Keep Wildlife Wild
Celebrate Keep Wildlife Wild Week, April 1-5, 2024! See information on how to enter the sixth annual Keep Wildlife Wild Poster Contest. Check out the Resources Library and other Educational Materials below for information on how you can help keep wildlife wild.
Wisconsin's year-round outdoor activities bring people outside to enjoy the natural environment and have an opportunity to view and appreciate wildlife resources. Wild animals are valued by many, and it's important to observe them at a respectful distance to keep them wild and allow for their life in the wild to continue.
During the warmer months of spring and summer, the frequency of human-wildlife encounters increases, especially those involving young wild animals. While most of these encounters are harmless, there are times when well-intentioned people interfere in wildlife situations because they incorrectly assume a young animal is orphaned.
How to tell if a wild animal is truly orphaned
The following are tips for determining whether these common animals are truly orphaned. For the protection of all young wildlife, please do not revisit a nest site and do not let dogs and cats near the area. To help you determine if a young wild animal is truly orphaned, refer to the bird, mammal or fawn keys for guidance on evaluating wildlife situations and choosing an appropriate course of action.
- Cottontail rabbit
A cottontail's nest is typically a shallow cup scraped into the soil, lined with some of the mother rabbit's fur and some dried grasses. In human residential areas, these nests are often in unusual locations, such as the middle of a lawn, by a sidewalk, on a playground or in a garden. To avoid attracting the attention of predators to her nest, a mother rabbit does not stay with her young but only visits the nest briefly at dawn and dusk for quick feedings.
The young cottontails, called kits, open their eyes at 1 week old and begin exploring outside of the nest for short periods to nibble on the grass at about 2-to 3 weeks. A cottontail rabbit that is about the size of a softball (4-5 inches long) with eyes open and the ability to hold its ears upright should be capable of being on its own and should be left alone. Cottontails can have multiple litters each year so kits may be encountered any time from spring through fall.
Tip: If a nest is disturbed by a pet, or child or because of lawn work, the nest can be rebuilt, the kits replaced in the nest and the mother will likely return. To determine if the nest is abandoned, you can place several grass stems or very fine twigs in a crisscross pattern over the nest and check it the following morning. If the pattern has been disturbed, then you know the mother has been there to feed the kits. After you have determined the kits are not orphaned, do not keep visiting the nest as your scent could lead predators right to the nest.
- Gray squirrel
At birth, gray squirrels are about the size of a human thumb. Their eyes open when they are about 4 weeks old. At about 7 weeks they begin to explore outside the nest area. They are not weaned until they are 9 weeks old, and they cannot survive on their own until they are at least 12 weeks old. A young squirrel about half the size of an adult, with a bushy tail, is old enough to be on its own. They can have multiple litters each year, so young squirrels, called kits, may be encountered any time from spring through fall.
Tip: If you find a very young squirrel with its eyes still sealed shut, it has probably fallen from its nest. If the kit is not injured, it should be placed back in its nest, if it is safe to do so. If the kit cannot safely be placed back in its nest, place it at the base of the nest tree on a soft, ravel-free cloth (i.e. no loose strings) during daylight hours. There is a good chance the mother will find the kit and return it to the nest herself. Keep an eye on the young squirrel from indoors or from a distance so your presence doesn't prevent the mother from returning, and so you can watch for possible predators. Unless the mother hasn't picked up the kit after two hours, or if a squirrel is injured or acting friendly and following people or pets, it should be left alone.
A female raccoon will typically make her den in a tree cavity, but will sometimes occupy an attic or chimney, if accessible. Young raccoons, called kits, are born into litters of 2-6. Their eyes begin to open at about 3 weeks of age, and at 4 weeks teeth begin to erupt. At 6-8 weeks, raccoon kits are capable of walking, climbing and running and may begin to explore alternate den sites with their mother. Weaning occurs at 8-12 weeks, but the kits may remain with their mother until the following spring.
Tip: If you find a raccoon kit outside of its den and it appears to be sick, cold, weak, injured or still has its eyes closed, you should contact the DNR or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. If you find a seemingly healthy kit with its eyes open, and it's away from its den (e.g. on the ground) but not in immediate danger, watch from a distance to see if it climbs back up to its den or if its mother retrieves it. Unless the kit is still there after two hours, it should be left alone.
If raccoons have taken up residence in your attic, eaves or chimney, they can usually be forced to relocate by making the area less appealing to them. The mother will likely relocate the kits to another den site, carrying one baby at a time. This process may take multiple nights. Preventive measures are also needed to ensure that another raccoon will not occupy that space in the future, so be sure to securely close any possible points of entry and/or cap your chimney after the entire family has left.
