Three fawns

  • This doe, alerted to my presence, stares at me while one of her three fawns comes over to her. Note the rabbit in the background (upper left corner of the photograph). For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Three fawns are a handful and I could only get two together in the same frame with their mother. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • Bill Danielson Staff illustration/Andy Castillo

Published: 8/19/2019 6:00:15 AM

Monday, Aug. 12 was, in my estimation, the perfect summer day. I say this for three simple reasons.

First, low temperatures in the 50s were possible because of a cloudless sky and the sun rose into a crystal blue that was beyond compare. Second, as the day progressed the cloudless sky was slowly populated with cottony white cumulous clouds that helped to keep the temperature from climbing too high. Lastly, I could enjoy the day because I didn’t have to go to work.

I woke before sunrise, enjoyed a simple breakfast and then donned the rough attire of a naturalist. I was determined to head down to my “thinking chair” and soak up every sound, scent and sight that Nature had to offer. I was fully equipped and ready for my adventure when I took a quick detour to fill up the bird feeders. This move was so spontaneous that I left my camera dangling around my neck. This, it seems, was all that the gods needed from me.

I stepped out onto the deck and reached for the feeder before I froze as quickly as I would have if Medusa had stared me in the face. My eyes focused beyond the feeder that was in my right hand and I saw a young fawn standing in the tall grasses in my back yard. All I had to do was put down my container of birdseed and start taking photos.

At first, the fawn absorbed all of my attention, but then I noticed a doe standing nearby. She was definitely alert and possibly concerned, but the fawn was more interested in something behind it. Then a second fawn emerged from the tall grass — and then a third. Ever since I started my personal study of nature, I have been aware of the fact that white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) occasionally had triplets, but this was the first time I have ever seen it for myself.

The magic of fawns begins with the rutting season in late fall and early winter. Some females will mate when they are only 5 or 6 months old, but most wait until their second winter to breed. First-time mothers generally have a single fawn, whereas experienced mothers will have two, or even three fawns. The number of offspring from older does is generally determined by the health of the mother, with well-fed does more capable of carrying and supporting more babies.

This brings up a particularly fascinating aspect of deer biology: the slow gestation of a winter pregnancy. Winter is a difficult time for any animal that has to endure it and deer are no exception. Food is scarce and low temperatures put a heavy burden on the metabolism of these beautiful animals. The vigorous growth of babies would exact a terrible price on the females, so the babies grow very, very slowly. Only in March, when the length of the day begins to exceed that of the night, does the pineal gland kick the process into high gear. At this point, the babies go through a real growth spurt and catch up to where they need to be for the birthing process to occur.

Fawns are born from mid-May through June and they are all out of proportion when they first enter the world. Their muzzles are extremely short and their legs are extremely long. Mothers will begin cleaning their babies almost immediately; sometimes with such enthusiasm that they continually knock down fawns that are trying to take their first steps. Does also eat the afterbirth in an attempt to “clean up” the area (to avoid attracting predators) and to regain valuable nutrients that they will need for milk production.

Deer milk is far richer than that of cows and the fawns will grow steadily through the summer, with their jaws extending in length to accommodate a full complement of teeth, which is a surprising assortment indeed. Full-grown deer have three incisors and one canine tooth on each side of the lower jaws, but none on the uppers. Further back in the mouth, they will have three sets of premolars and molars on both the upper and lower jaws. The bodies of fawns will also grow in length, but by their first winter, they are still noticeably smaller than their mothers.

At first, fawns are completely dependent on milk for their water and nutritional needs, but weaning occurs quickly so the does and fawns can focus on preparing for the winter as soon as possible. The white spots on the fur of the fawns help them to blend into their surroundings when they are motionless, but there is a lot of frolicking in the life of a fawn. Siblings will play all sorts of running and jumping games, much as young humans are likely to do.

Fawns will stay close to their mothers for their first winter, but in May the mothers will drive off their year-old babies as they prepare to welcome the next generation into the world. For young males, this will likely be the last time they really interact with their mothers, but for young females, it is only a temporary affair. Not long after new fawns are up and romping around, the females may reunite into large family groups consisting of a matriarch, her fawns and their fawns.

Oh, what I would give to see a little gang of fawns (all brothers, sisters and cousins) in the full rapture of play in the twilight of a sumptuous summer evening. The key here is time. All I need to do is spend every possible moment outside, where I can keep my head up and my eyes open for these sorts of shenanigans to unfold. Perhaps, if I am truly worthy, the gods will reward me with such an event sooner, rather than later. But I’m not going to get greedy. I’ve already been very lucky this year.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.


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