Today’s Fawn – Tomorrow’s Trophy You Can Help

R.G. Bernier

Few things in nature are more precious and delightful than the miracle of birth, especially when the arrival is that of a spotted whitetail fawn.

Like the blossoming of a delicate flower, which, without warning, suddenly bursts forth from its dormant bud into full bloom, a baby fawn enters the world. The unblemished innocence of this new arrival invigorates a sense of vitality in all of us. We are instantly captivated with the sight of it. We watch in wonderment as the infant unsteadily attempts to walk, and inwardly smile when the fawn nuzzles up to its mother and begins to nurse.  

Why the fascination? Perhaps it arouses warm recollections from our own parental nurturing, or maybe it stems from knowing the struggles the baby deer will encounter along the way to maturity. Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain: Babies have a unique way of stirring involuntary emotions. Unfortunately, in the whitetail’s world, there are no pediatric wards, incubators or neonatal care to ensure the survival of each spring’s fawn recruitments.

“What transpires during whitetail spring — that precarious time between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice — will determine whether the next generation of whitetails flourishes or fails,” according to noted wildlife biologist John Ozoga.

For years, many people believed 40 percent to 50 percent of the annual fawn crop failed to live six months. However, recent research suggests that those figures are much more dramatic.

From March and August in 2004 and 2005, Stephen Ditchkoff, associate professor at Auburn University's School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, conducted a research project on the survival of neonatal whitetail deer near Auburn, Ala. Using vaginal implant transmitters inserted into captured pregnant does, Ditchkoff’s team could be at the birthing area of each doe soon after she gave birth. The team captured the fawns by hand, weighed them and then fitted them with an expandable radio collar. The study, conducted in an exurban area, indicated a mortality rate of 66.7 percent.

A similar study, conducted from 2004 through 2006 in west-central Texas by Vermont Fish and Game deer biologist Shawn Haskell while he was at Texas Tech University, showed that fawn mortality reached up to 85 percent.

Considering what a typical landowner lays out in time, energy and money to create sanctuaries, food plots, forest management and water sources, that return on investment would not do well on Wall Street. What can be done to ensure a better fawn-survival rate on your property? After all, the fawn of today could become the buck of a lifetime.
Prenatal Care

Stress in the life of a deer manifests itself in many ways. A long, cold winter coupled with deep snow makes undernourished does reabsorb their fetuses or give birth to weak fawns that are doomed before they hit the ground.

“Pregnancy typically increases the need for protein," Ozoga wrote. "If the diet is inadequate, the mother sacrifices her bones and body tissues to nourish her fetus. After prolonged malnutrition, however, the mother’s reserves are drained and her fetus suffers the consequences.”

When provided a diet of more than 13 percent protein, pregnant does rarely lose one of their young because of nutritive failure. However, the greater the percentage of decrease in protein levels, the more susceptible a doe is to losing her newborns.

The best known method to increase a deer’s dietary protein intake is planting food plots. No matter where a deer lives, it can usually only derive 6 percent to 10 percent protein from natural browse. However, a plot that's turned up, fertilized, limed and planted with Whitetail Institute’s Imperial Whitetail Clover can provide animals with double or even triple the protein and critical carbohydrates to ensure that young are born healthy. Best, this food source is available to deer when they most need it.
Birthing Room

In modern hospitals, an expectant mother is assigned a private birthing room. Does demand the same privacy when going into labor. After temporarily driving off the previous year’s offspring, a doe will inhabit a specific piece of real estate — usually the same location each year — to birth her fawn. At this time, the doe becomes very territorial, as she needs to feel secure with privacy during this critical time. Creating several sanctuaries on your property that contain a thick, almost impenetrable understory provides does the kind of delivery room they require. Incidentally, a buck will feel secure in that cover during hunting season.


Research indicates that a fawn is most vulnerable during its first week of life. Its chances of survival increase with each successive week. Because fawns are predisposed to remain motionless between feeding cycles, the vegetation in which they hide must meet the highest security demands. In his fawn mortality research, Ditchkoff implied that a poor landscape contributed greatly to the loss of fawns within his study area.

“We suspect that the high rate of predation was due to efficient detection of bedded or nursing neonates in the open landscape of the exurban area," he wrote. "During the study, the majority of neonates that we captured inhabited and bedded in areas of sparse cover (i.e., wooded yards with open understory, hedge rows, landscaping near homes, etc.). Coyotes are visual hunters, and therefore it has been suggested that increased predation on neonatal whitetail deer by coyotes is associated with sparse vegetative cover. This effect would be most evident within the first 30 days of life because neonates spend much of their time bedded and therefore rely on camouflage to avoid predation.”

What does quality fawning cover look like? Some of the best fawn cover takes the least effort to produce: simple fields where grasses, weeds and flowers grow. Provided the horizontal cover is at least 1.5 feet or higher, a fawn can bed and move about without being detected. Regrowth clear-cuts also provide ideal cover. The best are three to seven years old.

These fawning grounds need to be a patchwork scattered throughout your property rather than at one spot. They should also be at least a half-acre — the larger the better, as fawns will routinely bed in various locations in the same general area.
Amber Alert

This is the signal no parent wants to see flashing, and that includes mother deer. There is nothing any more pitiful than hearing a mother doe frantically grunting for her fawn with no response.

Predation is the No. 1 cause of fawn mortality, and the No. 1 predator is the coyote. As stipulated earlier, a coyote hunts primarily with its eyes.

If you suspect there might be a coyote problem on your property, I suggest an aggressive trapping or shooting program to reduce the numbers. A coyote is an opportunist that will gravitate to the least amount of resistance in acquiring his next meal.
The Next Generation

We live in the present but plan for the future. Whitetails live for today with no thought or promise of seeing another. As stewards of our little piece of the planet, we can plan, prepare and help ensure that what we do will benefit the health and welfare of the whitetails on our land. The choices we make today will have an impact — positive or negative — in the future. Working toward ensuring the maturation of each year’s fawns only enhances our hunts. It promotes a balanced age structure within our herd, makes for a shorter but more intense rut and helps assure the propagation of the species.

“When a balanced age structure is achieved, it ensures the behavioral and biological mechanisms that shape deer populations are allowed to function," said Dave Guynn, professor of forest wildlife management at Clemson University in South Carolina. "This provides for a nutritionally and socially healthy herd.”

As a parent on the other side of my children's childhood, it is pleasing and fulfilling to see them flourish in adulthood. Yeah, it required a lot of time, work, sacrifice, money, prayer and a few tears. But as I look back, it was well worth every bit of the investment. And although children and whitetails are different, self-satisfaction in a job well done comes from both. Whether you're observing your offspring succeeding in a world of uncertainty or watching a magnificent buck quietly feeding in your food plot, a smile of accomplishment purses your lips. A feeling as warm as the setting sun overtakes you with the knowledge that the buck — which just 4½ years ago was a vulnerable fawn — has become a product of your investment.