It’s spring. I can tell. I put on a sweater today and it smelled like Squirrel pee. The wildlife rehabilitation season is underway and the cages are filling up with baby Squirrels, tiny cottontails and a porcupine the size of a softball. Everything is here, but the fawns. Where are the fawns? The does should have dropped them weeks ago, but the cold spring and late snows have caused them to hold back as long as possible. I talked to one of the DNR officers and he said that he has seen two so far. If there are two, then that means that in the next few days thousands will be born in the dark of night.
The only way that whitetail fawns can survive the coyotes that prey on them is to simply overwhelm them with their sheer numbers. A doe will do everything she can to evade these hungry predators. She will give birth quietly in a secluded spot. As soon as the newborn can stand ( and that is within an hour or so) she will move it as far away from the placenta and remains of the birthing process as she can. The fawn has almost no scent of its own and she limits contact with it to keep her stronger scent from pervading the area where she will hide it.
Carefully, she will choose the spot to leave her baby, nurse it briefly and move away. She won’t be far though; she will definitely be within sight or hearing distance keeping watch. Sadly though, it will not be enough for many fawns. Packs of coyotes will find some and eat till they are too full to hunt any more. Thankfully, coyotes fill up fast and it gives the remaining fawns time to gain strength to run when needed.
Over the years I have received hundreds of calls from people who are sure they have an abandoned fawn on their hands. A doe will never abandon a healthy fawn. She may instinctually know that the fawn will not survive and an experienced doe will move away. Sometimes a doe will have twins or triplets and know that one is not strong enough to keep up and the weak one is left behind. On occasion, I can save one of these fawns if it gets to me soon enough. Too frequently, the animal dies anyway, because that is the way of nature. The strongest survive to make healthy populations. Nature is not cruel; nature is simply nature and does what it will.
One of the first questions I ask a fawn caller is the exact location of the animal. Is it in the garden, the woods, the road? Next I ask what the fawn is doing. Is it lying curled into itself quietly? Is it up wandering around crying? Is it in immediate danger of being run over or disturbed? I have seen deer leave their offspring in the strangest places. Often very close to a house, tucked in the greenery. If you think about it, these are wonderful safe places in general. Coyotes don’t like to come too close to houses. Traffic is light in the garden. Smart moms.
Some mothers aren’t as clever, especially young, inexperienced does. People have called to tell me that there is a fawn in the middle of their driveway, or schoolyard or one particularly determined doe who repeatedly placed her fawn in the middle of a construction site, even though it was moved by the workers at least twice a day. (I finally had to go and retrieve that one.)
If the fawn is quiet, LEAVE IT ALONE! The doe is not far away and can even attack if you try to take her fawn. Several times, I have had to return a fawn to its original resting place and wait for the mother to come back to it. (They almost always do if the fawn has not been gone long and instinct is much stronger than any human scent left behind by well meaning hands)
A wandering, crying fawn is another story. That is a fawn that needs help and as soon as possible. A newborn will dehydrate quickly and the sound they make is like a dinner bell to a hungry predator, sometimes the family dog. This is usually where I come in. NEVER try to feed a fawn cow’s milk or human infant formula. Call someone who knows what they are doing. It can take weeks to undo the damage of just a few feedings of the wrong milk.
Once the fawn is brought to me or I go to pick it up, the real work begins. I get out the towels, the playpen, and the straw. I clean the bottles, check the nipples (fawns like rubber, not silicone, and definitely prefer Nuk brand). Formula is measured and readied and if needed, first aid supplies are laid out. I always have powdered electrolytes and goat milk formulas on hand; there are bags of colostrum in the freezer. Come to think of it, there are at least 6 kinds of formulas in my freezer and cupboards. I may have nothing for dinner, but I have powdered mealworms goatmilk.
After examining and assessing the condition of the fawn, I treat any injuries or sometimes face the heartbreak of gently dispatching a fawn too far gone or too gravely injured to be returned to the wild in a healthy state. If the baby is salvageable, I am in business. It gets a warm bottle of the appropriate formula and housed in the playpen for observation. I do admit that on particularly chilly nights, I have tucked a lonely fawn in bed with me, it makes the frequent feedings much more convenient for me and a good snuggle never hurt anyone.
The first few days are a bit rough, depending of the age of the fawn. They know the bottle is not mom’s udder and aren’t really fond of that strange thing with only two legs that is caring for them. Often I am lucky to get a few ounces of formula in them instead of on me at a time. Then there is the butt washing. Oh yes, the butt washing. A doe will lick the fawns behind to stimulate its bowels and urine. This is her way of controlling where the scent of its waste is left. It also stimulates the fawn to nurse. So, sometimes you will find me with a warm washcloth in one hand and a bottle in the other. It gives new meaning to the saying “In one end, out the other”. Thankfully, after a while, the fawn will eagerly take the bottle and the butt washing can be saved for later. It is a joyful day in a rehabber’s life when a fawn poops on its own!
