A Deer’s First Few Weeks
So much for spring time coming to Colorado. Two days ago I was riding my bike in shorts and a short sleeve shirt; it was in the high 60s. Even yesterday afternoon at 4:00 I was setting up a lacrosse field for the junior varsity game wearing a tee shirt and a windbreaker. Then at 6:30 at my son’s varsity lacrosse game a blistering wind came in from the north non-stop and the temperature quickly dropped 20 degrees, and more as the game went on. Today it was a blustery snow storm all day, with the high temperature barely reaching 20 degrees, and it will get down to 7 tonight, and 8 inches of snow in my yard. That’s spring time in Colorado!
Hopefully the animals are dealing with the renewed cold better than I am. This time of year, though it varies a bit throughout North America based on latitude, whitetail deer begin their recovery from winter. They shed their winter coats for a new reddish colored, lighter coat for the coming summer. Vegetation is returning and they start to rebuild their strength lost fighting the winter on mostly body fat in some areas. As the snow melts, there are new forbs and fresh plants to eat, and the days are longer and starting to get warmer. For the strongest does that survived the winter, it’s fawning time, and any fetus that survived the winter is likely going to be a stronger fawn for having done that.
A whitetail deer’s gestation period is seven months, so a fawn that was conceived during the November rut will be born in late May or early June. By this time the health of the doe will have been completely restored, she is ready to give birth, and she will leave the herd to find a secluded place to drop her fawn(s). If the doe is young, she will likely have one fawn. If she is older and strong, she will likely have twins or even triplets. Occasionally quadruplets are born, but rarely do they all survive. Research has shown that does who have had a better diet and quantity of food will give birth to more female fawns, while less nourished does are more likely to give birth to male fawns. Within a couple of weeks of fawning, more females survive than males, as it is in general with deer and elk herds, which makes sense considering how they reproduce.
The birth of a fawn is very quick and nearly without any blood at all, taking only a few seconds after the fawn’s head emerges. The umbilical cord is broken when the doe turns around to lick the fawn. Multiple fawns are born about 8 minutes apart, and then the doe will eat the placental sacs and lick the babies until they are clean. Almost immediately the new born fawns are able to stand on their wobbling legs. It is a sight rarely witnessed in the wild.
For the first couple of days the doe will lay next to her fawns, and they will nurse in less than an hour of birth. The fawns increase their strength at an amazing rate, and within days they are nursing every few hours while standing up. After a few days the doe will leave the fawns to feed herself while the fawns lay as motionless as possible in the exact spot the doe left it, waiting for the mother to return so they can nurse again. The color of a fawn and the white spots on its back are meant to camouflage them from predators. Weather has no effect on this process; the mother will leave the fawn and the fawn will stay put no matter what the weather conditions. It is during these periods of separation that mortality from predators is the highest, which is why a doe with multiple fawns will never leave them all in the same place. It is important for us humans to understand this behavior as this is also when fawns are sometimes found by humans who think the fawn is abandoned, and they wrongfully pick up the fawn to “rescue” it.
After a few weeks the fawns will have grown enough to be able to follow their mothers wherever they go, and gradually start eating the same forage that the other deer are eating. It is during this time that the doe begins to teach her young survival skills, such as when to remain completely still or when to run. Older, more experienced deer are the best teachers, simply because they have survived longer and have honed their survival knowledge. Bucks are not a part of the rearing of the fawns, so passing on these crucial skills is left solely to the doe.
To me this cycle of life is truly amazing, as with most wildlife and plants. When I think about what it takes to bring a baby human into the world and raise it, it would appear to me that the wild animals are much better at it than we humans are. Could you imagine having a child and having it be able to stand almost instantly after birth, and then be following you around in just a few weeks? Our babies take almost a year to learn how to walk, by that age a deer is running faster than any human ever will. Whether you hunt deer or not, they are incredible animals, and fascinating to study.