How to rescue, care for injured or orphaned urban wildlife


Jump down for rescue of:     Adult songbird    Baby songbird    Bird of prey    Large bird   Rabbit    Squirrel   Opossum    Raccoon   Fox   Skunk   Fawn

That little fledgling on the ground, mouth wide open, waiting to be fed, probably doesn’t need a human’s help. Loving wildlife means leaving it alone unless it appears sick, emaciated, weak, cold, injured, in imminent danger, or you’re certain its parents have abandoned it.

If you must rescue, it’s important to get the animal into the care of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator because that’s its best hope for survival and release. Wild babies, in particular, need very specialized care and feeding. Opossum babies, for instance, require a feeding tube, and baby rabbits need specific bacteria for their intestinal health, or they may die. But adults, too, need proper medical care, special foods, and experienced handling directed toward their safe release back into the wild. If you don’t know who to contact, your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, a local nature center, or even a birdseed store can probably steer you to one. Online, The Humane Society of the United States has a list that will lead you to wildlife rehabilitators in your state.1 

First and foremost, please remember that wild animals are wild. They don’t willingly go with humans, even for their own good. From the animal’s perspective, imagine what it must be like: It’s ill or injured and helpless, and one of the “predators” its parents warned him about approaches. It can’t get away, and it’s being stared at, which is considered a threat. The predator “wrestles” it, no matter how carefully, into submission and then puts it in a closed container. No wonder it fights and bites!

While the animal is in your care

Wear gloves to pick it up: They’ll help protect you from scratches and bites. Also, from ticks, fleas, mites, parasites or diseases. And they’ll keep your scent off the animal in the fortunate event you can release it soon.

How to approach:

  • Wear gloves to keep you safe from bites and scratches, as well as parasites and diseases. They’ll also keep your scent off the animal.
  • Approach slowly and quietly.
  • Try to stay out of the animal’s line of sight.
  • Cover it completely with a blanket or towel, to help calm it. You can remove the cloth once the animal is secured in a box or crate. But leave it loosely draping the container if you can be seen.
  • Thoroughly wash your hands and all materials that come into contact with the animal.

Containment: Punch air holes in the container. (Even insects need air.) Place the container in a dark, quiet, warm room. Ensure the container doesn’t crowd the animal but is small enough to keep it from flailing about too much, causing further injury.

Keep it warm: An animal can be kept warm with a heating pad set on low. Place it under only half of the container so the animal can move away from the heat if it’s too warm. Alternatively, a heat lamp, a wet cloth warmed in a microwave and sealed in a plastic bag, or a hot water bottle will work. In all instances, make sure the animal is only warmed, not cooked! This may mean controlling the heat by wrapping a heating pad with a towel to reduce the heat transmitted or moving a heat lamp farther away. Use a room thermometer if necessary (out of the animal’s reach, of course.) An internet search will tell you the optimum temperature for your rescued animal.

Don’t feed: Wild animals require special diets, sometimes critically specialized ones, and methods for administering food. A mistake can kill, sometimes painfully. This is especially true for young ones. For instance, mammal babies must have their genitals stimulated after eating in order to urinate and defecate, and cow’s milk can kill some animals. Giving food or water to a chilled animal can kill it, too, because its body will divert energy to digest food instead of warming it. Consult with a wildlife rehabilitator before giving food.

Feeding exception for birds: You can help a rescued nestling survive while getting it to a wildlife rehabilitator by giving it three or four pea-sized bites of canned dog food on the tip of a toothpick and one drop of water every hour. Take care not to puncture its mouth. You won’t need to hold it. If it’s healthy, it’ll keep its mouth wide open. Place the food on the back of its tongue. Don’t lay it on its back, which could cause it to inhale the food or water.

First aid: In all but the most basic situations, such as applying pressure to a severely bleeding wound, contact a wildlife rehabilitator before administering first aid. Only apply human medications to an animal after consulting first. This includes topical antibiotics.

Aggressive animal: Don’t approach. Call a wildlife rehabilitator for advice. In some cases, rescuing an animal is too complicated for an inexperienced person. It requires the help of a professional wildlife trapper.

Not a pet: Don’t make it a pet, however tempting, not even a baby one. There are many good reasons. Learn more about that here, and here’s an entertaining and serious warning about keeping a wild pet, in this case, a ground squirrel.

Get expert advice: If you can’t get help from a wildlife rehabilitator and there’s nowhere else to turn, rely on the internet. Numerous sites offer precise details about first aid and care for wildlife. In many cases, contact information is available so that you can email or call them.

