Observing summer deer is a real outdoor treat

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About three weeks ago I noticed a doe and her twin fawns passing leisurely through the yard shortly before 7 a.m. The fawns were quite young, maybe three weeks old.

It may have been their first foray out into the world with the doe. The fawns tried to nurse several times, but mom pushed them away as she nibbled on some lush foliage.

Since then, the family has been back in the yard at least once a day. Usually, it’s in the morning, but sometimes they return again late in the afternoon. If my estimate of the fawns’ age is accurate, they were born the second week of June. Though surprisingly strong and potentially mobile shortly after birth, fawns stay hidden in dense vegetation.

Avoiding attention

They somehow know to stay put to avoid attracting attention from predators. They can remain almost motionless for hours. To minimize the chance that a coyote or bobcat might find twins together, does hide their fawns as much as 100 yards apart. She then returns to the fawns three or four times each day to nurse. During a fawn’s first three or four days of life, these nursing bouts are the only time fawns are active. They lie motionless while the doe is away.

At four days of age fawns begin to move short distances from their beds. During this vulnerable time, does seldom wander more than a few hundred yards from the fawns’ beds. If danger threatens, does snort and fawns immediately crouch on the ground.

Close encounter

A predator or hiker might pass within a few feet and never notice the fawn. White-tailed does are vigilant mothers. This is why people should “never” pick up an “abandoned” fawn and take it home. Not only is it illegal, the mother is almost always nearby watching.

Fawns are abandoned only when the mother is killed, and it’s almost impossible to know that the mother is gone. Furthermore, it is illegal to keep and raise a white-tailed deer, and zoos do not want them. Some wildlife rehabbers may take them in, but that only encourages people to “rescue” baby deer.

Grow quickly

So don’t be tempted to save a lost deer. Fawns grow and develop quickly. At three days, most fawns can outrun a man. At three weeks, they can outrun a coyote. And at six weeks, they can outrun a bobcat.

When fawns are about two weeks old, they are active about 15 percent of the day, and because they are raised in separate locations, twin fawns lead solitary lives for two weeks. By 12 weeks of age, they are active about 60 percent of the day. And by 12 weeks there is little difference in activity levels between adult does and fawns. By the time twin fawns are three weeks old, they spend more and more time together, and by six weeks they are inseparable.

They travel together, form close social bonds, and begin to behave socially like adults. These experiences are critical to learning how to socialize as adults.

Real treat

Watching the deer family every day this month has been a real treat. The fawns have grown quickly, and the doe has grown increasingly intolerant of their attempts to nurse. In the last week the fawns have become more active and aggressive towards each other. They frolic, chase each other, and sometimes stand up on their hind legs to fight.

It’s reminiscent of the behavior of young human children growing and getting stronger. Animal “play” is essential to physical development. It builds and strengthens muscles and coordination and helps develop the lightning quick reflexes needed to escape predators. It also helps them establish their place in the social order of the local deer population.

Watching these deer each morning, if only for a few minutes, has been a real education. I suspect the appeal of the yard is its openness. It’s a safe place where they can shed the morning dew before heading back into the safety of the dense vegetation in the fields and forest.

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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