Empty Nest Syndrome

Everyone handles Empty Nest Syndrome differently. My only child is a senior at Charlotte High School this year and, as such, is getting ready to graduate. She attended her prom last week (wearing a dress I thought might cause her father to have a heart attack) and will be packing off to the University of Central Florida this coming fall (along with 60,000 of her closest friends).

In the past 12 years I have been a homeroom mom, uniform mom, teacher’s assistant, library assistant, office assistant, band mom, cookie baker, field trip chaperone, and have provided support to just about any other endeavor asked of me by the public school system. I have enjoyed not only being close to my daughter, but watching all of her classmates grow from the cute little troublemakers that they were, to the respectable adults they are on the verge of becoming.

And that one inevitable big troublemaker. In days past, he would have ended up a politician or a felon. Luckily for him, he no longer has to choose between the two. Seems like all of the former now end up as the latter eventually. So am I making plans to turn her bedroom into a sewing room or an art studio? No, my empty nester issues run much deeper than that. Especially at this time of year. Not graduation time, but baby season.

I do not suffer from Empty Nest Syndrome, I celebrate it! Every week or so we get to release a group of baby rabbits, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, or birds that the foster mothers at Peace River Wildlife Center have raised. PRWC takes in 10-20 baby animals each day during the months of April through June. When we are able to release a handful of juveniles, those incubators and cages fill right back up with new incoming babies.

Some of the situations that bring these babies to a wildlife rehabilitation facility are avoidable. Spring is historically breeding season for many birds and mammals. Please check your shrubs and trees closely before trimming or cutting them down. Even (especially!) dead palm trees should be checked, as they make wonderful nesting sites for woodpeckers and screech owls.

If an active nest is found, please wait a few weeks until the eggs have hatched and the babies have fledged before cutting down the tree or trimming the branches. I have had dead cabbage palms in my yard for years before they fall over on their own. And by that time they are so rotted and hollow that they weigh very little, and they have been prime real estate for many generations of birds to raise their young. Often young birds and mammals are brought to us by mistake. A fledgling bird (one that has started to replace his downy fluff with normal flight feathers) can be returned to the nest or a nearby branch if found on the ground.

Baby squirrels that have fallen out of the nest will usually be taken back up into the nest by their mother, or if the entire nest has been blown down, she will relocate the family. If you hire a trapper to get a raccoon out of your attic, make sure he checks to see if the adult is a female, if she is lactating, and if he can also get to and remove her babies, keeping the family together for relocation.

Probably 90% of the baby eastern cottontail rabbits and whitetail deer we get are actually “kidnapped.” The mother rabbit nests in a shallow dip, lined with a few grass clippings and a bit of her fur, often in the middle of a mown lawn or field. That way she can see predators coming from a distance and dart off, leading danger away from her babies. She will return to the nest only once or twice a day to feed her young. The same principal holds true for deer. The mother
will wander off to graze, leaving the spotted fawn alone for long periods of time.

She will return to nurse the fawn if there is no threat around, like a human standing there trying to “rescue” the “orphaned” fawn. Both of these species fare much better raised by their own mothers, so unless they are obviously injured, please leave them where you found them. If you find a baby bird or mammal that has suffered some sort of trauma, is bleeding, has a broken bone, or has been inside of a dog’s or cat’s mouth; definitely transport that animal, as gently and quickly as possible, to PRWC for treatment.

If you have any questions, call ahead and we can generally determine if the animal might need help or if it would be better off left alone with its parents. As for the “nests” being freed up by graduating high school students, I don’t have much advice, other than to offer my condolences to all the sad mothers out there.

And if you find yourselves with too much time on your hands, stop by PRWC and we can hook you up with some babies who scream to be fed every 10 minutes, leave the floors of their “bedrooms” a complete mess, and never, ever say thank you. You will feel like that teenager of yours has moved right back in. Or it will be a wonderful reminder of just how grateful you are that he moved out in the first place.

– By Robin Jenkins DVM