The return of spring means more animal sightings. Three local wildlife rehab organizations educate us on what we should — and shouldn’t — do when nature calls
When the city thaws and the ground cover makes its long-awaited reappearance in a few weeks, flora sightings won’t be the only signs of spring Ottawa residents can expect.
Spring is an exciting time for wild bird enthusiasts, says Patty McLaughlin, education program manager at the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre. “Birds are returning from their migration journey and are welcoming the warm weather with their joyous songs and breeding activity.” In the Ottawa area, the most noticeable backyard bird species include American robins, northern cardinals, blue jays, black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, house sparrows, mourning doves and pigeons. Mammals — most commonly raccoons, squirrels and skunks — can be seen everywhere once the weather warms up, adds Janie Cyr, co-founder of Meet the Keepers, which has supported, rescued and rehabilitated animals of all species since 2016.
Mating season occurs between January and April, so there are more sightings during this time, says Linda Laurus, founder and executive director of the Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. An increase in residential development also results in more human-animal interactions. “Ottawa especially, has expanded out more than up, so natural habitat, wildlife forest corridors, wetlands, etc., are always dwindling,” says Laurus. Wildlife that runs into trouble — vehicle collisions; family pets; illegal trapping; habitat destruction and oil spills, to name a few examples — may require citizen intervention, but only until they are safely delivered to the appropriate experts.
Laurus is one such individual. She opened the Rideau Valley Wildlife Sanctuary (RVWS) on her North Gower property in 2005, renovating a stable in 2008 and adding infrastructure over the years. With a mission to treat and care for injured or orphaned wild mammals and reptiles until they are healthy enough to be returned to the wild, the registered charity admits approximately 1,000 wild mammals and reptiles each year and has cared for nearly 13,000 wild animals to date. The organization exchanges referrals with the Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre, which assesses, treats, and rehabilitates injured, ill, or orphaned wild birds for the purpose of releasing them back into their natural habitat. The centre cares for 4,000 birds in a typical year and over the past four decades, has helped 125,000 wild birds representing 175-plus species — many of which are listed as species currently at risk in Ontario, says the Wild Bird Care Centre’s executive director Sandra Sawers. Keeping in touch with other local groups, says Sawers, “helps ensure caring people are put in contact with the appropriate organization to help the type of animal they have found.”
When the wildlife sanctuary receives a call, the first action, says Laurus, is to see if babies (about 90 percent of patients) can be reunited with their mothers, which she says are much better at raising them than humans.
Because each species is different, there isn’t a blanket set of instructions. For example, it’s normal for deer and rabbits to leave their young alone during the day, says Laurus, “but seeing a baby chipmunk, squirrel, groundhog or skunk alone without mom is likely not normal. A low percentage of babies are ‘kidnapped’ by well-meaning but uninformed people thinking it needs help, keeping them for days, leaving little chance for reuniting with their mom,” she continues. “This happens especially with baby bunnies.”
Similarly, many people mistake a healthy baby bird for one that is injured, says McLaughlin. “It is important for everyone to know that baby birds leave the nest before they can fly,” she says. “If you find a fully feathered bird hopping on the lawn and its eyes are wide open, it can move around on both feet well, and there are no signs of injury, this bird is learning how to fly and should be left alone. Mom and dad are nearby watching and caring for the bird.”
Animals that require help — examples include babies fallen from a nest, pets finding wildlife, wildlife finding people (some species, such as squirrels or raccoons will go looking for help if orphaned) — should be brought to a rehabilitation expert.
Many times, children play a role in a rescue. “Both parents and children alike are amazingly caring,” says Laurus. “I think in many cases, it’s the children that insist on helping the animal and many parents use it as a [teaching] experience.”
While McLaughlin says education to keep birds safe and healthy starts at home, the federal Migratory Bird Convention Act as well as the provincial Fish and Wildlife Act make it illegal to collect, keep, or harm wild birds. “This includes keeping them in captivity to try and rehabilitate them, says Sawers. “The reason for these laws is to protect species from becoming endangered, to reduce unnecessary suffering from improper care, and ensure our wild animals do not become imprinted on humans. Our permits to rehabilitate and temporarily keep wild birds in captivity come with strict rules and reporting measures that we must comply with in order to renew our permits regularly.”
Similarly, it is illegal for the general public to care for wildlife in Ontario. Wild animals need specialized care and medical treatment that only licensed wildlife rehabilitators — who have to meet many strict training, housing and facility requirements — can provide. “Wild animals must be kept wild,” says Meet the Keepers co-founder Kyle Lawrie. “We want wild animals to maintain a certain level of uneasiness when it comes to human contact.”
In all cases, wildlife will develop their wild instincts in adolescence and may become destructive and dangerous, says Laurus. “It’s not like raising a puppy or kitten.” Wildlife can also carry diseases, parasites, bacteria and fungi that can be harmful to people and pets.
That said, people should help wildlife when the occasion warrants it. “We believe that every wild life is precious and deserves respect and a second chance,” says Laurus. “It’s natural that many people do not know what to do — it’s rarely taught in schools and education is a full-time job that we personally don’t have the resources to address,” she says. “I find almost all people are compassionate and willing to co-exist with their wild neighbours once they know how simple it is.”
If you find injured wildlife
Observe the situation. “Don’t immediately intervene unless the animal is a baby and in immediate danger,” says Linda Laurus. Do not approach adult wildlife. “Not all juvenile animals need your help when discovered alone,” adds Janie Cyr. “The best thing to do with any species is to keep an eye on them from a distance for a few hours.”
Use your wild bird rescue kit. Keep gloves, a towel or blanket, and a cardboard box big enough to fit a basketball ready at home or in the trunk of the car for this purpose.
Contact a licensed rehabilitation centre. Residents can also call the Ottawa Humane Society, a veterinarian, the police or 3-1-1 for more information.
Dos and don’ts of wildlife
DO admire wildlife from afar. Binoculars are the best way to see birds close up while respecting the distance they need to go about their daily activities, says Patty McLaughlin.
DO NOT encourage wildlife interactions. Wildlife should have a natural fear of all predators, which includes humans and pets, says Linda Laurus.
DO NOT feed wildlife as they’re perfectly capable on their own. “It gathers unusual numbers of wildlife in one place which can lead to contagious disease transfer and creates nuisance animals,” says Laurus. “Someone might think it’s fun to have a chipmunk take a peanut from their hand, but it’s not so funny when it bites a neighbour’s child’s finger because it looks like a peanut.” Also, it’s often illegal under local bylaws.
DO animal-proof your property to prevent wildlife conflicts (e.g. keep soffits/roof in good repair, trim trees overhanging house, keep garbage secure).
DO NOT give any food or liquids to injured wildlife. “Each wildlife species has different needs and feeding the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time can be harmful,” says Laurus.
DO feed wild birds with a backyard feeder. “It’s a great way to bring birds closer to us and observe them in their natural habitat,” says McLaughlin. Clean feeders frequently.
DO plant native species that flower and fruit (which provide both a food source as well as a micro habitat.
Just for kids: The Junior Avian Ambassador Program
The Ottawa Valley Wild Bird Care Centre recognizes young people who have taken action to help wild birds in their own backyards with an official Junior Avian Ambassador pin and certificate. For information, email email@example.com.
“Each bird that we can successfully rehabilitate and release back to the wild gives it a critical second chance at life. A single bird released today has a chance to breed and produce many future generations, contributing a much greater impact for its species.” — Patty McLaughlin