Articles by Elizabeth Trickey, photography by Jennifer Howard and Elizabeth Trickey
Spring is almost upon us! And you know what that means? Yup, the amorous efforts of critters are coming to fruition! Soon we may be seeing lots of little furry faces peeking out from nests or from behind momma’s protective body. Nature’s plan is to have these newborns kept safe and sound, at home with their families, until they are ready to learn how to forage for food and to take care of themselves in the wild world.
But that doesn’t always happen. Unfortunately, mommas sometimes get hurt, killed, or separated from the rest of the family. Then the little ones are left to take care of themselves, if they can. Thankfully, there are kind-hearted humans who notice the problem and try to reunite the babies and parents. Failing that, they bring the infants to Procyon for the care they need.
And Procyon gets quite the assortment of babies, starting in March, and reaching incredible numbers by April and May. Our job is to stabilize the infants as they arrive, which means first to warm their little bodies, then hydrate them, then slowly start a feeding regimen with specially designed formulas. And it’s not as easy as it sounds because these infants need feedings every few hours. Try doing that with a hundred hungry baby critters!
So which baby animals should we expect first when the spring arrives? Eastern grey squirrels often have 2 litters, the first one starting in February. When these babies are born, they are itty-bitty, weighing around 15 grams (that’s the weight of a CD, not including the cover!). There are 3-5 tiny kits, and they have no fur, and are blind and deaf. They are usually born in nests, called dreys, high up in the trees. You have probably seen many of these, maybe thinking they were the nests of birds. I’m sure you can imagine how cold it is in February and these tiny, furless critters trying to survive. Squirrels are active all winter long, so there will be times when momma leaves the drey to find food. Chances are, if something unfortunate happened to mom, nobody would ever know that the babies were in distress. Heavy sigh…. Momma squirrel nurses her little ones for 3 months, and at 4 months they are old enough to head off on their own to seek their fortunes. At Procyon, we don’t tend to get these earlier litters of orphaned squirrels, but in the summer, people do bring us baby squirrels in need of care.
Next, let’s look at the opossum, Canada’s only marsupial. Sure, these babies may be born in late winter/early spring, but they are still embryos at this point. Less than 2 weeks after fertilization, these miniature newborns blindly crawl into momma’s pouch and latch onto a teat where they will continue their development. Momma may give birth to up to 20 joeys, but she only has about 13 teats, so the first ones that latch on are the only ones that survive. After two and a half months of suckling, the babies’ eyes open and they crawl out of the pouch. This is the earliest time that most people will ever see a baby opossum. The joeys learn to how to survive in the wild by riding on momma’s back when she leaves the nest to look for food. I can only imagine that carrying 13 growing kids around on her back would be enough to complete the foraging lessons as quickly as possible! Joeys become totally independent by 5 months of age.
In March, the raccoon babies are born, in litters of 3-7 kits. Prior to giving birth, momma raccoon has had a quiet winter. These critters do not hibernate, but they aren’t very active in the colder months. On milder days they will be out, checking our garbage pails for tasty treats! So how do they make it through the winter? They fill themselves with groceries in the autumn and live off the fat over the cold months. By spring they have lost about a third of their weight and are greatly looking forward to a good meal.
Now a momma raccoon is a great, attentive parent, but she does have to leave the babies alone when she goes out to forage for food. And, unfortunately, she
is sometimes prevented from returning to the den, leaving the babies to fend for themselves. And this can be an impossible task for the little ones if momma disappears when they are still quite young. Raccoon kits are very dependent on momma for several months after birth and usually stay with her for a full year. Their eyes are just opening at 3 weeks of age and they only start to crawl about at 4 weeks. It is 6 weeks before they move around more confidently, and they continue to nurse until 12 weeks of age. So they need momma well into the summer months.
So, hopefully, you will not see younger raccoons until July. At that time, you might see a family of these critters scurrying through the neighbourhood during the night! Raccoons do have several dens, for safety purposes, so keep an eye out for them in tree hollows, under decks, brush piles, or near roof soffits. If you happen to hear lots of soft crying in these areas, it could be that momma has not returned, and the babies might be orphaned and are hungry. If this happens and you know that momma hasn’t been around for a day or two, it might be time to call your local rehab.
Coming into April we have a few species that give birth. One is the porcupine. This prickly critter has only one baby at a time, and it is well developed at birth. Its eyes are open, it has teeth and fur, and it even has quills, though they only harden a few hours after birth. Within a couple of days it is able to climb, it is weaned at 1-2 weeks of age, and by 5 months it has said goodbye to the family home.
Another animal that is born in April is the red fox. A vixen (female fox) gives birth to about 5 pups. So often in nature, it is the female that parents the offspring, but with foxes, both parents take a hand, er… paw, in raising the youngsters. Like most babies, a fox is born helpless. Its eyes open at 2 weeks, it is weaned at 4 weeks, and by 12 weeks it is learning how to forage on its own. For the first couple of weeks, momma stays in the den with her pups while poppa hunts for food for the family. Once the babies begin to move around the den more freely, poppa takes care of them while momma goes out hunting on her own. After the little ones are weaned, the parents teach them survival skills outside the den.
