At this time of year, companion animal vets like myself are kept surprisingly busy looking after a type of animal that has no owner: I am talking about wild animals.
There's a population boom in the wildlife population at this time of year. Nature has worked out the most efficient reproductive cycle for most animals is to produce their young in late spring. They are then released into the world on their own when the natural food supply is at its peak, during the early summer.
Vegetation is flourishing, and insects and worms are abundant. This makes it easier for young inexperienced animals to find enough food to survive. And the warmer weather also makes it easier for young animals to find their feet without dying of cold.
Most mammals and birds produce far higher numbers of young than are needed to replace themselves. Technically, for their genes to survive to another generation, each animal only needs to produce one young version of itself. So a pair of foxes, or squirrels, or sparrows, only need to produce two young, in a lifetime. In fact, most creatures produce far more offspring than this. There might be four young foxes in a litter, six baby squirrels in a den, and five eggs in a house sparrow's nest. And this happens every year for the entire breeding life of an animal - four years for a fox, six years for a squirrel, and three years for a house sparrow.
If you do the simple maths, this means a pair of foxes might produce 16 cubs, a couple of squirrels could create 36 kits and two sparrow parents could produce 15 young birds. This creates a lifetime "surplus" of 14 fox cubs, 24 squirrel kits and 13 young house sparrows. It's "natural" for these surplus animals to die before growing old enough to breed: if they all survived, we would soon be overrun by foxes, squirrels and house sparrows, never mind the dozens of other types of wildlife.
Most of these young animals die out of sight, in hedgerows, roadsides and woodlands. There are many causes, from simple starvation, to parasites and infectious diseases, to predators and accidents. That's how nature and evolution work.
However we humans don't like this. We have compassion, and we don't like seeing any animal suffer, never mind die. So when people find wild animals, what should they do once they have caught them, and put them into a cardboard box or other container? Many people feel completely flummoxed. Often they follow the easiest course they can think of: phone the vet for help. At this time of year, our clinic may get up to half a dozen calls every day about young animals in some sort of trouble.
Vets are generally happy to help out with wild animals: most vets will offer first aid treatment free of charge to animals in need of help. But here's the catch: most of these "foundlings" do not need to go to the vet at all. A visit to the vet is only needed if an animal is injured or sick. Most of these cases are just young animals that may be cold, hungry, lost and confused. They may need help, but they really don't need to go to a vet clinic.
A young female Robin brought in last week is a good example. She was found by the side of a kindly person's house. She was lying in the grass, and when they approached her, she fluttered weakly but could not fly away. They rushed her down to our clinic. However she wasn't injured: a quick physical examination confirmed that she had no wounds, no damaged legs or wings, and that apart from seeming weak, she was in good health. There was no need for her to be at the vet: she was just a young bird who had become tired, or perhaps she had flown into the side of the house and become slightly stunned. Our advice was simple: take her home and keep her in a cardboard box with a saucer of water for a couple of hours. And then release her, close to where she had been found. Her finder did exactly this, and she flew off happily that afternoon, back into her normal habitat.
The truth is that most young birds found outside the nest are not in distress or in need of help. It is not unusual for a baby bird to leave the nest before it is fully capable of flight. This is true of many of common garden birds, like Robins and Blackbirds. Unless you have experience of caring for birds, taking a baby bird in to care may often reduce its chances of survival; the majority of hand-reared baby birds do not survive. This is not a decision to be taken lightly, and should only be done where you are absolutely certain that the chick has been abandoned.
If you encounter a baby bird out in the open, moving it to a safer location with some cover may help its chances. If the chick is very young (with few or no feathers) and you know where the nest is, the best thing to do is to pop the chick back in and let the parents continue to care for it.
If you find any creature that seems to be in trouble, rather than rushing to the vet, the best answer is to go online. Visit www.irishwildlifematters.ie, an wildlife first aid resource which gives details of what to do, as well as giving information about vets and wildlife rehabilitators who will be able to help for trickier cases that do need professional intervention.
And remember: sadly, many young birds and animals do die. That's nature's plan, and we all have to play by her rules.