How to Tell if a
Squirrel is an Orphan
The best outcome for all wildlife is to be raised in its natal environment by its mother in the company of siblings.
If you find a baby, please leave it alone if it appears alert, is warm to the touch and appears healthy. Of course, if the baby is in imminent danger (in the street, near a cat, exposed to extreme weather or injured) you will need to collect even a healthy baby. If you see other squirrels nearby or recently saw a squirrel carrying a baby in its mouth, the baby may have ventured out of the nest or dropped from its mother’s mouth while being relocated to an alternate nest site. A mother squirrel will usually attempt to take her young back if she perceives an opportunity to safely do so. If the weather is mild, you can observe the baby from a distance and only retrieve it if the mother doesn’t collect it after a few hours.
If the nest was recently disturbed, damaged or destroyed by weather, home repairs, tree trimming or removal, please allow the mother several hours of undisturbed time to return and move the babies. Some species of squirrels, such as the common urban eastern gray squirrel, maintain multiple nest sites and will relocate the babies if a site exists and she can safely do so. Please contact us for advice before intervening if you are unsure if a nest has been abandoned. Of course, if you know the mother is dead or permanently removed, please collect the babies and contact a wildlife rehabilitator immediately.
When to Help
Intervention is recommended when the baby can be safely retrieved and:
The mother is dead or permanently removed
The baby in injured, cold, or appears sickly or unkempt
The baby is retrieved by a cat or other pet (even if no bite marks are evident)
A juvenile squirrel is following people or climbing up a leg
After warming the baby and placing it back where you found it, the mother has not retrieved it after a few hours of undisturbed and unseen observation
What to Look For
An infant with its eyes-closed (five week and under) who has lost its mother will likely be thirsty, hungry and suffering from exposure. If its mother has been gone more than 24 hours, the baby may have blindly wriggled out of the nest in search of her warmth and nourishment.
Most squirrels nest in hollows or drays (a big ball of leaves) located high in trees, so the initial fall may be from heights of 30 feet or greater. If the baby survives the fall, it may have sustained serious injuries. By the time the baby is found, it can be cold, injured, severely dehydrated, starving, stained in urine, and covered in filth, insects and/or larva.
Keep in mind, where one baby is found, others are likely nearby so check frequently over the next few hours and days for more orphans. Squirrel litters range between two to eight young depending on the species.
Older orphaned babies with eyes-opened and fully furred (between 5 and 10 weeks of age) will often approach, follow, or even attempt to climb passer-bys when in distress. A healthy eyes-open baby who has been missing its mother for only hours rather than days will generally be more wary of people because it’s not yet desperate enough to approach a potential predator.
If a baby is wandering about trying to follow people, it’s most likely doing so not to be cute or social, but because needs help! Baby squirrels rely on their mothers for a long time, weaning gradually from her between 8 and 12 weeks of age. Fall born babies may spend the entire winter in the company of the mother and siblings.
If the baby is on its own prior to weaning, even though it is capable of moving about, it is still totally dependent on the care of its mother.
Unless the mother and siblings are observed nearby, a baby demonstrating this behavior is likely in need of help. Please collect it and contact a wildlife rehabilitator.
If You're Still Not Sure...
If the weather is cold, and you suspect the baby may have been exposed to the elements for more than a few minutes, gently touch the baby to check if it feels cool to the touch. The mother won’t care if the baby smells of your scent but she wont retrieve it if its cold. For cold babies, alway warm the baby before placing it back where you found it by wrapping it loosely in a soft cloth and placing it next to a warm bottle wrapped in a towel. Conversely, if it’s an extremely hot day and the baby is in direct sunlight, provide some shade for the baby and place a cold bottle wrapped in a towel next to the baby to keep it cool. If the weather is not too cold or hot, and the baby is in a safe location, then leave the baby where it is.
Once you make sure the baby is not in any immediate danger, retreat a safe distance where you can observe without being seen by its mother. If the mother does not retrieve the baby after a couple of hours, then assume the baby has been orphaned and gently collect it.
For the safety of the mother, baby and pets, please move all pets indoors until the baby has been retrieved.
If the nest has been raided by predators, it is unlikely that a reunion with its mother will be possible – although you should try anyway. Predators are often attracted to unguarded nests of babies only when the mother has already gone missing. Mother squirrels are instinctually protective of their babies and when you find one that has not been recently cared for and protected, it usually means trouble for baby and its family.