How the Newest Generation of Whitetails Survives

by Braxton Taylor

A week ago, a buddy of mine sent me a picture of twin fawns lying on the forest floor. While scouring the woods for morels, he stumbled onto the pair. They couldn’t have been more than a few days old.

These encounters are happening all over the whitetail’s range right now. If you’re lucky enough to walk up on a newborn, it might seem like it would be impossible for enough of them to survive the first few weeks of their lives to the point where we have viable populations to hunt.

Many do survive, however, and the first advantage they have is one of numbers.

Predator Swamping

If you were to take a walk in my backyard right now, you’d notice a hell of a lot of baby frogs on the edge of our pond. Once the tadpoles lose their tails and crawl from the water, there is a window where the amphibian numbers are amazing. This is no accident.

It’s an evolutionary trait that developed to swamp predator numbers. The more prey that saturates the landscape at one time, the less likely any one individual is to get munched on. Regionally, whitetails rely on the same method. This is why an uninterrupted rut will occur in a fast and furious manner, where most of the does will be bred within a short window of time.

The more fawns born in the same couple of weeks, the less likely it is that a disproportionate amount will end up in the gullets of predators. This is also why a trickle rut is bad for deer numbers. The longer it’s drawn out, the less saturation occurs in the spring.

Fawns don’t rely solely on strength in numbers to survive to their first birthday. They also inherently understand the benefits of laying low.

Good Hiding Spots

One of the most predator-dense areas I hunt is northern Wisconsin. We have the big four—wolves, coyotes, bears, and bobcats. We also see older does, year after year, raising fawns near cabins and roads. The best fawning grounds over there seem to be the areas closest to human activity, which might simply be due to predators’ reluctance to get too close to man.

There’s an advantage there, but a bigger cross-species advantage is the gene-deep bend toward laying low. Contrary to popular belief, fawns aren’t scent-free. They are just small and unwilling (and unable) to move a whole lot. The more they hide in the tall grass, the less scent they leave around. Black bears are pretty good at finding them anyway, but generally, this strategy allows them to grow into their legs and other survival traits before they start to trail mom around through the woods and fields.

Their custom paint job aids in the hiding process as well. The stippled coats of fawns work amazingly well at blending into the forest floor, especially a forest floor that is dappled in sunlight (which you often see in the late spring and early summer).

Three Weeks To Freedom

If you were to start watching a rerun of Friends the moment a fawn hit the ground, that little deer would be able to stand up on wobbly legs about the time the credits rolled. A couple hours later, that same fawn can walk around some. Less than a month after that, it can run fast enough in short bursts to leave most predators behind.

This ability to run and cover ground coincides with a change in their diets. At first, their sole source of nutrition is their mother’s milk. This stage lasts a few weeks before they start adding in natural foliage. They will still nurse for quite a few more weeks, but they don’t count on just mom for their daily calories.

By the time they can really run, they are far less likely to end up clenched between the jaws of something big and toothy. In fact, at this point in many regions, the biggest threats they face are all human-related. Hunters are a big one, naturally, but so are vehicles.

It’s not an easy go for young deer, or any deer in most places, but the threat of being helpless and unable to escape predation is mostly concentrated in a small amount of time right after they’re born.

They learn the ways of the woods early and excel at surviving almost out of the gate. That might not even seem possible if you stumble across a fawn curled up in the CRP while you’re out hanging trail cameras, but it’s true.

And honestly, it’s pretty incredible.

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