Spring is here and southeast Michigan is finally thawing after the long winter. Now’s the time for backyard animals to reappear. If your kids take an active interest in the wildlife they spy outside, encourage it, says Jessie Hitt, Humane Education and Community Engagement Manager with the Humane Society of Huron Valley.
“Kids have a natural pull toward animals in general and we want children to feel connected to the wildlife around them,” says Hitt. “It’s tricky because with wild animals, looking is better than touching. Most of the time, there isn’t an issue, but wild animals can be a bite risk or carry illnesses.”
That’s why it’s important to encourage a healthy respect for the space wild animals need.
Whether your kids show an interest in mammals like opossums, rabbits, raccoons, squirrels or even coyotes — or they love watching birds nesting and searching for food, there are plenty of resources available to help them learn more about backyard animals.
“We encourage kids and parents to go outside and enjoy a ‘wonder walk.’ Look for and listen to the animals around you and have that be your interaction with nature,” says Hitt. To learn more about what you’ll probably see on your walk, watch this short video about Michigan Backyard Animals produced by the Humane Society of Huron Valley.
“Observation is really the best way to learn more about backyard animals and their habitats,” Hitt says. “Go outside and take a notepad and watch. Draw what you see and describe what you hear.”
Depending on the age of your child, this is a good opportunity to use binoculars or a camera. You can model the best ways to explore wildlife visually.
“Take photos,” says Tanya Hilgendorf, CEO of the Humane Society of Huron Valley. “So many kids and adults enjoy taking photos which helps spread appreciation. Just make sure they’re at a distance — not selfies.”
Spending time outside with wildlife is a great opportunity to practice mindfulness, says Hitt. “I encourage families to just go to a nature preserve and sit and observe and be in the moment,” she adds.
If you’re interested in expanding your wonder walk, visit one of metro Detroit’s parks or nature centers. Southeast Michigan has dozens of state recreation areas and Huron-Clinton Metroparks where you can enjoy hiking and even nature programming to learn more from experts. Or, visit the Leslie Science & Nature Center in Ann Arbor.
The Humane Society of Huron Valley offers youth programming for children who want to spend time with and learn more about animals. Discover junior volunteer opportunities, shelter tours, story times, camps and more.
Shared living spaces
It’s tempting to see wild animals as pests, especially if you hear neighbors complain about skunks, raccoons and coyotes. But the more you learn about wildlife, the more you can begin to appreciate them — and share that appreciation with your children.
“As humans continue to develop and take over wild land, the animals that live there become adept at surviving in urban and suburban areas,” says Hitt. “Animals and humans used to be separate, but now animals are learning to survive in this territory and getting very good at coexisting with us.”
Learn about common urban wildlife through Humane Society resources. Discover how to prevent unwanted encounters with wild animals and simple, harmless ways to discourage them from taking up residence in less-desired areas of your property, such as your garage or compost pile.
“One thing I always talk about with kids is what all animals need,” says Hitt. “We know what our pets need, but are they the same things a raccoon needs? We talk about how all animals, whether they are pets or wild animals, need food, water and shelter. When we can see the similarities, we create a culture of empathy.”
Animals, even those we’re taught to fear, like coyotes and foxes, are not trying to hurt us, Hitt says. “They’re not looking to interrupt our lives or cause problems. They’re just looking for a safe place to rest, for shelter from a storm, and for food and water. I remind parents that there is a lot more in common between wildlife and pets than we think.”
Learning more about each wild animal’s role in a healthy ecosystem helps us understand why simply ridding an area of coyotes, for example, would have a consequence on the deer population. “And opossums eat ticks. They’re wonderful,” Hitt says.
What to do if you find an injured animal
It’s not uncommon to come across an injured animal, but it’s not always easy to know what to do to help. Fortunately, resources exist to provide help in situations involving hurt animals.
If you’re in Washtenaw County, contact the Humane Society of Huron Valley to get help. Their experts can offer advice or refer you to a partner agency for support. The Bird Center of Michigan also provides education and rehabilitation services for injured and orphaned birds.
If you find a baby bird on the ground and it is within reach, you can safely return this hatchling to its nest, says Hitt. You’ll know it’s a hatchling because it won’t have many feathers. “The nest will be in the immediate vicinity. If you look up, you may find the nest,” she says. Often, hatchlings and slightly older nestlings fall from their nest if it’s windy or an animal has knocked them out.
“It’s a myth that a baby bird’s mother will reject it if it’s touched by humans,” says Hitt. “I always encourage children to tell an adult if they find a baby bird that needs help.”
Fledglings, however, are young birds that are just learning to fly. You may see them hopping around on the ground. “Oftentimes, mom is nearby keeping an eye on her baby bird,” warns Hitt. “If you have a dog or cat outside, keep them away, but otherwise, they don’t need any help.”
Learn more about backyard animals, wildlife, pets and creating a culture of empathy for nature through the Humane Society of Huron Valley. Visit hshv.org.