About rabies: Should you worry about rabies? Probably not. Animals are rarely rabid, and it’s a fallacy that nocturnal species out in the daytime are invariably rabid. Skunks, foxes, raccoons, opossums, and others sometimes venture out in the daytime, particularly in spring and early summer, when mothers and their young search for food. Signs of rabies are lethargy, stupor, walking in circles, paralysis of one or both back legs, falling   over,  eye or nose discharge, or unexplained aggressiveness toward humans (please remember, though, that even healthy animals will turn on us if they feel threatened, and especially if they’ve been cornered.) If the animal exhibits any of these symptoms, with no other discernible cause, such as having been struck by a car, call animal control for help.

Wildlife and rabies, the facts   •   Rabies surveillance report state by state

Adult songbird rescue

  • Approach a bird from the back and grasp it gently at its shoulders. Keep its wings folded close to its body so it can’t wildly flap and injure itself. Cup it in your hands.
  • Place it in a small box with a weighted lid or a paper bag clipped closed at the top with a clothespin. Put paper towels on the bottom for footing and punch air holes. Don’t use a wire cage or aquarium.
  • Place it in a quiet room, but not too warm, as birds can quickly overheat and die. If it’s a nestling, cup it in your hands until you feel its body warm up. A hot water bottle filled with warm water, or even two bottles, one placed on each side of the bird, will help. The water should be the warmth of baby’s milk.
  • If a bird hits your window and survives, it may flutter to the ground, temporarily stunned, often with eyes closed. If it’s safe from predators, leave it to recover. If it’s unsafe or the weather is cold, rescue it and keep it warm.
  • When it flutters in its container and struggles in your hands, it’s probably ready to leave.
  • Set it on the ground; don’t launch it into the air. Or, turn its container on its side, open it, and wait for the bird to fly out. If it doesn’t soon fly away, gather it up and try again later.
  • If it never wants to fly away, contact a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.

Baby songbird rescue:

“Altricial” birds, born featherless and with eyes closed, depend on their parents for a few weeks after birth.

  • If you find such a one, it seems alert and is opening its mouth (indicating hunger), put it back in its nest.
  • If you can’t reach the nest, build one in a Cool-Whip™ or similar container. Punch several holes in the bottom for drainage and line the bowl with paper towels (don’t use grass clippings).
  • Nail the bowl as close to the original nest as possible and place the nestling in it. The parents will probably feed their nestlings in both of the nests.
  • Watch from a distance for an hour or two. If the parents repeatedly go to the original nest and ignore the new one, then rescue it and keep it warm.
  • Featherless nestlings must be fed every half hour through the daytime, so contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately.
  • If it will take a while to get it to the wildlife rehabilitator, feed it three or four pea-sized bites of canned dog food on the tip of a toothpick and one drop of water every hour.

“Precocial” birds nest on the ground. Their babies have feathers and can see from the moment they hatch. They can eat on their own and follow their mothers around. If you see one, its Mom is probably nearby. Killdeer, sandpipers, Whip-poor-wills, nighthawks, quail, and pheasant are some of the precocial species. Unless such a bird is visibly ill—can’t stand or peeps weakly—leave it be.

Fledglings: A fledgling is a young bird that has left its nest voluntarily to begin its transition into adulthood. It will have visible down (small, fluffy feathers) along with some stiff adult feathers.

  • Unless it appears weak or ill, it should be left alone, even if it’s calling for its parents. They’re nearby, watching, and will feed it until its adult feathers grow and it can fly, usually a week or two.
  • If it’s exposed, like in the center of a grassy area, gently pick it up and place it under the protective covering of a nearby shrub.
Blue Jay fledgling, still downy and lacking tail feathers perched on small tree limb and looking at the camera.

This little Blue Jay is a fledgling and doesn’t need rescuing. Although it’s still downy, it’s growing feathers. Its parents are somewhere nearby. (WW; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

 Injured bird:

  1. Place a cloth over the bird and pick it up.
  2. Put it in a paper bag or box (not a cage), with paper toweling on the bottom to keep it from slipping.
  3. Punch air holes.
  4. Contact a rehabilitator.
  5. Don’t attempt to give it food or water before then.

Pets and children: Don’t leave your pet (especially a cat) outdoors while a fledgling is on the ground. If your child brings a young one home that appears healthy, return it to where it was found (bird parents don’t reject offspring touched by humans.) Hopefully, the parents are still around looking for their baby and haven’t yet abandoned it. If the baby’s cries don’t elicit a response from parents within thirty minutes or so, the baby will need to be rescued. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.