- White-tailed deer
Young deer, called fawns, can weigh as little as three pounds at birth. For the first 2-3 weeks after they are born, fawns lack the strength and speed to escape from danger. During this time, they move very little and rely on their spotted, camouflage coat and lack of scent to protect them. The mother further protects her fawn from predators by staying some distance away except when it is time for the fawn to nurse, often just every few hours.
Tip: If you find a fawn lying alone unless the fawn is sick or injured, leave it alone. Leave the area and do not go near the spot again. The mother will not return if people or dogs are present. Do not touch the fawn or bring children, dogs or friends to look at it. Doing so could endanger the fawn by giving away its location to a predator, and its mother won't return to nurse the fawn while people or dogs are nearby.
If a fawn is in obvious danger, such as next to a road or in a parking lot, being mindful of your safety and the safety of others, you can use clean gloves to pick up the fawn and move it to a safer location, as close as possible to the location it was originally found. You can also slowly, quietly and gently try to guide the fawn away from hazards and to a seemingly safer location. The mother will find the fawn. Although you should avoid touching the fawn unless necessary, it is a myth that the mother will reject the fawn if it has a human scent on it.
A songbird's nest, depending on the species and habitat, may be in the branches of a tree or shrub, in a tree cavity, in a birdhouse, on an artificial structure like a porch light or even on the ground. Most songbirds incubate their eggs for about two weeks. Once the eggs hatch, the featherless "nestlings" remain in the nest for about two weeks and are completely dependent on the parents for warmth and food. Young songbirds leave the nest ("fledge") before their flight feathers are fully developed and cannot fly for several days.
After leaving the nest they are referred to as "fledglings." They will hop around on the ground and make short, low-level practice flights, building their strength and coordination as they gradually learn to forage for food.
Tip: It is a myth that parents won't return to care for a young bird if humans have touched it. If you find an uninjured bird that is featherless or with only a few small feathers, or if it's unable to hop from one spot, it probably needs to be placed back into its nest.
If the nest has been destroyed, an artificial nest can often be created with a clean, empty plastic container like a margarine tub. Make sure the container has drainage holes on the bottom and line it with a thick layer of dried grasses or fine twigs for cushioning and insulation. Secure the new nest as close as possible to the original nest location. Watch from a distance for at least one hour to see if the parents find the nestling in the new nest. Unless a parent bird does not return to resume care for the nestling within one hour, it should be left alone.
If you find a fledgling, keep cats, dogs and people away from it and watch from a location where the parent birds cannot see you to see if the parents are still tending to it. When a parent bird returns it may just stop by for a moment to stuff some food in the fledgling's mouth and take off again right away to find more food. Unless the parents do not return within one hour, they should be left alone.
Mallard nests are often located some distance from water and are typically on the ground and concealed by vegetation. Especially in urban areas, nests may also be found in unusual places such as in a flowerpot or planter, under landscape shrubbery in a parking lot or even on a rooftop. The mother hen lays 6-14 creamy to greenish buff-colored eggs. She will not sit on her nest to begin incubating the eggs until all the eggs have been laid. Once she starts to incubate, it will be about 26-30 days before the eggs hatch.
Mallard ducklings are born with their eyes open and have a covering of downy feathers, but they are highly dependent on their mother for warmth and protection from predators. Within about 24 hours of hatching, the mother will lead her ducklings from their nest to water. They will not return to the nest. The downy ducklings are never more than a few feet away from their mother, and she will stay with her brood until the young can fly, approximately two months after hatching.
Tip: If a nest is found in a seemingly dangerous place (e.g. in a busy parking lot or on a rooftop) or if you are concerned about the hen getting the ducklings safely to water, call the DNR or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice. If you see a lone duckling or multiple ducklings without their mother, stop, look and listen for the mother and other siblings. If the rest of the family is not nearby or does not find the duckling(s) within an hour, please do not attempt to place a duckling with another duck family in the wild. If it is not the duckling's own family, the mother will reject the duckling and may even harm it by trying to drive it away.
Coyotes usually mate in February or March and pups are usually born in April. The number of pups in a litter is typically 3-7, but numbers can vary quite a bit. They den in abandoned, existing animal burrows that they modify or they'll dig a new den. Pups are born with short, yellow-brown fur. After about 10 days, their eyes open and they start crawling around the den. At about 3-4 weeks old, the pups begin making trips outside of the den to play. For about the first two months the adult male brings food to the female while she stays close to the pups. The pups are weaned when they are about 6-8 weeks old. Around this time the coyote family abandons the den.
The pups learn how to hunt and forage by following and observing their parents. In the fall or winter of their first year, pups often leave their parents to be on their own, although some remain in a social group or pack with their parents for months longer.
Tip: Coyote pups may be seen outside of their den, exploring during the day, but their parents are usually nearby hunting for food. Unless a pup is injured, appears to be sick or has been alone and crying for hours, it should be left alone.
