Ask An Expert: What to do when you encounter wildlife

Get the answers to seven common questions about keeping animals - and yourself - safe

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Fall is almost here and temperatures are (finally!) starting to drop. It’s the perfect time to lace up your hiking boots and explore the woodlands and wilderness surrounding the Potomac River.

But getting outside means entering the domain of the other animals with whom we share our watershed. Even if you’re not venturing out of an urban area (or even out of your car), wildlife encounters are common in autumn. Dealing with wild animals can be dangerous, even when you’re trying to help. Do you know what to do if you find a fawn, fox, snake, or injured bird in your path?

Don’t fear! We turned to Kathleen Handley, Clinic Director and Master Wildlife Rehabilitator, at Second Chance Wildlife Center to make sure all of our fall animal interactions are safe for everyone involved. Check out her answers to seven frequently asked questions:

Are deer dangerous during the rut in the fall?

Second Chance Wildlife Center (SCWC): White-tailed deer breed in the fall, making bucks more aggressive and distracted as they search for and court does. They can scare a herd of doe that will run out in the road and not notice an oncoming vehicle. Pay attention while driving through wooded areas or by deer crossing signs - collisions with deer are dangerous. Remember, if you see one deer crossing the road, slow down! There are usually more about to cross the road behind her.

Please DO NOT put an injured deer in your vehicle to bring to a wildlife rehabilitation center. This is extremely dangerous to yourself and anyone else on the road. A deer that seems unconscious or stunned can wake at any time and panic. I have had to risk my own life to get agitated, kicking deer out of cars. Rehabilitators in the state of Maryland are not permitted to treat adult deer because they are powerful, unpredictable and dangerous as full grown adults.

Do not disturb! A doe intentionally left this fawn here until she can return from feeding. Photo Courtesy of SCWC.

Do not disturb! A doe intentionally left this fawn here until she can return from feeding. Photo Courtesy of SCWC.

How can I tell if fawns, rabbits, or baby birds are orphaned?

If a fawn is standing next to a dead doe, or walking/running around bleating (screaming) then it needs help. Call your local animal control or wildlife rehabilitor for advice. Do not attempt to put it in your car. This would be hazardous when the fawn panics.

If you find a fawn alone curled up in the shape of a donut, leave it alone! When a fawn is born, it can’t keep up with the herd, so Mom puts it in an area she feels is safe and camouflaged. We can see them, but natural predators don’t unless the fawn moves as they do not give off a scent. Scaring the fawn or causing it to move could make it visible to predators and away from the scent trail the mother has created to relocate it. Human interference can also tragically disrupt the bond that fawns take 3 weeks to create with their mothers through grooming and cleaning.

A nest of eastern cottontails. Photo Courtesy of  Kristine Paulus .

A nest of eastern cottontails. Photo Courtesy of Kristine Paulus.

Eastern Cottontails are totally independent at 4-5 weeks of age - no need to move or relocate them. Mom makes a nest in the ground digging a shallow bowl lined with her fur and dried vegetation. She visits the nest twice a day when she is least visible (at dawn and at dusk). She does not stay with them. She would only attract attention to them, and the risk of predation would be greater. DO NOT relocate them. Like deer, this mother also creates her own scent trail to them, and if the babies have been moved she will not look for them. If you are concerned that she has abandoned the nest or that the nest has been destroyed, please call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice before doing anything with the babies.

Birds fledge at about 3-4 weeks of age. Most species learn to fly from the ground. They don’t leap off a branch like they do in cartoons. If the baby bird is fully feathered, not covered in bugs, and hops away from you, leave it alone. This is a crucial time for baby birds to learn how to fly and forage, and to learn what predators they need to avoid. Their best defense is to hunker down and not move as most natural predators detect movement not color. The parents are still tending to them, bringing them food and may attack you if you get to close to their baby. If you are concerned about the baby, you can put it in a bush nearby and have it perch on a limb. The baby and parents know each other’s call and will reconnect without any intervention from people.

It is a MYTH that parents will reject their offspring if touched by a human. If they were that bothered by our scent, they wouldn’t nest anywhere near us.

Second Chance Wildlife Center Clinic Director, Kathleen Handley (L) holds a Copperhead Snake recovering from injuries caused by garden netting, while Clinic Tech Courtney Thomas injects medication and hydrating fluids into the patient. Photo Courtesy of SCWC.

Second Chance Wildlife Center Clinic Director, Kathleen Handley (L) holds a Copperhead Snake recovering from injuries caused by garden netting, while Clinic Tech Courtney Thomas injects medication and hydrating fluids into the patient. Photo Courtesy of SCWC.

A Black Rat Snake entangled in Garden Netting. Photo COurtesy of SCWC.

A Black Rat Snake entangled in Garden Netting. Photo COurtesy of SCWC.

What should I do if I see a snake (and how can I tell if it’s dangerous)?

Leave it alone!  Snakes are reptiles (“cold blooded”) and may lay out on a paved road, walk or driveway to warm themselves. If one is in your house, it most likely followed the scent of a small rodent that has set up residence in your home. In that case, call your local animal control agency to remove the snake, then a humane service to take care of the rodents.

