A whitetail’s first 12 months are fraught with peril, and some won’t survive.
Dawn breaks on a dew-soaked meadow. The calendar says summer is still several weeks away, but the woodland creatures know it’s already here. The grass is a yard tall, trees are fully leafed out and the colorful male songbirds now sing to defend a territory rather than attract a mate. The matriarchal doe, which usually associates with a small family group consisting of her offspring and their offspring, stands alone in a back corner. She slipped off several days earlier and adopted a territorial demeanor, aggressively driving away any others of her kind. Now she stands like a statue in the shadow of a big swamp maple, eyes and ears scanning constantly for any hint of danger.
She is not alone. Some time just before daylight, she brought two new lives into the world. Twin fawns, a buck and a doe born 20 minutes apart, lie somewhere not far away in a dense tangle of ferns. They each weighed roughly 8 pounds at birth, about the same size as a healthy human baby. From the moment they hit the ground, they began a perilous journey along the thin line between life and death.
Though we try to portray it so in paintings, greeting cards and Disney films, nature is not pretty. Our buck fawn came into the world ugly, covered in amniotic fluid and membranes. The doe instinctively licked him clean of afterbirth. She didn’t comprehend that it helps restore valuable protein she’ll need to nurse her fawns, or that its odor might attract predators. She merely did what nature programmed her to do.
No time is easy, but the first few days of a deer’s life are especially perilous. He might already be doomed. Studies have shown that more than 90 percent of offspring born to malnourished does died shortly after birth. If he’s healthy, he’ll be standing on wobbly legs within the hour and might be able to walk several hundred yards within a few hours. Still, it will be many days before his legs are strong enough to outrun predators.
Nature has a design for that. Most does give birth within a few days of one another, effectively flooding the woods with a glut of helpless protein meals. They’re all at risk, but the predators can only take so many before they’re no longer obtainable. This actually increases the relative odds of survival for each individual deer.
Nature has bestowed several other gifts to help a whitetail fawn survive those first few days. Their speckled coats help them blend in with the dappled sunlight on the forest floor. Instinct tells them to freeze when potential danger is near, and their mother constantly reminds them. Perhaps more importantly, the young fawn is virtually odorless for its first two weeks of life. Still, some will perish in ways we might see as ugly — at the claws and fangs of wolves, coyotes, bobcats, cougars and bears. Many others will succumb to birth defects, accidents, disease and parasitism.
If our young buck makes it past those first critical days, his odds go up significantly. He and his sibling will remain within their mother’s several-acre fawning territory for days, or even weeks, gradually moving farther away. Our buck won’t have to move too far. His mother, an older, long-nosed doe, is dominant in the local family group and gets the prime fawning habitat, where critical food, water and cover occur within a relatively confined area. She’ll also be more aggressive at defending him against predators. And despite the myriad perils, the buck’s chances for survival increase with each passing day.
Early summer is a period of relative tranquility and stability for deer. Food is abundant, and a whitetail’s daily routine is devoted almost entirely to obtaining it. More specifically, the doe is seeking high- protein food that she converts to milk to nurse her rapidly growing fawns. In most parts of the deer’s range, finding that food is not difficult, provided there is sufficient rainfall and lush vegetation.
Our buck is now a month old, and his behavior is changing. Instead of freezing, he’ll more likely flee from impending danger. And rather than 100 or 200 yards away, he’ll bed close to his sibling, who has also become his playmate.
It would be a stretch to suggest the young deer are having fun, but to anyone who has ever witnessed it, there’s no doubt they are playing. The youngsters will jump high in the air and kick with their hind legs as if showing off. They’ll run in tight circles and then chase one another at breakneck speed through the thickets. Upon first seeing it, one might think the young deer have gone mad. This play has a purpose, though, helping the youngsters build muscle, agility and the coordination they’ll need to avoid predators.
When they’re about six weeks old, the youngsters finally get to meet the neighbors. Their mother has been territorial and secretive up to this point but gradually begins expanding her home range and becoming more tolerant of other deer. Often, does in adjacent territories are older-aged offspring of the matriarch. Biologists sometimes refer to this as the rose petal effect, where successive generations of does set up adjacent territories farther and farther from the original matriarchal doe.
The days wind on and gradually start to get shorter. This cessation of daylight has a peculiar effect on our buck. He begins to feel the budding of an angst that won’t blossom for another year. All the same, those tiny round spots on top of his head start to itch. So he scratches them by rubbing a tree, beginning a ritual he will repeat each fall as long as he lives. Though he doesn’t comprehend it, he’s also become more aggressive. The running and chasing games are exchanged for shoving matches; and like a pre-adolescent, he’s largely abandoned his sister for his new male playmates.
Autumn begins, and with it comes another high-risk period. Food is still abundant at the outset, but the young buck is about to experience his first hunting season. Relatively speaking, odds are in his favor, for now. Due to both regulations and hunter preference, the highest hunting mortality will be on antlered bucks. Those hunters who are willing or able to kill an antlerless deer tend to be selective toward mature does. And in many circles, killing a button buck is taboo.
