I was up earlier than normal to pack my backpack for the Lake Superior Fisheries field trip I wrote about last week, but the Sun was up early, too, on the Summer Solstice. While stuffing my camera into the pack, I glanced out my second-floor window and then did a double-take. On the grass below was a doe. The sight of deer in my yard usually just makes me fear for my garden, but as the doe shifted slightly, her tiny, spotted fawn came into view beneath her belly. The cuteness of baby animals is irresistible, even if they do grow into broccoli thieves.
I pulled my camera back out of my pack and took some photos through the window. The fawn was just finishing up nursing, then the pair began to meander down the trail toward the lake. Click. Click. Click. I snapped away, hoping to catch the cutest expression on the fawn’s little face.
Later, when I uploaded the photos to my computer, a pattern made me chuckle. In every frame capturing their walk, the fawn was mimicking Mom’s behavior. Mom stopped and looked over her shoulder. So did Baby. Mom lowered her head to nibble the daisies. Even though the fawn won’t start testing out solid food until at least week two, Baby watched and sniffed with their nose close to Mom’s. It was a little game of Follow the Leader, which, of course, is how many wild babies learn to survive.
A week later, I was about to do my daily fill of the hummingbird feeder, but stopped just in time. Mama and baby were back. The fawn was a little bigger, and nursing hungrily. I opened the window as stealthily as I could, and snapped some photos without glass in the way. Absorbed in their tasks, they did not look up.
Baby was nursing with furious intensity, their little head bobbing and throat quivering. The fawn’s outsized ears and adorably fluffy white tail were all standing at attention. With similar focus, Mom was licking the little one’s rear.
Now, lots of animal parents take care of their young one’s poop. My beloved chickadees, for example, keep their nest clean by carrying out little membrane-wrapped fecal sacs, conveniently packaged by the chicks’ own digestive tracts for easy removal. The chicks are primed to poop just after they are fed, which is good timing—the parent brings dinner and takes out the trash in the same visit.
Similarly, by licking the fawn’s perineal region the whole time they are feeding, the doe stimulates the fawn’s bowels, gets rid of all the stinky stuff, and refills Junior’s belly in the shortest time possible! This multi-tasking is necessary when a doe may only spend a few hours each day with the fawn. Even with limited feeding sessions, fawns double their weight—from an average of 6 pounds at birth—in just two weeks. Deer milk is richer in fat and protein than cow’s milk.
Some of the fawn’s best defenses are to be small, well-camouflaged, and almost scent-free. Big, fragrant Mom hanging around would be easier for predators to detect, and this is dangerous for the fawn before they are strong enough to run. After about five days, a fawn could outrun most predators (including you!), but not all of them. So, for the first three weeks, fawns stay hidden, with Mom hanging out within earshot and returning to nurse them four or five times a day. If a fawn’s cover is blown, a distressed bleat will bring Mom running to the rescue.
Even with all of these precautions, being a fawn is risky business. During the Wisconsin DNR’s 2013 fawn mortality study, only 44.8% of fawns survived to their half-birthday in the northern forests, while 57.8% survived in the eastern farmland. Predators were the largest cause of mortality up north, while starvation was the main problem in farmland. In the absence of abundant predators, fawns still die of emaciation, disease, and birth defects.
These fawn mortality studies are not easy to conduct! Most predators are members of the clean plate club. The Voyageur Wolf Project has been studying wolf predation in the summer since 2012. Their trained field technicians are able to identify the remains of a fawn dinner by the subtle clues of disturbed vegetation, a few bone fragments, or the stomach contents…but only after a wolf’s GPS collar has led them to the site.
This is the season of wild babies! Does nibble on tender young plants (and have even been captured on nest cameras eating baby birds). Fawns drink their milk. Then fawns become lunch for fast-growing wolf pups at a critical time. The food web is humming along at top speed, and everyone’s baby—no matter how cute—is potential food for something else.
And here’s the required PSA: while humans are wired to help cute little babies survive, if you find a fawn, leave it! It’s likely that Mom is nearby. Even if she isn’t, human intervention has been shown not to increase fawn survival over the long run. Somehow, there still seem to be plenty of deer!
Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our new exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open now! Our Summer Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.