Residents and Animal Services Officers frequently bring injured snakes to Second Chance Wildlife Center – often the result of the snake becoming stuck in a glue trap or entangled in garden netting, and suffering deep cuts as it struggles to free itself (only becoming more entangled in the process). Most often, these are Black Rat Snakes, but, occasionally, a variety of snake species are brought to us, including Copperheads.

Speaking of Copperheads, there are only two native venomous snake species found in Maryland - the Timber Rattle Snake in higher elevations, and the Copperhead found in pockets throughout the state. Like all snakes, they are more afraid of you than you are of them, and they won’t hurt you unless cornered and/or threatened.  Regardless, it is always best to just walk away. And, if hiking with a dog, keep them on a leash close to you and stay on trails.

VEnemous snake to watch out for #1: Timber Rattlesnake

VEnemous snake to watch out for #1: Timber Rattlesnake

Venemous Snake to Watch OUt For #2: Eastern Copperhead

Venemous Snake to Watch OUt For #2: Eastern Copperhead

What does it mean if I see a nocturnal animal (raccoon, opossum, or fox) during the day?

Seeing a fox or raccoon during the day is not as unusual as people think. Females that need to care for young may be out at any time foraging for food or scouting a new, bigger den site for their growing brood.

Opossums are a little different. They do prefer to forage and hunt at night, but sometimes these animals are suddenly evicted by other animals or humans. A sudden disturbance or destruction of their home can certainly have them out during the day looking for shelter.

The best thing to do is to leave them alone. They know what to eat and where to find food, shelter, and water and don’t wander far from what they are used to. Do not put out any food for them. This will do more harm than good and may habituate them to come to humans for food. If they appear sick, injured and/or try to approach you, then stay away from them and call your local animal control agency.

Should I feed birds?

Keep in mind, when you feed the birds you’re feeding everyone. When you create a feeding station for birds you must keep it clean. This will congregate birds and if not kept clean can spread disease. Also, it makes for easier hunting by predators. If the seed and empty shells are left on the ground again you can spread disease to ground feeding birds, attract mice and rats, which will attract squirrels, raccoons, foxes, etc. You also need to maintain the feeder year-round. Some birds are raised to count on the feeders for food. Letting your feeders go empty or dirty can starve some of the birds that are used to the feeder and not quite sure how to forage. You should have fresh water nearby also. Birds succumb to dehydration before starvation.

If you are prepared to be a good steward of birds with your feeding station, then feeding them can be very enjoyable and beneficial especially where there is habitat destruction and their natural food sources are depleted. You can also set up your yard as a habitat for them and plant natural food plants. Let your Black-eyed Susan go to seed and the Goldfinch’s will love it. Plant shrubs or trees that provide berries and other fruits - the Catbirds, Mockingbirds, and others enjoy them. Most importantly, have a clean bird bath with fresh water daily. This will attract a wide variety of birds that don’t come to bird feeders.  

For more advice on taking care of the birds in your back yard, check out the National Audubon Society’s feeding guide.

What should I do if I find a dead bird with a band?

The band should have a toll-free phone number you can call to report it. Otherwise you can take the bird to your local animal control agency or nearest wildlife rehabilitator to report it. Please give as much detail as you can as to its location when found.

What is the biggest threat to wildlife this time of year and how can I help?

Baby season runs from late March to late October. This is a vulnerable time for all wildlife. Human interference is the biggest threat. The majority of animals we see are hit by cars, fly into windows, caught by pet cats and dogs, kidnapped or suffer from habitat loss.

You can help by just observing nature. Check your yard for baby birds, bunny nests, and turtles before you mow or weed whack.  If you see a turtle trying to cross the road and it is safe to do so, pick it up with gloves or a towel and put it on the side of the road it was facing. (Don’t try this with a snapping turtle! Call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice.)

If you have any questions, or come across any wildlife in need of help, please call for advice first. Don’t attempt to feed it or treat any wounds yourself. You can cause more harm to the animal. It is best to place it in an appropriate size secure container (with holes to breath) in a warm dark quiet area away from children and pets, until it can be brought to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Second Chance Wildlife Center is open from 9am to 5pm 365 days a year. You can reach us by phone at 301-926-WILD (9453) or email (Please call if urgent).

MEET THE EXPERT: Kathleen Handley

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Kathleen Handley serves as the Clinic Director for Second Chance Wildlife Center. She is a Master Wildlife Rehabilitator, holding permits from the state of Maryland and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

More about Second Chance Wildlife Center:

Founded in 1995, Second Chance Wildlife Center is a trusted and beloved 501c3 non-profit organization providing compassionate emergency care and rehabilitation to injured, ill, and orphaned wild animals 365 days a year; returning healthy animals back to the wild; and educating the public about how to help and live harmoniously with wildlife. Although Second Chance is licensed to operate under permits issued to its Clinic Director by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it is an independent non-profit and relies on donations to exist.

Second Chance Wildlife Center is open from 9 am to 5 pm 365 days a year. You can reach them by phone at 301-926-WILD (9453) or email (Please call of if urgent).


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