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A Duckling In The Marsh Is Worth Ten In A Cardboard Box!
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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mallard hen with chicks

Mallard Hen


Montana has numerous laws prohibiting the capture, feeding, possession and harassment of wildlife—both game and nongame species. These laws also protect Montana's wild animals from becoming "pets."

Oddly, no single state law specifically states: "Do not remove newborn animals from their mothers, or from the wild."  Yet, in most cases, when newborn animals are removed from the wild they are healthy with a parent nearby.

Some of the most demoralizing scenarios that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks folks experience each spring involve people who take a deer or antelope fawn, wild rabbit, infant raccoon, duckling or other newborn from the wild because they think it is abandoned, or that they can raise it as a pet.  Many times the "kidnapped" newborn and its mother cannot be reunited if too much time passes or the exact location where the infant was found is not known.

It is natural behavior for wild animals to cache their young for periods of time to protect them from predators, but humans tend to misread this strategy as abandonment.

In one case, golfers in southwestern Montana found an "abandoned" deer fawn on the golf course. Rather than leave it where it was resting, they loaded it on their golf cart and continued to play. When they returned to the clubhouse after the 18th hole, they turned the fawn over to the club manager who left it next to a display rack of golf clubs while he checked with the groundskeeper to see what he should do.

The groundskeeper called FWP and David Dziak, a FWP wildlife area manager, responded. By then the golfers had left and there was no way to figure out where the fawn had first been found. A close scan of the golf course with binoculars didn't reveal any adult deer, so Dziak took the fawn to FWP to feed it.

That evening he returned to the golf course with the fawn in an animal carrier. He eventually spotted a female whitetail deer near some quaking aspen and set the carrier nearby with the door open. The next morning mother and fawn were gone. They were lucky to be reunited after so much time had passed.

Broods of ducklings are also sometimes parted from their mother by kids or dogs, or by well-meaning adults who "rescue" them as they waddle slowly along trying to keep up with mom who has probably already made it into a nearby slough. Ducklings don't do well in captivity, so in addition to being illegal to keep, they are more likely to survive if left alone to reunite with the hen.

Some people say they kept a wild infant because they were afraid the mother would reject it after it had been touched. Experts disagree. They say mothers in the wild generally have a very strong maternal instinct, much stronger than any fear of human scent.

From a newborn moose lounging on a well-meaning fellow's bed in a cabin in the East Fork of the Bitterroot, to young songbirds and raptors trying to get that "flying thing" figured out, the count of young animals taken from the wild adds up each spring.

Several years ago, FWP began a spring campaign slogan: "If you care, leave them there." This spring, when so many species are birthing their young, this slogan is a good thought to keep in mind as you enjoy the outdoors.

To learn more about FWP's spring campaign, read: