from your pets and young children is the best gift you can give wildlife. Enjoy the gift of getting a window into what spring means for your native wildlife.

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and is located near the cities of Princeton, Zimmerman, and St. Cloud, in central Minnesota. Website:

The mission of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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