- Red fox
Red foxes don't live in dens most of the year, but they do modify an existing, abandoned badger or woodchuck burrow when it's time to give birth. Red fox dens can be in forests, ravines or woodlots and sometimes in urban areas and roadsides. They breed in mid-January and have 5-6 young called kits in mid-March. Kits start hunting with their parents when they're 3 months old and are ready to leave and be on their own after about 7-8 months.
Tip: Red fox kits may be seen outside of their den exploring or playing during the day, but their parents are usually nearby, usually out of sight and hunting for food. Observe the kits from a distance; if they seem energetic and healthy, leave them alone. Unless the kit appears weak, injured or alone and crying for hours or if you have reason to believe both parents are dead, it should be left alone.
- Gray fox
Gray foxes prefer bluffs, hills, woodlands and field edges for den sites. The den is often located on a brushy and timbered hillside and may be in a brush pile, beneath a rock outcrop, in a hollow tree or a hollow log and less frequently in an underground burrow. A gray fox tree den may even be located 30 feet above the ground. The den is lined with grass, leaves or shredded bark.
Gray foxes have retractable claws (like cats) and are excellent tree climbers. They breed between mid-February and late March. In April to mid-May, 3-4 young, called kits, are born. At birth, kits weigh about three ounces and are dark-skinned, blind and naked. In 10-12 days, fuzzy fur begins to develop and their eyes open. By 3 months, kits are following their mother away from the den and by 4 months they are hunting on their own. Kits stay with their parents until fall when they leave and live on their own.
Tip: Gray fox kits may be seen outside of their den exploring or playing during the day while their parents are nearby, usually out of sight and hunting for food. Observe the kits from a distance; if they seem energetic and healthy, leave them alone. Unless the kit appears weak, injured alone and crying for hours or if you have reason to believe both parents are dead, it should be left alone.
Opossums are the only marsupial in North America. Female marsupials have a pouch on their abdomen in which they carry and nurse their young. Opossums are nocturnal animals, which means they are most active during the night. During the day, they hide in hollow logs, trees, under brush piles, in road culverts, in rock and stump crevices or under buildings, decks or porches. They are able to live wherever sufficient water, food and shelter exist.
Opossums mate in March, and young, called joeys, are born after only two weeks as embryos. At birth, they are barely larger than a plump raisin and spend about two months nursing within their mother's pouch. When they are about 3-4 inches long, they start to get too large for the pouch and they take to riding around on the mother's back. At about 4 months of age, when joeys are approximately 7-9 inches from snout to rump, they leave their mother and become independent.
Tip: Occasionally, a joey will fall off the mother's back as she travels around looking for food. If it doesn't catch up and climb back on, it will be left behind. Opossums are often hit by motor vehicles when they try to cross a roadway. An adult female that is killed by a motor vehicle may still have live joeys in her pouch or clinging to her fur.
If you find an opossum that is cold, wet, injured, in a dangerous location or less than 7 inches long not including the tail, it may need to be placed in the care of a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. If you find a young opossum and it is longer than 9 inches from snout to rump (not including the tail), it is old enough to be independent of its mother.
- Woodchuck or groundhog
Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, are solitary animals, except for the few weeks a year when females have young, called kits. One litter per year is produced in a burrow underground, usually in April or May. The litter usually contains 2-6 kits that are born blind, naked and helpless. Their eyes don't open until they are about 4 weeks old. When they are 6-7 weeks old they'll begin exploring outside the burrow. By midsummer, they'll be digging practice burrows and will soon leave to continue life on their own.
Tip: If a woodchuck kit is found wandering some distance from its burrow without its mother, it may be orphaned. Watch from a distance for an hour or more to see if it rejoins its mother. If you determine the kit is orphaned, it will likely have littermates that also need help. Continue to search the area often for up to a week to see if its siblings appear. Unless a woodchuck appears to be injured, or sick, is walking in circles or falling over or is known to be orphaned, it should be left alone.
- Striped skunk
Striped skunks are mainly nocturnal animals, which means they are most active at night and spend most of the day in a burrow or den. They are very adaptable and can live wherever sufficient water, food and shelter exist.
They have young, called kits, and are born in late April to early May. Kits are born hairless, with faint black and white markings on their body. It is a common misconception that skunk kits cannot spray. They can create musk at 8 days old and are capable of spraying at 3 weeks old. At 3 weeks old, kits can open their eyes. They leave the den with their mother at 6-8 weeks, fully furred and learning how to search for food.