Bird of prey rescue

Little Owl, Athene noctua, standing on a hand wearing a brown, leather glove.

Always wear thick gloves when handling birds of prey. Even this Little Owl, Athene noctua, can cause injury with its beak and talons. (Peter Trimming / Geograph; CC BY-SA 2.0)

Songbirds are easy to handle. Birds of prey are a whole different ballgame. Also called raptors, they’re aggressive and kill and eat other animals. The bigger the raptor, the bigger the prey they can catch. They have razor-sharp talons, and their beaks are used to tear flesh. Even small raptors are powerful. They include owls, hawks, falcons, and kestrels.

Adult raptors are unpredictable and dangerous. 

  1. Wear thick gloves and, if possible, safety glasses. Unless the bird was hit by a car and knocked unconscious, the best way to pick up an adult is to approach from behind and completely cover it with a rug or blanket.
  2. Move quickly to restrain its legs, scoop it up, and keep the bird’s face away from you.
  3. Place it in a box with a towel or carpet on the bottom for footing.
  4. Don’t feed it.
  5. Only attempt a rescue you’re sure you can handle; call a rehabilitator for advice.

Featherless or downy: If you find a baby on the ground that’s featherless or downy, try to return it to its nest. Beware of its parents—some large raptors can attack with such force they’ll knock you right out of the tree or off your ladder. Not to mention, they may have their talons out for you. If the nest can’t be reached, leave it where you found it for thirty minutes to see if the parents are feeding it.

If it must be rescued, it can be fed small amounts of raw poultry or raw lean beef for a couple of days, but after that, it must have raw meat with “roughage,” meaning bones and fur or feathers in it. So, it’s vital to contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away.

Some raptors nest in places other than trees. For example, the Screech Owl often nests in owl houses, and the Short-eared Owl nests on the ground. It may help you locate the nest if you can identify the kind of bird.

Feathered: If the bird has some feathers, it has fledged and should be left alone. Its parents are probably nearby (and possibly prepared to attack you if you bother their little one.) Watch from a distance for an hour or so before declaring it an orphan. Even though still smaller than adult size, place a towel over the bird before picking it up, and keep the beak and feet away from your face. It will need the expertise of a wildlife rehabilitator to be fed and raised correctly so it can be eventually released.

Large bird rescue

Herons, egrets, geese, and others: These birds are strong and quick. Their wings, legs, and piercing beaks can all be dangerous. The bigger the bird, the harder it is to control. If you have a long-handled fishing net, use it. Or, use a blanket, coat, or towel to cover it completely before picking it up. Hold its head and neck firmly to keep its beak away from your face. Put it in a box with paper towels on the bottom and air holes. A warm, dark, quiet room will help reduce its stress. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

Ducks: Even a small duck is surprisingly strong, and its beak can deliver a painful pinch. Handle it carefully.

Rabbit rescue

Never lift a rabbit of any size by its ears; it’s harmful and painful. Wild rabbits are cute but don’t like being handled—even newborns may struggle against it. Hold it firmly to prevent thrashing about; they have a fragile spine, easily broken.

Human hand, palm open, holding a tiny, nearly hairless gray bunny. It's eyes are closed and ears are flat.

Bunny rescued from the jaws of a dog (Tony Alter / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)

Only rescue a baby rabbit (kit) if you absolutely must.

  • If you come across kits whose nest has been destroyed, rebuild the nest with grasses and whatever you can find of the mother’s fur and put them in it. Cover with a light layer of grasses or leaf litter. If it can’t be rebuilt in that same hole, build a new nest as close as possible. Position the kits close together for warmth. The mother will hopefully find them. Read more about rabbit nesting and offspring.
  • Monitor whether the kits are being cared for by laying a string or a couple of sticks in a small X pattern on top of the covered nest. If it’s disturbed the next morning, you’ll know the mother has been there. Don’t hang around to watch. Mothers nurse their babies only twice a day, dawn and dusk. She won’t do it if she knows you’re there.
  • If the kits are cold, covered with parasites, weak, or obviously abandoned, keep them warm and contact a wildlife rehabilitator. (Be sure to get an agreement from the rehabilitator that the kits won’t be used as live food for other critters, which has been known to happen.) Only attempt to feed babies yourself if you have no other choice and you’ve learned just what to do. 

Trying to raise kits yourself may doom them to a painful death. Even experienced wildlife rehabilitators can have trouble keeping them alive. They’re fragile, don’t very well tolerate handling by humans, require a specialized diet that includes immune system-building bacteria they get from their mother, and are prone to quickly dying from irreversible shock or stomach problems.