After the playpen, the fawn moves to an outdoor pen filled with at least a foot of clean straw that connects to the back of the house. A baby monitor goes from the pen to my bedroom, though I rarely need it to wake me for feedings. I think my body just naturally wakes up when it’s time to feed or there is a problem in the pen. At about two weeks old, the fawns are allowed to go outside the pen during the day. There is a double fence in our yard. It is built so that there is an inner yard outside the back door and a three foot high fence leading to the back yard with its taller fence. Once the fawns are strong enough and large enough that they can jump the three foot fence, they have the run of the whole yard with its trees and bushes and all sorts of hiding places. Unfortunately it also gives them access to my flowers and fruit trees and shrubs and all the things they love to nibble on. By august, you won’t find a daylily or hosta in the place.Occasionally, a rather clever fawn will discover the doggy doors, leading from the inner yard to the large yard or from the patio to the house. These little devils, I know will be trouble.
By now, it’s full summer and my greatest joy is to sit in the yard and watch the fawns play. We may have anywhere from two to five of the spotted darlings running about the place. All I have to do at feeding time is step outside the back door and call “Babies, come babies!” They will all have names by now, but the collective “Babies” will bring them all running. Our property is arranged with the vegetable garden in the middle, with a wooded area to one side, the teahouse and grape arbor (great shady places to hide under) across the back and then a long grassy stretch with well chewed fruit treed on the other side. This makes the most wonderful circular racetrack for growing fawns you could ask for. Many hours are spent laughing as they tear around the circle chasing each other, playing tag, and skidding to sudden stops only to reverse directions. They come to me breathless, smelling of grass and leaves, wanting me to join in their games.
For most of the summer, they will return to their pen each night and I will go through the ritual of the late night bottles. I love this time with them the most. It’s quiet and the only light is from a small electric lantern used as a night light. Crickets are chirping with the temperature and the occasional frog “gadunks” from the koi pond. The air is still and cool and the straw clean and sweet smelling. Toot, the peacock watches from his perch in the walnut tree and the world is at peace.
After each fawn drinks his or her warm bottle, I sit with them in the straw. They give me milky kisses and some will curl up next to me. Sometimes we stay like this for hours, occasionally; I have awakened, covered with dew , just before dawn breaks. Usually though, after the sloppy kisses and back scratches, I will close the door to their pen and say “Goodnight, princes and princesses of the forest. Sleep well and dream of green fields and gentle rains, of sunshine on your backs and sweet flowing streams. May you always run faster than what chases you and outwit the stealthiest hunter. Live long my children and be free.” It is a dream that I will often share.
By late August, they only get a bottle because they are spoiled and because it gives me a moment of closeness to make sure they have no injuries or problems and frankly, because I am reluctant to give up that connection. It gives them extra calcium to build strong bones for running and for the future antlers they will proudly wear. When they allow it, I brush their coats. Each brushing removes the baby spots that I knew so well. The sweet, helpless babies with their ethereal and fragile beauty are gone and young, strong deer have taken their place.
On the first of September, I will lower the gates and they will be free to come and go as they please. Then comes the longest night of the year for me. It is the night that they all do not return to their pen or the yard. They are sleeping in the wild and I imagine every sound to be that of hunting coyotes or speeding cars. Some of the fawns will leave for good at this early stage. They join with other does and their fawns or team up with young bucks, forming bachelor pods. I imagine these to be like frat houses with much carousing and chasing of older does who never give them a second look. Others will return each day for a quick scratch and an apple or carrot or kiss.
A few deer, usually bucks, will remain tied by some unseen bond to me and the property for a few more months. We have had deer join us for Thanksgiving dinner and eat off of guest plates to their utter delight. (Both the deer and the guest’s) There have even been a few stay till Christmas time and I have photos of beautiful, grown deer standing in front of the decorations. (I have also scolded them for removing said decorations from their proper places.) I have tried many times to train one to stand in the first snow with a Christmas wreath around its neck. It’s not been successful….yet.
The only thing constant is change and the deer gradually change their connection from me and the security of the yard to the total immersion with the wild. This is where they belong. This is why I got up for feedings in the middle of the night, or sat up till dawn holding a sick fawn willing it to live. This is why I can never leave the house for more than five hours during the summer months or take a vacation. This is why I put up with the blood and shit and death. This is why I do what I do. I return to the wild, what belongs to the wild. They were never mine to keep and never will be. They are free. Free and strong and healthy and living the live that they never would have had without my help. That is all I need. That is all I know. That is all I am.
Goodnight sweet princes and princesses of the forest. Sleep well and dream of green fields and gentle rains, of sunshine on your backs and sweet flowing streams. May you always run faster than what chases you and outwit the stealthiest hunter. Live long my children and be free.