Nature Photography, LLC
March / April, 2015
They're So Darn Cute!
The weather is warming, the trees are in bloom, and the allergies are kicking in. (If you're in the Northeast and are still buried in snow, hang in there – spring is coming! It may be coming slowly, but it is coming…) With these changes come critters guaranteed to elicit a few "awwwws" among wildlife lovers: baby animals. Who amongst us does not love to watch the miniature versions of their more majestic elders romping and playing, learning to fly, or following along obediently behind mom? And what wildlife photographer would not love to capture in-camera a few of the more precious moments? Like any wild animal, though, wild babies must be respected as the untamed creatures they are.
The temptation to get right up to a wild baby to get a good photograph is often strong, but is never a good idea, either for you or the baby. Where there is a youngster, mom is sure to be close, even if you can't see her – and if she isn't, you can bet dad or an aunt is. Regardless of the species of animal, rest assured that the adults can hurt you, and will often try to while defending their offspring against the threat that your presence poses. Even setting aside the larger, more obviously dangerous animals, you should not consider yourself immune from attack. Anyone who has ever been dive-bombed by a bird can attest to how unnerving that experience is – especially if you get a set of talons upside your head. Even if mom doesn't attack, baby might. What the little ones lack in jaw strength, they often make up for in super-sharp teeth and beaks. Even innocuous-seeming animals like ducklings can do a number on your fingers: depending on the species, they may have serrations or even a nail-like protuberance on their bills. And just remember those sharp front teeth when you are thinking of sneaking up to a baby squirrel or rabbit. Even little baby bites hurt. (This is one of the reasons why, whenever you do handle a baby animal, such as replacing a fallen baby bird back into its nest, you should always wear gloves.)
The dangers to the babies of you getting too close while photographing them are many. Your presence may cause fear and anxiety to swell in baby animals. Their heart rates and stress levels may skyrocket, though they may barely be able to move on their own yet. In some species, it is actually possible for them to die of fear. Panic can lead to more tangible dangers, too: automobiles in a road the youngster just darted into, the panes of a window it hit while trying to fly away from you. Assuming the absolute best of all scenarios, in which you are not attacked and the baby is not stressed by your presence, there is nonetheless a major issue to consider: many wild parents will not return to their offspring when people or domestic pets are near. Newborns of all species need to be kept warm and fed frequently, and even older offspring depend upon the nourishment and protection their parents provide, though the feedings may be less frequent. Keeping the parent(s) away from a wild baby is a sure-fire way to injure it.
So how do you get that great, detailed shot? In short: telephoto lenses. I consider telephoto lenses among the most important pieces of my gear, because they allow me to get up-close and personal without interfering with the natural rhythm and order of things. The animals are safe from me, and I am safe from them. Whether I am a hundred yards away from a lion or twenty feet from a robin's nest, telephoto lenses allow me to observe the lives of animals without disturbing them. Am I telling you to go out and buy an expensive camera body and an even more expensive lens to go with it? Not at all. I am telling you, however, to make use of your camera's built-in zooming capabilities, which roughly mimic the effects of telephoto lenses. Even smart-phone cameras can zoom now. Give the youngsters plenty of room, use that zoom, and of course, keep a sharp eye out for mom. One of the best rewards for shooting this way instead of getting right up next to the babies is that you will often have the chance to capture images of mom and babies interacting. As in all wildlife photography, if your presence is causing the babies or their parents to change their behavior, you are too close.
Unless you are hiking in bear country and trying to keep from surprising one of the bruins, you should also be quiet when photographing wildlife, whether adult or young. Many animals can hear very well, and trust me, you are not a natural sound. Do not talk to the animal or make sounds at it in an attempt to get it to look your way. Human voices will put most animals on alert. So, too, will many "human" scents: perfumes, aftershaves, even scented laundry detergents can cause distress in wild animals. The human sense of smell is practically non-existent compared to most of the animal kingdom, so don't assume that just because it's a light scent, it won't affect the critters. Both sounds and smells can add to the animals' stress levels, further contributing to the dangers described above.
Um, Where's Mom?
You've kept your distance, been quiet, and not worn anything scented. Your reward is some wonderful images of the youngsters. Throughout, you have watched and waited for mom to return, but she hasn't. You begin to wonder if the babies have been abandoned. After all, it's been at least an hour…
It is very common, when humans find baby animals without a parent near, for us to assume that the little ones have been abandoned or that the parent(s) have been killed. Our own protective instinct kicks in, and we want to help them. After all, we can't just leave them, can we? Yes. We can, and we usually should: very much more frequently than not, the babies have not been abandoned, and they are just fine. They may be chirping, squawking, grunting, or whining, but just like human infants and toddlers making their myriad coos and whines, these sounds do not mean that the animals are in any danger. As for the parents, we seem to forget that they need to eat, and that they need to gather food for their offspring. Lacking grocery stores, this can take a while. It is also imperative when their little ones are still quite small that the adults handle the shopping on their own, without kids in tow. There is often another critter around who would love to put the youngsters on its own shopping list if they were to come into the open. So off the parent goes, in search of nourishment. The hardest thing for us humans to wrap our heads around may be the length of time that some species leave their offspring while on a snack run. Seals, for example, may leave their pups ashore for up to 48 hours before returning to feed them, while sea lions may be away for 72 hours. It breaks our hearts to hear the whining and crying of the little ones, and we feel we simply must do something. This is the natural rhythm of these species, though, and we underestimate the damage we can do in our naïveté. Imagine you lay your own little one down for a nap, then go to the kitchen to grab a bite to eat. When you return, your baby is gone, snatched away because someone thought it was abandoned.
It can be very hard for some of us to control our natural care-giving instincts. Especially if the baby is somewhere you can keep an eye on it for awhile, though, and it is safe from domestic dogs and cats, the best thing you can do is often to wait and watch, educating yourself about the habits of the species in the meantime. You will then be able to make a much better judgment about when to interfere. Contacting a wildlife rehabilitation center is a great way to get guidance. Trained personnel can help you decide what, if anything, should be done. You can find a wildlife rehabilitation center in your area by contacting the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association at www.nwrawildlife.org or calling your local animal control.
You know that a kitten is a baby cat, but did you know that it could also be a baby skunk? A calf is of course a baby cow – or maybe a baby manatee. Perhaps even a baby hippopotamus. Here is a small sampling of how the names of the young of diverse species can overlap. Just to keep it interesting, some species have multiple names for their young (because English isn't complicated enough).
Baby Name Species
Poult Grouse, ptarmigans, turkeys
Whelp Otters, wolves, coyotes, tigers
Infant Gorillas, monkeys, baboons, orangutans, lemurs
Joey Wombats, koalas, kangaroos, Tasmanian devils, opossums, wallabies
Kit Ferrets, foxes, badgers, mongoose, beavers, muskrats, servals, weasels, woodchucks
Cub Lions, cheetahs, leopards, bears, aardvarks, woodchucks, badgers, foxes, hyenas, jaguars, tigers, walruses, bobcats, lynx, raccoons
Pup Deep breath: Wolves, foxes, prairie dogs, sharks, otters, gerbils, beavers, walruses, sea lions, moles, armadillos, guinea pigs, seals, raccoons, hedgehogs, meerkats, groundhogs, skunks, coyotes, bats, dolphins, anteaters …
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CITY ESCAPES Nature Photography, LLC