Squirrel rescue

Baby squirrel: A baby squirrel (kit) that has hair bears watching for an hour before assuming it’s orphaned. The mother will retrieve it as soon as she’s aware it’s missing from her nest. If hairless, the situation is more critical, but watch for several minutes. Look for the nest. If it’s accessible (most aren’t), put it in there. Otherwise, keep the infant warm and contact a wildlife rehabilitator right away.

Rescued baby squirrel lying on its back in a person's hand while being fed with a tiny baby bottle.

Rescued baby squirrel (Tiffany Bailey / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)

  • Warm a chilled kit by snuggling it in your hands. As soon as its body temperature is the same as yours, place it in a container with paper towels or a soft cloth for its “nest” materials (don’t use a material that unravels, such as a bath towel).
  • Place a heating pad, set on low, under one-half of the box. This leaves the other half unheated so the squirrel can move away if it gets too warm. Carefully monitor the heat.

Don’t try to raise the squirrel yourself. It requires a specialized diet and round-the-clock feeding. Also, it won’t make a good pet. It’s wild and belongs in the wild. In your home, it will require a huge cage and opportunities to be active to alleviate boredom. If unmonitored, it will chew your furniture and electrical wires, climb your drapes, knock over all your decorative items, and pine for others of its kind.

Injured adult squirrel: Wrap an injured adult in a thick towel and place it in a secure box. Watch out—its teeth are like razors, and, unless it’s unable, will deliver a bite you’ll remember. Its nails are razor-sharp, too. Squirrels gnaw on things, so a wire cage is best if it has some energy. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator.

Opossum rescue

Although opossums do sometimes come out in the daytime, it isn’t common. If you see one, it’s probably a young one that has fallen off its mother, or she’s dead. Opossums hiss and snarl to appear dangerous, even the babies, and may bite, although they usually don’t. They sometimes play dead.

Close up of juvenile Virginia Opossum facing the camera. Its wrapped in a white towel being held by someone.

An injured young Virginia Opossum in the care of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. (WW; CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Baby opossums cling to their mother’s body for about six weeks after they leave her pouch. They won’t voluntarily leave her. If it’s smaller than 8 inches (20 cm) long (not counting its tail) or appears injured, it needs your help, even if it tries to get away. Look around to see if there are other babies nearby.

Opossums are sweet-tempered, and the babies are adorable. Handle it gently and wrap it in a soft towel. Don’t feed it—it needs a specialized diet, and very young ones require a feeding tube, as they lack a “suckle” instinct. They can easily die from stress, so keep the orphan warm and take it to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Although opossums are docile, one that needs rescuing is frightened and possibly in pain.

  • Use a thick towel or thick gloves to pick up a juvenile or adult, and keep its mouth away from you.
  • Or, use a broom to gently sweep it into a box turned on its side, then turn it upright and weigh down the lid. Punch air holes. 

Raccoon rescue

Don’t rush to judgment if you believe a raccoon is orphaned. Observe it for three or four hours to make sure the parent is not coming back.

Be careful when handling one. Injured or ill, it’ll be highly stressed, frightened, and possibly in pain. Even a young one may snarl, growl, and try to bite.

  • Stay out of its reach, place a box over it, and weigh it down.
  • Or turn a box on its side, sweep the raccoon gently into it with a broom, then upright the box and secure the top. Punch air holes.
  • Call a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions. 

Adult (not babies) raccoons can—rarely—carry rabies. If you encounter one that’s aggressive, shows little fear of you, is listless, drooling, paralyzed, or exhibiting any other symptoms of neurological deterioration, call Animal Control. Try to contain it, but only if you can safely do so.

Keep your pets away from raccoons. Raccoons are susceptible to distemper and may carry a roundworm, baylisascaris procyonis, that’s harmless to them but dangerous to humans and pets. Thoroughly wash or dispose of any materials that touch the raccoon, and carefully disinfect any carrier or cage you put it in.

Fox rescue

Foxes are non-aggressive, non-confrontational animals; they won’t want to fight you. But they’re curious and may want to watch you. If you come face to face with a healthy adult and feel uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to yell, stamp your feet, wave your arms, or spray it with water. It’ll leave the scene.

If the fox appears ill, stay far away. It’s rare, but foxes can contract rabies. If it’s listless, aggressive, or behaving in other abnormal ways, call Animal Control. 

Adult fox: If a fox appears healthy but injured, don’t try to touch it, even if you’re armed with thick gloves and padding. They have needle-sharp teeth and will bite badly. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.