In late April/early May, our favourite stinker, Pepé Le Pew, becomes a parent! 4-6 little stinkettes are born without fur, but they do have the markings on their skin where the fur will come in either black or white. Most people think that skunks all have the same stripe pattern. Nope. Some have lots of white, some very little, and their tails might or might not have white fur. By 2 weeks old, a baby skunk will have grown all its fur, its eyes will be opened by 3 weeks of age and it is weaned by 8 weeks. It is at this age when momma begins to take the little critters out of the den to learn the fine art of taking care of themselves.
You might see the skunk family emerging from under sheds, porches, tree stumps, rock piles, or from underground tunnels. The kits usually waddle in a single file behind momma. They don’t tend to be afraid of people, probably because they are quite able to defend themselves! And don’t assume that babies can’t do that! By just a few weeks of age, these little stinkers are learning to spray, and by 4 months, they are able to accurately direct their weapon! It is at this age when the young male skunks move out of the family home. Females tend to stay with momma until the following spring.
Also in May, the white-tailed deer babies make an appearance. One or two fawns are born to a doe, hitting the scales at around 3 kg, about the same as a newborn baby! These little ones are far more capable at birth than most other wildlife babies. They enter the world with eyes open, all their fur, and being able to stand within minutes. But they are still too young to protect themselves from predators while momma is out foraging, so nature has provided them with an amazing defence mechanism. They are born with temporary fur spots to help camouflage themselves, and they are scentless! Although fawns start eating vegetation at just a few weeks of age, momma nurses her babies for 2-3 months until they learn to get all their nourishment from foraging.
Many people look forward to the warmer weather when the chipmunks emerge from their big winter sleep. They can be such friendly, amusing creatures. Breeding takes place in April and May, and the offspring are born in late May/early June, about 4-6 per litter, weighing a mere 3 grams. I’m talking the weight of a 3 potato chips, or a button, or 3 thumbtacks, or 2 blueberries! Yes, you get the picture – extremely tiny! Like most critters, they come into this world helpless – naked, blind, and deaf. But these wee chippies grow quite quickly, going out to forage by 6 weeks of age. They learn quickly to watch out for predators, and by around 8 weeks, momma sends them packing. So much for a long, happy childhood….
June is when baby bats are born. Interesting to note that breeding actually takes place in the late summer. The sperm is stored in the uterus over the winter, with ovulation happening in the spring after hibernation. Neat, eh? After fertilization, all the momma-to-be bats congregate in a separate colony referred to as a “maternity” or “nursery” roost, to await the births and raise the pups together.
There is only one baby in a bat litter, born while momma is hanging upside-down! When the pup is born, momma quickly gathers it in her wings to make sure it doesn’t fall, and she nurses it for 3-4 weeks. Sometimes momma leaves her baby in the nursery while she goes out foraging, other times she takes it with her. A pup grows very quickly and soon becomes too heavy for momma to carry. This is definitely a sign that flying lessons are in order! So when the pups are strong enough, usually around 4 weeks of age, they begin to learn the fine art of flying. As these pups become proficient at flying and foraging, they leave the nursery colony.
And lastly, we have rabbits. Why last? Well, because they like to reproduce, having litters up to 5 times per year. So we might see newborn babies any time throughout the warmer months. Our Eastern Cottontail mommas prepare shallow nests in the ground. Check your lawn for unusual brown patches of grass, especially before you start mowing! We’ve had more than one baby rabbit brought to the rehab with severed ears! There are usually 5 kits born in a litter, with their eyes closed and not much fur. Momma does not stay in the nest with her babies, she just shows up at mealtimes to nurse the little ones. After a few days, their eyes open and within a couple of weeks, they start exploring outside of the nest. These bunnies hop off on their own at one month old, and within a couple of months, they will be parents of their own broods! So you have a good chance of catching sight of little rabbits throughout the summer.
The animals mentioned in this article are some of the ones we see at Procyon every year. Most of the time, the babies are brought to us because they have been orphaned. Sometimes, though, people don’t realize that momma is just out foraging and will be returning to her babies to take care of them. Wildlife parents are attentive and caring. Imagine how upset and worried momma would be to get home and find her children missing! If you find babies, please don’t assume the little ones have been abandoned. You can make sure that they are safe from possible predators and warm, but just keep an eye on them because momma might be along soon. Rehabbers do an excellent job of taking care of little ones, but momma does a far better one!
Note from Editor: Spring and the wildlife babies that it brings are such a joy to see. When watching wildlife, please keep your distance. Here is a selection of images of wildlife babies supplied to us by wildlife photographer Jennifer Howard.