Meanwhile, the old doe is wary, even warier than bucks her own age. She’s learned to survive through six hunting seasons and now she’s passing that experience along to her offspring. He can learn much from his mother about avoiding danger, so long as she lets him stick around.
Ironically, the young buck might have better odds as an orphan. Yearling male dispersal is an evolutionary strategy to prevent inbreeding. A maternal doe drives her male offspring out of his natal home range either during the fawning season or the rut. This forces him into unfamiliar territory and puts him at greater risk, particularly in the fall (a Pennsylvania study showed that orphaned bucks showed much greater survival rates because they did not disperse from the area where they were born).
More changes are taking place with our buck. His diet shifted, first when he was weaned several months earlier and began gorging on lush, high protein forbs, grasses and legumes. Later, as the greenery matured and withered, he found new bounty in wind-thrown apples and acorns. There was no comprehension of his newfound and seemingly insatiable appetite for high-carb foods. It is, again, merely nature’s design, guiding him to put on fat for the coming winter.
Our buck is not orphaned, but only by the slimmest of margins. A storm, the after-effects of an offshore hurricane, ripped through the woodlot. For two days, the buck, his mother and sister laid low, feeding only for short bouts, and close to the bedding area. The third day dawned crisp and clear. A vestige from past experience told the doe to head for the big white oak, where she’d found a bounty of new-fallen acorns after previous storms.
This was new ground to our buck, but the doe knew it well. She knew to circle downwind and stand in the shadows, checking for any sign of danger. The windfall of food would attract other woodland critters: squirrels, chipmunks and raccoons. They, in turn, might attract predators.
There was also that strange smelling creature that walked upright on two legs. The two fawns recognized the aroma of fresh acorns, trotted into the opening with reckless abandon and began gorging themselves. The doe stood by, nervously watching and waiting for some time before finally starting forward. She joined her offspring, but instead of feeding, she remained rigid and alert — tense.
There was no comprehension; it was merely an instinctive reaction when she crouched upon hearing the strange “twang” in the trees above. It was to load her powerful legs for the first bound, but it served another purpose. The broadhead-tipped arrow passed fractions of an inch over her back and stuck into the rich, black soil with a thud. As he bolted, the young buck caught the faintest whiff of a foreign odor that, from that point on, he would associate with danger.
Each successive day brings more and bigger changes and new experiences. The young buck began to encounter patches of bare ground along his travel routes. Investigating, he found strong odors, some he recognized, others foreign. Then one day he met the source of one of those odors.
It came first as a sound — swift footfalls rattling on the dry oak leaves like the rapid fire of a machine gun, followed by nasal grunting. The big buck burst from cover, a sight to behold. Steam poured from his flaring nostrils like a locomotive. His massive shoulders blended seamlessly into a tree-trunk-thick neck that supported a head and a massive 10-point rack. The little buck fled, and for the first time in his life, was on his own.
For several weeks, the young buck travels on his own. Occasionally he encounters other deer, especially other solo fawns, all now nearly as big as their adult mothers. They travel and bed together for a day or two, but there is no bond; they soon go their separate ways.
The young buck rises from his bed one afternoon and sets off in search of food. A northwest wind brings biting temperatures and the sky is leaden-gray. He soon finds himself back at the big white oak. The small, sweet acorns are long gone. Nearby, an adult doe is scratching the leaves, searching for the larger, more bitter red oak acorns that still remain on the forest floor. Our buck trots over and recognizes his mother. As they slowly feed off, snowflakes start to fall.
The young buck has survived his first fall, but the changing of seasons brings with it still more risks. Winter, especially in the north country, is often described as a bottleneck. Food resources are at their most scarce, and the quantity and quality available will determine how many deer survive. Individual fitness can determine which ones live, particularly if the winter is severe. The first to succumb will be the sick and injured. Next will be those that weren’t able to obtain sufficient nutrients to carry them through the winter. In most cases, that’s this year’s fawns.
Winter comes, and our buck’s routine changes again. He travels less, sticking close by the best food sources. The greens are long gone, and he must search harder to find hard mast — nuts. His metabolism is slowing down, and so is digestion. Lower quality food like hardwood browse — twigs — makes up a growing portion of his diet. It takes longer to digest, so he sits for hours while his four-chambered stomach works to leach scant nutrients. He seeks the shelter of softwoods, where the snow is less deep and the wind less severe.
Eventually the winter ends. Our buck has survived but is in poor condition. Food is at its most scarce, and what’s available is poor. Spring rains and lengthening days, however, bring new life; the fields and pastures start to green up. As soon as they do, the deer move to these open places.
One spring day, our buck finds himself in one such place, feeding in the back corner of a meadow as the wind whistles though the bare branches of a big swamp maple overhead. Soon the buds will pop, leaves will grow on the bare branches and ferns will fill out the nearby thicket, offering a secluded patch of cover that’s just right for fawning. Our buck has made it through one of the most critical periods of his life — the first year. He’ll be relatively safe for a while, but his greatest challenge still lies ahead, just half a year away.
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This article was published in the August 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.