Last week, as I walked toward the door fumbling with my keys, I almost missed what a thunderstorm had left in my front yard while I was carrying in my takeout: a tiny bird's nest lying on the grass. I approached with fingers crossed, and I found two baby birds that had fallen victim to the downpour. Only one was still breathing. Over the next two hours, I hatched a plan to save the little guy’s life. Thanks to the staff at the Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition (TWRC), a Houston nonprofit that provides emergency care and rehabilitation for injured and orphaned animals, I was able to.
TWRC helps determine if an animal is truly orphaned or injured based on their movement, appearance, and surroundings. They offer veterinary exams and treatment at their on-site care program in Northwest Houston and find certified home-based rehab facilities or outdoor sanctuaries for animals to recover at before being released back into the wild too.
With hurricane season making for the busiest months at TWRC— heavy rains and wind can knock nests out of trees, and summer is also prime breeding season for various local wildlife species—we asked rehabilitation coordinator Liz Compton for tips on what to do should you find a helpless animal friend in your yard.
For starters, never try to feed it—aspiration or digestion problems can be fatal. If you suspect an animal is injured, it's best to get it to a dark, quiet environment immediately, until it's brought into TWRC. And remember, “Every species is so different,” Compton says. “That’s why we ask people to call us first.”
Follow these tips to help the right way.
When a baby bird is too young to be out of the nest (signs include unopened eyes, lack of feathers, light fluff) and isn’t injured, Compton encourages “re-nesting” them. Grab a water-proof container with holes in the bottom in case of rain, place grass and leaves inside (or the baby’s original nest if possible), and nail it to the tree the nest fell out of, preferably 10 feet above the ground. Place the little one inside and watch from a distance to see if its parents return. After 30 minutes to an hour, if there’s no sign of them, you can start making the baby a temporary home.
For baby birds, that means placing a t-shirt or towel inside of a shoebox with holes in the lid for ventilation. Place half of the box on top of a heating pad set on low, while the other half remains off, so the animal can pick which side is more comfortable. Keeping the bird in a dark, quiet place helps them feel secure until you can bring them to the experts.
If you find an uninjured baby squirrel (again, look for unopened eyes) place it in a shallow box near the tree you found it by, and on a high-enough surface (a chair or small table) to prevent ant exposure. If the baby is shivering or cold to the touch, place a hot water bottle or hand warmers in the box with a piece of fabric between the heat source and squirrel. Give the mother four hours of daylight to retrieve her baby. If there’s no sign of her, make an appointment with your local center.
Finding baby rabbits alone in a nest isn’t uncommon, since the mother only nurses at dusk and at dawn. To determine if bunnies are orphaned, you can perform the “string test”—cover the babies with dried grass and place string or twigs in an “X” formation on top. If you return the next day and the string is disturbed, the babies are being cared for. If there’s no disruption after 12 hours, you should take further action.
Wild rabbits are one of the only animals who will reject their babies if they sense human smell, Compton says, so use gloves or a cloth barrier when touching them, and only handle them when needed.
Raccoons commonly take shelter in Texas attics, and many people’s first reaction is to call animal control. But adult raccoons often hide their babies in the space, so Compton advises trying to get the raccoons to relocate on your own.
You can do this safely by using radios or scent deterrents like soiled cat litter, ammonia, or even sweaty human clothes that alert the raccoons of a threat and cause them to leave. This way the whole family can move out, and orphaned babies won’t be crying in your attic a week after animal control hauls off the parents.
Plus, baby raccoons have to stay in rehab for up to seven months, which is how long they’d usually stay with their mother before going off into the wild. And, Compton adds, “We get so many raccoons that we physically can’t take anymore.”
Though birds, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons are the most commonly found in Houston, the TWRC also takes in a large variety of wild animals to rehabilitate with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. To view a more detailed list of the wild animals they accept, visit their website.
And one more thing. The TWRC does all this through community support. “We’re a non-profit that relies 100% on people donating to us in order to pay for the animal’s care,” Compton says.
Care about the future of our local wildlife? You can make a donation right here.