Wild Ideas: What to do if you see a fawn

This time of year, some of us are lucky enough to find a fawn, silently curled up in tall grass or other cover, apparently abandoned. The immediate thought for most people is that the fawn is hurt or abandoned and should be helped, but the best thing to do is to follow the advice the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries gives on its website: “If you find a fawn, leave it alone.”

Fawns are born from April through July, and are purposely left alone by their mothers until they are old enough to safely navigate their habitat with their mothers and flee from predators. Does stay away from young fawns as much as possible to avoid drawing predators to them.

This tiny young fawn was discovered by former Rappahannock County Sheriff Larry Sherertz while on a hike. He took the photo and wisely left the fawn alone, knowing its mother would return. Photo by Larry Sherertz.
This tiny young fawn was discovered by former Rappahannock County Sheriff Larry Sherertz while on a hike. He took the photo and wisely left the fawn alone, knowing its mother would return. Photo by Larry Sherertz.

The fawn’s spotted coat and instinct to lie quietly when alone serve as its best protection. Rabbits use a similar strategy, and the mere presence of a human in the area may attract predators, especially such clever ones as coyotes, who have learned that we can lead them to food.

While you may not see a fawn’s mother, she’ll return briefly to feed it several time a day. Disturbing the fawn, and especially moving it, can mean it will never be reunited with its mother. Even if the fawn seems lost and calling, likely the mother is nearby and will eventually find her baby, which won’t happen if it is moved.

Deer were hunted to scarcity in Virginia, even out here near the Blue Ridge, in the last century, but conservation measures, human-caused changes to the land and a declining number of hunters all contributed to what has been an explosion in the deer population. Deer populations have expanded dramatically, with each likely to give birth to more fawns at one time.

Although bears and coyotes prey on fawns, it’s not enough to put a significant dent in the growing deer population, and this means more Virginians are likely to run into them, as former Rappahannock County Sheriff Larry Sherertz did recently. A nature lover who does a lot of wildlife photography, he accidently startled a doe and fawn while on a hike, he says.

The doe fled while the fawn “dashed into the undergrowth” and lay down. Larry went to get his camera and quietly snuck back to get some shots of what he says was “the smallest fawn I’ve ever seen,” then left the area just as quietly.

Larry’s been around deer long enough to know the doe would come back to get her youngster and that the fawn didn’t need help and should be left alone. Tiny fawns are so cute, he says, that “it’s hard to resist petting them, but you have to.” Touching or otherwise startling fawns can lead them to flee, possibly hurting themselves in the process or making it harder for their mom to find them.

According to the VDGIF, youngsters who have been “rescued” when they shouldn’t have been can often be released at the same location because parents tend to remain in the area for at least a day looking for it. However, such a removal undoubtedly causes stress to the parent and its young. If a fawn is obviously injured and does need help, VDGIF advises contacting the local licensed wildlife rehabilitator. VDGIF has a list on its website; you can also call the department’s dispatch at 804-367-1258.

Keeping wildlife without a special permit is illegal and can be dangerous to the animal. As VDGIF points out, “each animal’s nutritional, housing and handling requirements are very specific and must be met if they have any chance of survival. For example, cow’s milk will induce very severe diarrhea in fawns.” The department also advises not chasing fawns, which can stress the animal and lead to capture myopathy, a fatal condition due to severe muscle and kidney damage.

Other than through predation or the loss of its mother, fawns can often be injured or killed in the process of haying or bushhogging fields. Anyone wishing to avoid this might consider delaying cutting their fields until later in the summer, when fawns are old enough to escape.

If you do think a fawn needs help, it’s good to keep another thing in mind. According to VDGIF, the odds of survival of rescued fawns or other animals, even with “the best professional care possible,” are “very low . . . due to injuries they come in with and unavoidable physical stress during the rehabilitation process.” Of those released, a “very small percentage” survive their first year in the wild.

Rehabilitation facilities also have limited housing and staff, VDGIF advises, so “treating fawns takes resources away from treating animals that are rare or endangered.” Rehabilitated deer can also contract diseases from other deer while in captivity, such as tuberculosis or chronic wasting disease, and with the high populations of deer in the wild, these diseases can then be spread when rehabilitated deer are released.

“The best advice for someone who wants to help wildlife is to keep it wild,” VDGIF says. “Once people interfere, we reduce the opportunity for animals to be cared for by their natural mothers and we increase the risk of harming our wildlife heritage.”

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 274 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”