June 20, 2002 11:00 pm
NOT ABANDONED: Elk calves like this one are sometimes found alone but their mothers are usually close by. (JIM WARD photo).
NOT ABANDONED: Elk calves like this one are sometimes found alone but their mothers are usually close by. (JIM WARD photo).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Killing with kindness.

It's what some people unwittingly do if they are not careful.

In the late spring and early summer it's common for people to find what appear to be abandoned fawns and other infant wildlife while traveling the countryside.

Outdoorsmen are again being asked to leave the animals alone. Although it may seem unkind to do so, in most cases the animals will be better off.

Individuals often make the mistake of assuming the young animals were abandoned by their mothers, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Leonard Erickson.

In reality, the animal's parent is often hiding in the nearby brush.

"Most likely she is waiting for you to leave,'' Erickson said.

It is not uncommon for adults to be separated from their young in the wild. For example, a cow elk may have to leave her newborn calf for two- to six-hour periods until it is able to follow her.

Calves and fawns are protected from predators during such periods of isolation by a spotted coat that they keep until fall. The spots break up the animal's outline, preventing predators such as coyotes from seeing them.

Sometimes does and cows leave their young in an attempt to distract predators, Erickson said. In most cases they remain close enough that they can still see or hear their fawn or calf.

The biologist urges people not to pick up fawns or elk calves unless they know for certain that their mother has died. For example, if a doe is dead along a road and a fawn is in a nearby ditch it is safe to assume that the young animal has been orphaned.

Anyone seeing such a situation should not handle the fawn. Instead, call ODFW for advice. If ODFW biologists decide to come they will check the doe to see if she had been producing milk. If she is, it is safe to assume that the doe was the fawn's mother.

In such a case the fawn would be brought in to the ODFW office where it would be cared for.

Fawns and calves will not bite people who pick them up but young foxes, skunks and raccoons will. Being bitten or scratched by such animals is a serious situation because they can carry rabies and other diseases.

Erickson pointed out that if one is bitten by a young fox or skunk the animal will have to be killed so it can be tested for rabies. Thus, a person trying to save a young animal can actually cause its death.

People also are likely to find baby birds on the forest floor during this time of year. These birds are learning to fly or have fallen out of a nest.

People can best help them by putting them back in their nest or putting them on a tree branch so they will be protected from predators.

Someone coming across a baby owl near a leaning branch should not be alarmed. Young owls often stay near leaning branches, which they use to climb back up into trees.

When young animals are taken into an ODFW office biologists will first try to determine if it can be returned to its mother. If it cannot be taken back the animal will be cared for.

Erickson said that although animals can be raised to adulthood by people, it is unfortunate because the animal will not have as good of a chance of surviving once it is put back in the wild.

"We can meet their nutritional needs, but we can't teach them how to make a living as well as its parent could,'' Erickson said.

He pointed out that animals raised in captivity may not learn that animals such as coyotes and bobcats are predators.

"They may walk right up to a predator (after it is released into the wild),'' Erickson said. "They may not understand danger.''

When ODFW staffers raise a young animal they try to teach it skills that will help it survive in the wild. Erickson, for example, once taught a young kestrel how to hunt grasshoppers. He tossed it grasshoppers and it learned to catch. When the bird was released into the wild it began hunting grasshoppers right away.

Unfortunately, even animals trained like the kestrel do not have as good of a chance of surviving in the outdoors as those raised in the wild.

"We need to strive to keep the wild in wildlife,'' Erickson said.