We all need to be aware of naive young wildlife at this time of year
As feathered migrants begin to fill spring days with new songs, the warmer, wet nights prompt another nature event. Crawling stiffly out of hibernation, numerous species of frogs and salamanders as well as American toads begin a slow, silent trek to pools and ponds. Soon, the evening air erupts in peeps and trills as the frogs and toads find each other, court, mate and lay eggs. Salamanders woo quietly.
Many of these amphibians never reach their destination. Roads frequently lay in their path from overwintering sites to breeding pools. Vehicles traveling after dark can prove fatal to this mass movement of slow-moving, cold-blooded creatures. It’s worth slowing down on warm, wet spring nights, and using one’s headlights to avoid our thin-skinned neighbours.
Nature extends the longest possible period of fine weather to the generation about to be born. That gives the newborn more time to acquire survival skills from parents and learn through direct experience. Adult breeding seasons begin early, in some cases even before winter begins to wane.
Young birds and mammals are often easily noted by their behaviour. Out for the first time, many are clumsy and naive. Roads are sometimes decorated in spring with indecisive young squirrels that froze in the paths of approaching vehicles. Young mammals such as black bears, coyotes, bobcats, otters and foxes, as well as rodents like beavers, woodchucks and chipmunks are usually born in dens located underground or hidden in rocks and woody debris on the ground. During this time, if a bear or coyote appears in front of you on a trail and holds its ground, it may be defending a den site and/or young. Back off slowly. Do not run!
Bats, squirrels and some mice nest in cavities of trees. Youngsters emerging from dens on the ground or holes in trees have to quickly become educated about their new environment, so give them some space.
Female moose (cows) and white-tailed deer (does) usually find a quiet place to give birth to their offspring. Within minutes, calves or fawns are struggling to their feet. With newfound but shaky mobility, they remain vulnerable to predators like bobcats, black bears and coyotes for days and then weeks. Does will hide fawns before leaving to feed elsewhere. Two fawns will be separated so an intruder may only locate one. If you find a fawn curled up on the forest floor, leave quietly. If it erupts from the ground in front of you and runs away at your approach, retreat in another direction. Avoid any inclination to rescue “abandoned” fawns or calves unless you’re absolutely certain that “mom” is dead.
Fawns and young foxes can be very inquisitive about humans. Usually a fawn’s curiosity is not fatal, but it sure upsets the doe. Where I live, as the fawns walk closer to inspect me, mom stomps, snorts and calls out warnings. On the other hand, curious young foxes at a beach are sometimes lured by people with picnic sandwiches in order to have a closer look. Soon the kits are soliciting food from beach goers on boardwalks. That scenario frequently ends when a dog, accompanying a family to the beach, kills the young fox. Feeding young wild mammals and birds can create expectations that prove fatal. However tempting, we should resist it.
Sparrows, some warblers and other birds that nest before the leaves unfold often locate their nest in groundcover shrubs or brush. They become visibly agitated when one ventures too close. This is a sure sign to back away. Ruffed grouse, many ducks, northern harriers, spotted sandpipers, killdeer, American woodcock, snipe and willets and others are also ground-nesters. If you find a nest, curiosity might prompt you to visit it periodically. However, humans leave a scent trail to the nest, which makes it vulnerable to raccoons, skunks and foxes. They are not only curious, but opportunistic.
Many biological studies of ground- nesting waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife populations have ended abruptly when scientists were tracked by predators that subsequently destroyed eggs and/or young.
Active tree nests in woodlands are, inadvertently, frequently cut down and destroyed during the breeding season. Landowners who care about nature should consider curtailing their forestry silviculture and harvesting activities during the general breeding season, which begins near the end of April and extends until mid July. Harvesting trees can wait until the fall, to protect tree nesting birds and their young. I like to leave trees with holes standing. They provide shelter to animals like flying squirrels.
The quest for a good wildlife photograph can turn out badly for some wild subjects. Bird nests are often hidden in trees. Removing branches to obtain a better photograph exposes the nest, making it more likely to be plundered by crows or jays. Instead of snipping branches, pull the vegetation aside temporarily, shoot the scene quickly, cover it again and leave. Eggs or young nestlings can die if brooding adults are kept off the nest for too long on a cold day. One photographer harassed an eagle nest so badly that the pair moved and built a new nest the following year. I learned to not tell photographers about nests that were easy to shoot.
Young birds just out of the nest, called fledglings, are easy to recognize. Churning through the air on uncertain wings, they keep crash-landing until their flying skills become honed. If this kind of action takes place in your back yard, it’s time to rein in those attracted by clumsy flyers. Cats, dogs, even a child may need to be temporarily restrained. This vulnerable period usually only lasts for a day or two, with parents on nearby trees feeding and coaching their youngsters.
Ruby-throated hummingbird feeders aside, if you feed other birds, the fledging period is a good time to stop. As a teenager living in Fredericton, NB, I watched as adult sparrows and other birds brought their youngsters to my mother’s feeders. Instead of teaching the juveniles to forage on a varied diet of insects and wild seeds over the summer, some parents simply abandoned the young birds in Mom’s backyard.
A different kind of migration occurs in June and early July, when roadsides become attractive haul-outs for female Blandings, painted and snapping turtles looking to lay their eggs in sunny, well-drained gravel banks. Unfortunately, these sites include the shoulder of the highway. Snapping turtles are large and potentially dangerous if cornered. Well-meaning drivers who stop to “help” these turtles off the road should handle them carefully, if at all, by holding on to the back sides of their shell. Snappers have long necks and heads equipped with jaws capable of denting a two-by-four. It’s best to slow down, drive by and leave them alone.
If you find some hapless wild creature standing beside a dead parent along a road, or an adult injured on the road, be a good Samaritan. Gather the animal up carefully and quietly, making sure it doesn’t become overheated or smothered during transportation. Call and visit a veterinarian and be sure to advise the local provincial department responsible for wildlife. If you care about nature, it’s the right thing to do.