Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Last May, while out hiking, I came across a young fawn curled up in the ferns only three feet from the Appalachian Trail. My husband and our dog had already walked right by without noticing it. I quickly snapped a few photos as the creature lay motionless, its large eyes wide open, a picture of innocence. Then I alerted my husband, we put the dog on a leash, and hurried away.
At birth, a whitetail deer fawn is weak, wobbly on its legs, and weighs only six to eight pounds. Although it’s physically vulnerable, it’s also remarkably effective at hiding in plain sight. The fawn’s reddish-brown coat with white spots (about 300 of them) blends in with the dappled pattern of sunlight on the forest floor. When frightened, the fawn becomes very still. Its heart rate drops dramatically and breathing becomes shallow and slow.
Fawns are also difficult to smell – as evidenced by my dog’s failure to detect the one beside the trail. Young fawns’ scent glands are not well-developed. When a fawn is born, the doe licks it clean, removing odors that might alert predators. A few hours after birth, when the fawn can stand and walk, she moves it from the birth spot to a new hiding place.
A fawn spends most of its first weeks of life bedded down alone. The doe stays away from her newborn except to nurse it periodically, and to lead it to new bed sites. That way her scent does not attract predators to the area where the fawn is hiding. If she has twins, which is common, the doe will typically hide them in separate places and make the rounds to nurse them. While the fawn nurses excitedly, its tail flicking, the doe licks its fur and genital areas to stimulate urination and defecation. She may also consume the fawn’s droppings to destroy evidence of its presence. Although secrecy is a fawn’s main defense, it has another: mom. If a fawn is in distress, it bleats, and the doe, which stays nearby, usually comes running, ready to defend it with her sharp hooves.
Fawns grow rapidly on their mother’s rich milk. By two to three weeks of age, they begin to nibble green vegetation. After a month, they will browse on tree seedlings. At this age, they begin to choose their own bedding sites and twins are reunited. By summer, young deer can outrun most danger, and trail their mother closely.
Fawns usually are weaned at two to three months. In early autumn, a fawn’s spotted coat is replaced by the gray-brown winter coat of an adult deer. Female fawns usually stay with their mothers for two years; young bucks leave after a year. A buck fawn can be identified when only a few days old by the two round spots on its head where the antlers will grow. When I examined my photos of the fawn by the trail, I discovered that I had seen a buck.
Another spring while taking a walk, I heard a repeated bleating sound like a sheep or goat coming from the woods. I entered a dark conifer stand. The sound was coming from a deep drainage ditch with water in the bottom. A fawn had fallen in and could not get out. I didn’t know if its mother would be able to push the fawn out either. I carefully lifted the little deer out of the ditch and placed it gently on the ground beside a big tree. The fawn was afraid of me. It got up and tried to run away on its wobbly legs, but collapsed. I left the scene, assuming the mother would come back once I was gone. That summer I saw a doe in the adjacent field with two fawns running behind her. I hoped one was the fawn I had rescued from the ditch.
This spring, if you find a young fawn curled up in the woods or hiding in tall grass, it is best to leave it alone and to leave the area immediately, said New Hampshire state deer biologist Dan Bergeron. A fawn’s best chances of survival are with the doe. Whitetail fawns learn many behaviors from their mothers that enable them to survive a challenging life in the wild.
Susan Shea is a naturalist, conservationist, and freelance writer who lives in Brookfield, Vermont.