At the Sharon Audubon Center, wildlife rehabilitator Sunny Kellner now tends a flock of injured songbirds alone, without volunteers to help. The COVID-19 epidemic has temporarily closed the Audubon center, owned by Audubon Connecticut. Kellner is only person working there.
At the same time — again, because of the coronavirus — there are many more people working from home, many more children studying at home. That means many more pairs of eyes seeing wildlife through their kitchen windows and, in turn, many more calls to Kellner, asking about that flopping fledgling robin.
“I can have 30 different phone messages on the answering machine, and none of them can be answered simply,” Kellner said. “So… some days, I have to ask: Do I answer calls or do I feed the birds?”
This is the busy season for wildlife rehabilitators to begin with — there are fawns, baby rabbits, fox and raccoon kit, and young birds of many species out there. There are always lots of inquiries about what to do about them.
“We get 2,000 calls a month in June,” said Laurie Fortin, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. “Right now, we’re getting 100 calls a day. That’s on par with what we usually get.”
But Fortin and others said this year, there are more calls from people noticing wildlife for the first time.
“We’re a million times busier,” said Betsy Peyreigne of Weston, who, with her daughter Christine, runs Christine’s Critters, which rehabilitates birds of prey.
“I do think there’s more people seeing things,” said Deborah Galle of Greenwich, who specializes in rescuing and rehabilitating young rabbits.
Not all those calls are happy, or even entirely rational.
“A woman called us and said ‘There’s a cobra in my yard.’” Despite the DEEP’s staff helpful response that Connecticut has no backyard cobras, the woman was unconvinced, Fortin said.
“People will call and say ‘There a fox in my yard that’s going to attack me and my children,’” said Laura Simon, president of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. “You have to tell them a 12-pound animal is not going to attack a human.”
What can be worse, often, is human intervention.
“It can be a problem,” Galle said.
That’s because animals have evolved to nurture their young without people intervening.
Take fawns and baby rabbits. They have no scent and camouflaging coats. Adult deer and rabbits leave them alone so that predators won’t be drawn to the adults, which do have scents. The adults return to their babies during the day to nurse them.
Galle said people see a young rabbit, sitting alone, and assume it’s orphaned. They capture it, bring it home and pet it to reassure it that things are all right. Actually, they’re scaring it to death.
“Rabbits are prey animals,” Galle said. “All those people around a baby rabbit look like predators to it.”
A fox with young isn’t watching humans and sizing them up for a meal.
“They’re just watching us,” Simon said. “We watch them. They watch us.”
On the other hand, Simon said, raccoon mothers are very attentive. If you have a baby raccoon bawling alone in your yard, you should call a wildlife rehabilitator.
But if you’ve got raccoons in your garbage, Simon said, don’t trap them, or hire someone to trap them. That only kills the mother and creates a family of abandoned raccoon kits.
“They make very good raccoon-proof trash cans,” Simon said. “If there’s one message I have, it’s ‘Don’t Trap.’”
There are several websites people can use to learn how to deal with young or injured animals. The DEEP”s wildlife division’s is at https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/Wildlife/Nuisance-Wildlife/Common-Wildlife-Problems.
The Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators has a similar site at https://cwrawildlife.org/ There is also a wildlife hotline at http://www.wildlifehotline.org/. The Sharon Audubon Center’s website is at https://sharon.audubon.org/
One thing people can do right now is donate money to keep wildlife centers going.
Weston’s Peyreigne said Christine’s Critters normally earns money by showing birds of prey at nature festivals. Those are all canceled. So is that source of income.
Yet, because of the coronavirus outbreak, with more people outdoors, Peyreigne and her daughter are getting more calls to rescue injured hawks, owls, and the occasional bald eagle.
These birds do not eat sunflower seeds.
“Feeding them all is really, really expensive,” Peyreigne said. “You start the day and think ‘We need another $3,000 for rats and mice.”