Fawns Not Abandoned

Reprinted from a June 15, 2008 column in the Morgantown Dominion Post    

As the fields and woods green up, as they are right now, it is time for does to drop their fawns. There are reasons they drop fawns in late May and early June. First, the fresh green vegetation provides the does good feed to help them get through the end of their pregnancy, and prepare for the birth of their fawns. Second, the new vegetation provides good cover for does to leave their fawns as they go off to feed. Predators, such as coyotes and dogs can be a problem for fawns, so good cover is essential.

There is an old myth about fawns that I hear all the time. It goes like this. Fawns have no scent, an evolutionary adaption to prevent predators from finding them. Not so. I mean think about it for a moment. How can you have any young mammal that wouldn’t have odor? They have fur, and it definitely has an odor. Fawns may have less odor than older deer, but they do have some odor. All mammals do.

One other point. Fawns do not traipse around after their mothers, at least not very much. Some hoofed mammal fawns go everywhere their mothers go. Moose are good examples of that. But does leave their fawns bedded for long periods of time during the day. And when they return to those bedded fawns, how do they find them? Smell.

Well, actually it is more than smell. When she returns to nurse her fawn, she will give a light call, and this causes the fawn to get up and join his/her mother. This may happen several times a day, and this daily schedule goes on for over a month. Maybe two. Thereafter the fawns stay with their mothers all the time.

Here is another myth about fawns and odor. In fact, I’ve heard this same myth relative to baby birds that people pick up off the ground. This myth is . . . once a human touches the animal, the mother will abandon it. Think about that one for a moment. What possible reason would a mother abandon her fawn, or a robin abandon her young? Does will fight off predators. Robins will chase off crows. If they fight for their young, do you think that smelling human odor would scare them off? Do you think a mother bear would abandon her cubs just because a human touched them? Same for a deer. Same for a robin. No a mother’s instinct far outweighs human odor.

We’re at that season when people out walking and farming bump into fawns hiding in tall grass. The very worst thing you can do is assume these fawns are abandoned, and pick them up and drag them home. This single well-intentioned act will seal the death deal for that fawn in almost every instance. Understand that the fawn was left in that high grass by it’s mother while she goes off to feed, to gain nourishment so she can suckle that fawn. Do not disturb such fawns. And if you do pick it up, simply put it back. Mom won’t care a twit.

Human disturbance may cause a hen turkey to abandon her nest when she is sitting on eggs, and their renest success is very high. But if you bust up a hen and her young brood of chicks, then pick up one and then immediately return it to the area where you got it, the hen will return, call, and gather up that chick. Your odor on the chick will have no impact. Same for deer.

So, when should you try to help out Mother Nature by picking up young? Almost never. There may be exceptions. If a doe is hit by a car, and you can somehow catch her fawn (that would be rare), then doing so might save the fawn. Well, it would save the fawn if you could get it to the DNR to take to their game farm in Buckhannon to hand raise. Even then, you probably haven’t saved the fawn, because when hand-raised fawns are released into the wild, survival isn’t all that good.

How about baby birds? That can be a tough one. It depends on how old the chicks are when they fall from the nest. If they are older, with feathers, but not enough feathers to allow flight, then putting them back in the nest can be difficult. When you put them into the nest, they jump right out. The best method I’ve found is to place the bird in the nest and hold your hand over the nest for awhile until they settle down, then quietly sneak away. That sometimes works.

Yes, it is the time of the year when we need to make sense about animal scents. When it comes to raising fawns, just let mom do it.

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Dr. David Samuel