This is a new series I’ll be doing using everyday situations to help kids explore science – particularly ecology and biology – more in depth.
Baby bunnies are nesting under the slide at my son’s preschool.
The scientific context
Finding baby animals in the wild provides a great opportunity to teach kids about animal behavior and life cycles. Babies are adorable and wild animals are inheritantly engaging.
Most animals give birth in the spring, giving the babies several months to mature before needing to face the harsh winter. In general, the more intelligent the animal, the more helpless they are when born and the longer they stay with the parent.
As such, animal parents have different levels of involvement in their babies’ lives. In general, mammal and bird parents are more attentive than reptile and amphibian parents. For some animals, like sea turtles, the parent never even meets the baby, laying eggs that hatch without them. These animals largely rely on instinct, just “knowing” what to do without needing to be taught. For others, the parents spend months and even years teaching the babies what they need to know to survive. Baby chimpanzees nurse for five years and then spend several more with the mother helping raise younger siblings.
While the mother does the work in most species, some animal fathers are quite involved. For example, Arowana fish fathers protect their young from predators by carrying them in their mouths. Penguin fathers hold eggs on their feet for two months through the Arctic winter!
Mother animals lay eggs or give birth in places they think will keep the babies safe. Instead of staying with them, they often leave them on their own for significant periods of time. Sometimes, they’re out getting food for themselves and the babies. Other times, they’re purposely staying away so they don’t draw attention to the location. In particular, prey animals, such as rabbits and deer, do this because babies are more vulnerable to predators than adults. On the other hand, mothers in a few species purposely draw attention away from the babies if they feel threatened. The killdeer pretends to be hurt so that a predator will go after her instead of the babies in the nest.
Things to know
Do not move baby animals, even if it appears the mother has abandoned them. In several recent high profile cases, babies died or had to be euthanized because of well-meaning but harmful human intervention. Moving animals can cause trauma to the baby or make it impossible to reintegrate into a group. If you really think that an animal needs help, call your local animal rescue center for advice.
In addition, if you see babies of a larger animal (like a bear), treat them the same way you would an adult. Do not approach them. It’s likely the mother is nearby and you do not want to get between an angry mama and her babies.
Questions / topics for discussion with kids
- Why do you think the mother chose to have the babies in this location? What makes it safe and/or comfortable for the babies?
- What types of things do both animal and human parents do to take care of their babies?
- How long do people stay with their parents before they leave? Why is that different for baby animals?