I have learned over the years that whenever I see animals in the road, I need to prepare to stop, even if the animal has finished crossing, especially during baby season.
Therefore, when I saw the doe leap from the road recently, I slowed to a crawl and scanned the brush in the direction she had come from. Sure enough, a fawn clambered to the verge. I heard a car coming from the opposite direction, so put on my flashers and jumped from my car. As I did, the fawn dropped to the side of the road, chin on the pavement, legs splayed.
The other car stopped, the driver concerned for the apparently badly injured fawn. I assured her that the little thing was fine and as I stood in front of the fawn she drove slowly past, her excited dog barking. The fawn did not stir. Only the black nose, twitching with every breath, and the large, liquid eyes betrayed the creature’s living state.
While newborn deer manage to get to their feet within an hour of birth, they can’t turn on the speed needed to outrun predators, so they must rely on disappearing to survive their first days. After their mothers give them their first bath they have very little odor.
The doe leaves them hidden and leaves them alone. She remains within hearing range and will return to feed them several times a day. When fawns sense danger they freeze and hope they will be mistaken for a patch of sun-dappled shade.
This fawn’s camouflage did not help her on the side of the road, and I feared that when she did decide to move it would be into the path of a car. I did not want to compromise her odorless condition by touching her, so I found a long stick and gave her a nudge. She did not respond. Only when I stuck the pole beneath her and pried her part way up did the fawn hoist herself the rest of the way up and trot back into the bushes.
Rushing cars and predators were not the only hazards faced by such an ill-concealed fawn; she might have been "rescued" by a well-meaning passer-by. Surely no mother would just abandon a helpless baby? After millennia of trial and error, each species has found a strategy that works.
At BEEC we field many calls about young animals that seem to need help. There are several situations in which the answer is clearly yes. If the young animal is clearly emaciated or weak, has injuries that impair movement, is near a dead mother, or has been attacked by a cat, then intervention will increase the youngster’s chance for survival. If the answer to the above questions is no, then it will depend upon the species.
Here are some examples of parenting styles exhibited by different species in my neighborhood:
* Since early spring, a pair of gray foxes has denned near my home. I have been able to track their location and hours of activity by the barks they use to keep track of each other. If this pair of foxes is like most, the vixen gave birth to kits sometime in late April. The kits probably remained in their den until late May. Throughout the months of June and July I could hear the barks of both parents as they foraged day and night to find enough to feed the kits. During that time the kits probably spent much time romping with each other near their den. Any day now, they will begin to accompany their parents on hunting expeditions. By early fall the young foxes will be able to survive on their own.
* Priscilla, a gray squirrel, gave birth to five babies in a cavity in a poplar tree. Female squirrels do all of the work of rearing their young, and so Priscilla left them on their own while she fed herself. The young made their first trips from their nest when they were six weeks old, fully furred and bushy-tailed. The youngsters stayed in their natal tree while they watched and learned about the hazards of the ground -- like foxes and cars. Gradually they learned the routes to neighboring trees. They will be truly independent soon, for like many squirrels, Priscilla is due to give birth to a second litter in a few weeks.
* Then there are the opossums, and their mothering arrangement is the most unusual of all, because I am their mother. These seven little opossums were found clinging to the corpse of their mother by the side of the road. The man who found them gathered the little joeys up and called the Vermont Department of Fish & Wildlife, who gave him my number. As a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I care for orphaned mammals. In traditional opossum families, the mother gives birth after a gestation period of 13 days. The embryonic joeys crawl up to her pouch and they don’t leave for nine weeks. They will remain with their mother, riding on her back or trotting along with her as she moves, and may be independent by the time they are four months old. In my care, the joeys spend most of their time piled in a warm fleece in a box. When they feel hungry, they find the bowl of milk substitute (specially formulated for opossums weighing more than 45 grams). Before they are released this fall, I will be mixing them a special diet, providing them with enrichment, and cleaning up after them regularly. Much as I’ll enjoy them and learn from them, wild things usually do best with the care of their original mother, whatever form it takes.
So, if you see a young animal that looks like it needs help, wait!
Call BEEC and we can help you figure out if intervention is appropriate. Oh, and please be prepared to stop when you see any animal in the road, especially during baby season.
Patti Smith is a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (802-257-5785). The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at email@example.com