Tip: Mother skunks are rarely far from their young. If you see active skunk kits outside of their den, the mother is likely nearby. Do not try to pick them up or pet them. Skunks are carriers of rabies in Wisconsin, and therefore licensed wildlife rehabilitators are currently not allowed to provide care for skunks. It is very important to protect the skunk kits by leaving them alone to be raised by their natural mothers.
There are 11 species of turtles in Wisconsin. The semi-aquatic painted turtle is our most abundant species. The state-endangered ornate box turtle is Wisconsin's only terrestrial (totally land-dwelling) turtle. The months of May and June are peak nesting seasons for Wisconsin's turtles. All turtles lay their eggs on land, most in a nest that they dig themselves using their hind feet. Once the eggs are laid, the female turtle buries the eggs and leaves them to hatch on their own. After hatching, young turtles are completely independent and self-sufficient.
Tip: Turtles that are about to lay eggs often crossroads to find soil suitable for nesting. These turtles are often hit by motor vehicles on the roadway by drivers who don't see them in time to avoid them. Be on the lookout for turtles on the roadway, especially during May and June. If it is safe for yourself and others to do so, you can help a turtle cross the road. Be very mindful of your safety and the safety of other drivers, and do not attempt to stop traffic.
Take extra caution if you assist a snapping turtle across a road. Snapping turtles can be large, and heavy, have a very long mobile neck and can bite very hard. To protect yourself, use a shovel or board to scoop up and carry the turtle or use a rake or sturdy stick to push and scoot a snapping turtle, across the road.
When assisting a turtle across the road, move it in the direction in which it is traveling. If you turn it around in the opposite direction the turtle will likely make another attempt to cross the road. Also, do not move the turtle to a "better spot" or different location. Turtles have a familiar home range and females often return year after year to the same general area to lay their eggs.
If you find an injured turtle, call the DNR or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Do not put the injured turtle in the water. The turtle may not be able to keep its head out of the water and could drown.
For more information about how you can help Wisconsin's turtles visit the Wisconsin Turtle Conservation Program.
Five Reasons to Keep Wildlife Wild
- Stress: Wild animals view people and domestic animals as predators and are highly stressed by the sights, sounds and smells of being near humans or domestic animals. This stress can cause serious health problems and even death, for wild animals.
- Diet: Wild animals have specialized dietary needs that are not easily met in captivity. Young wild animals especially require a specific, complete diet; otherwise, they are at a high risk of suffering serious nutritional deficiencies that can leave them deformed for life. Do not feed a wild animal human food items because non-natural food items will most likely cause more harm and will not provide nutritional benefits.
- Disease: Wild animals carry many different diseases and parasites, some of which are transmissible to domestic animals and even humans.
- The habituation/non-natural behavior development: Wild animals need to learn normal social behaviors from their species. Wild animals that learn non-normal behaviors from humans or domestic animals will likely not survive if they are released because they have not learned the correct survival skills, they have lost their natural fear of humans and predators and they may be abnormally habituated to human activity. As young animals grow into adults, they can still demonstrate dangerous wild animal behaviors that can threaten human and domestic animal safety.
- It's illegal: Most wild animals are protected under state and federal laws and cannot be taken from the wild or possessed by unauthorized citizens. Raising a wild animal as a pet is not only against laws and regulations, but it is not doing the right thing for the animal. Wisconsin's captive wildlife regulations allow a citizen to possess a wild animal for up to 24 hours to transfer that animal to an appropriately licensed individual, such as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian. Even though wild animals are cute, they should not be viewed as pets.
How you can help injured, sick or truly orphaned wildlife
Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed individuals trained and equipped to provide temporary care and treatment to injured, sick and orphaned wild animals for the purpose of release back into the wild. Never attempt to rehabilitate wildlife on your own. Wild animals can carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans and pets. They are also capable of inflicting injury on themselves or others as they fight to defend themselves against a perceived threat (humans or pets). They have very specific dietary and housing requirements that are not easily met in captivity. Plus, rehabilitating wildlife without a license is against the law in Wisconsin.
Contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately if you have determined that a wild animal is sick, injured or truly orphaned. Never attempt to rehabilitate wildlife on your own.
Contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately, if any of the following apply.
- The animal's parent is dead or no longer in the area (trapped and relocated).
- The animal has been attacked by a predator (dog, cat, or another wild animal).
- The animal is bleeding and appears injured (bruises, punctures, cuts, broken bones).
- The animal is emaciated, very weak, cold or soaking wet.
- The animal has diarrhea.
- There are flies, fly eggs, maggots or many ticks, lice or fleas on the animal.
- The animal is in a dangerous location (busy street, parking lot).
- I found a baby bird
- I found a baby mammal
- I found a fawn
- Don't Feed Wildlife
- Wildlife Fact Sheet
- Keep Wildlife Wild brochure
- Recommendations for Transporting Wildlife
- Fawn education cartoon