"AACK! THAT'S a bird?" My friend could hardly believe that the mottled gray mound of feathers in my hand was really a baby bird. Though it weighed no more than an envelope, its heart was pounding and it made a couple of feeble attempts at fluttering its soft wings. We found the bird on a street in Dupont Circle, and since we couldn't find its nest, we decided to take it home while we contacted a few local animal rescue groups for advice.

Prrrrooowwwww. My cats looked even more menacing than usual, so we locked them in another room while we made a few phone calls to find out what to do.

According to most organizations it's best to leave baby animals alone. However, there are exceptions, as in our case.

"When you find a bird on the ground, it's best to put it up on a hedge, or somehow off the ground to keep it away from cats or other animals," said Elizabeth Keirnan, a volunteer with the Animal Rescue League.

"If the bird is covered with feathers and if he can hold onto your finger, he's a fledgling, as opposed to a younger nestling, and should be left alone. His parents are probably close by and may even be watching," said Eva Bell, founder of the Wild Bird Rescue League of Northern Virginia.

"As they get bigger, they can't all fit in the nest and they do fall out. If that happens, just put them back in the nest. It's a myth that parents won't feed them after they have been touched," said Dianne Pearce of the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary.

The sanctuary recommends that, if you can, return a bird to its nest, put some grass, leaves and other light cover on the nest, then cross two twigs on top of that. In the morning, if the twigs have been moved and the babies look warm, chances are that the mother returned. If they're cold, injured or look hungry, call the CWS in Bowie, Maryland, Wild Bird Rescue League in Northern Virginia. If you live in D.C., call either the CWS or WBRL or the Audubon Society in Chevy Chase.

Mammals are a far cry from baby birds and everyone said the same thing: Don't touch.

"It's just not a good idea to touch a mammal because its reaction is to attack. Especially with the risk of rabies, it's not a good idea to get too close," said a spokesperson for the Audubon Society.

According to the CWS, bigger mammals, especially baby deer, can be strong and kick hard. Squirrels, even the babies, have long teeth and sharp claws. Both can be unpredictable.

If you find an injured animal call your own veterinarian, the Audubon Society, the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary or your local animal control facility for advice. In most cases, it will be up to you to bring the animal in for treatment, but in dire emergencies and if manpower is available, some of these organizations will come to the rescue.

If you find an injured or lost domestic pet, dogs and cats in particular, contact the Animal Rescue League.

"If someone finds an animal and brings it to us, we will keep it in the hopes that its owner will come looking for it. If it isn't claimed, we'll put it up for adoption," said Kiernan.

Finally, if you find a dead animal, call your local department of animal control.

"If you don't know how long it's been there, you don't know if it's infested. It's better to call someone to get it, because it can carry disease," said the spokesperson for the Audubon Society.

In the case of our feathered friend, we were told to put it back where we found it. We did, and the next morning found no trace of him. Just a slight rustle in the tree above the spot we found him.

If you find an animal that looks injured or out of place, call any of the following: ANIMAL RESCUE LEAGUE --

726-2556

AUDUBON SOCIETY --

652-9188

CHESAPEAKE WILDLIFE SANCTUARY --

390-7010

WILD BIRD RESCUE LEAGUE OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA --

356-1359 or 690-7491.