Three small, brown baby Red Foxes in a row, each eating from a little red bowl.

Orphaned Red Foxes (© Colin Seddon / Shutterstock)

Young foxes: As for young ones (kits), it’s normal for them to start exploring the area around their den, beginning when they’re about a month old. If you spot one, it’s probably doing just that. Try not to handle it, but if it’s in danger or not well hidden, wear gloves and move it to a nearby sheltered spot. It may bark, a sign that it’s hungry. Its parents are busy trying to find food. Observe from a distance, like thirty feet (9 m) or more, so the parents will approach their baby. 

  • If the kit looks cold, place it on a warm blanket, towel, or hot water bottle (about the temperature of a baby bottle) within a box with low sides.
  • Stay well away. If a parent doesn’t show up within three or four hours, a tragedy has probably occurred. If it hasn’t been rescued soon after dark, you’ll need to take it under your care.
  • Keep it warm in an enclosed box (with air holes). Place it in a quiet, darkened room, safe from pets.
  • If you must keep it overnight, feed it only Pedialite for rehydration. Use an eyedropper or pet-nursing bottle. Do this every three to four hours, followed by gentle rubbing of its genitals and anus until it urinates, defecates, or both—this isn’t an option; it must be done for the kit’s health. Use a cotton ball or pad.
  • Get it to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.

Skunk rescue

If you must rescue a skunk, approach it very slowly, making all your movements deliberate, with no sudden, jerky motions. Skunks have poor eyesight, so continuously speak to it softly to let it know where you are. A startled skunk will spray. If it stamps its feet, hisses, or growls, it’s a warning to stay away. If it turns its back, it’s going to spray. Run away fast because it can shoot its oily, smelly musk about ten feet (3 m). Don’t risk getting sprayed. It stings the skin, burns the eyes, may require throwing away your clothes and taking numerous showers, and people will avoid you for days and days!

Young Striped Skunk lying across stuffed, gray-colored toy with woman's hand holding its head.

Young Striped Skunk, Mephitis mephitis, needing care. (Charles Barilleaux / Flickr; CC BY 2.0)

  • Approach a skunk from the front as you cover it with a cloth or old towel. Keep its face away, as it can bite.
  • Put it inside a secure box, lined with paper towels or a soft cloth, and with air holes. Contact a wildlife rehabilitator for instructions.
  • If it’s a baby (kit), watch it for a while to ensure it’s truly an orphan. Its mother and siblings may be out of sight nearby, foraging for worms and grubs. A kit doesn’t need a rescue if it would take two hands to pick it up, unless it’s injured.
  • Kits can spray even before their eyes open, so approach as described above.
  • Keep it warm with a heating pad placed under half of the box in a dark, quiet place until you can get it to a wildlife rehabilitator.

Skunks have a reputation for being rabid. It’s true but rare. However, if you see a skunk in mid-day and it’s behaving bizarrely—circling, mutilating itself, screeching, paralyzed, or acting suspiciously tame—call Animal Control and stay away. Skunks typically come out first thing in the morning and at twilight. When tending to her young, a hungry mother may come out at any time of the day or night to scrounge for food. So please don’t assume a skunk is rabid unless it displays symptoms. Any skunk captured by Animal Control will be euthanized.

Fawn rescue

You probably will never see a fawn lying among tree debris on a forest floor or tucked in a stand of tall grasses. Its tawny coat camouflages it perfectly as it lies motionless, waiting for its mother to return. Still, if you should find one, help it stay safe by leaving it alone. Keep away, and don’t touch! Fawns don’t have a body odor for the first few days of their life, which keeps them safe from predators—if they can’t be seen, they can’t be smelled. 

Mother deer stay away from their fawns most of the day so as not to attract predators to them. Only approach a fawn if you’re sure it’s orphaned. It’ll perish if you frighten it away, and it never finds its mother. The only way you’ll know if it’s an orphan is by observation or if you find the mother’s dead body. Watch through the day and night from a well-hidden place. 

Before attempting to rescue a fawn, contact a wildlife rehabilitator or your local Parks and Wildlife officials for assistance. If the rescue is all up to you and the fawn is only a few days old, you may be able to catch it because it’ll freeze when it first sees you. That will give you a chance to grab it. Move quickly. It’s best to have other people help. Otherwise, unless it’s ill, injured, or weak, it’ll flee into the arms of almost certain death. An injured fawn can be carried in a suspended blanket.

1 “How to find a wildlife rehabilitator,” The Humane Society of the United States,

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