On June 14, as I turned onto a quiet gravel road off Thornton Gap Church Road, I almost ran into a small doe and her tiny spotted fawn headed in my direction. The two deer quickly turned around and then ran off one side of the road but took different paths — the doe into brush along a stream, and the fawn up a path toward an unmowed field.
Having stopped the car, I waited for a couple of minutes, giving the doe time to reunite with the fawn, which was not yet steady on its feet. I finally edged the car up the road, looking toward the path the fawn had taken. A few yards in I could see the doe’s head poking above the tall grass, eyes turned toward me. Assuming she had found her fawn, I slowly drove on.
White-tailed does give birth to fawns in April through June. Between rain deluges recently, deer seemed to be everywhere near where I live in Old Hollow. Driving the short distance between the last stretch of Old Hollow Road to Waterpenny Farm one day, I spotted two more moms with one fawn each, as well as solitary does and bucks, one dead on the side of the road.
This is also the time of year that people start reporting “abandoned” fawns, and sometimes these well-meaning people can doom a fawn while attempting to help it. So what should you do if you see a fawn? The title of an article on the website of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) about says it all: “If You Find a Fawn, Leave it Alone.”
When a fawn is too young to flee with its mother from predators — such as dogs, coyotes or bears — the mom usually leaves it in a spot where the fawn’s dappled coloring will help camouflage it while the doe goes off the eat. By separating from the fawn, she’s protecting it from predators who are drawn to her, often by her scent, which youngsters generally lack because of the careful grooming by their moms.
If undisturbed, the fawn usually lies still until its mom returns. Fawns may sometimes wander a bit from their hiding spot, but usually return to it soon. Maggie Rogers, at Central Coffee Roasters, spotted a fawn a few years ago that had been visiting the naturalized garden behind her shop. When I stopped by for coffee, Maggie took me out to see the fawn, and I got a few shots with my phone from about 10 feet away while the fawn nosed around in the garden. Maggie and I were quiet and moved slowly, and the fawn seemed totally undisturbed by us. After I took a few shots, we slowly walked away.
Larry Sherertz, former Rappahannock County sheriff and avid wildlife photographer, has taken photos of fawns and points out that, although they will generally lie still even when approached, fawns can panic if a perceived threat gets too close. In a recent email exchange, Larry said that a few years ago he found a fawn in hiding and quietly approached it, worrying that he might get too close. Fortunately, the fawn remained where it was while he photographed it and then slipped away.
White-tailed moms typically have only one fawn but may have up to three in subsequent years. Last year, Larry scored a photo of triplets together not far from his home.
“Never approach them closer than four to five feet,” Larry warns, “and whatever you do, don’t try to pet them. You don’t want to spook them and push them into a frantic run that could injure their fragile developing bodies.” Even if not injured from falling or from crashing into something, a chased fawn can develop capture myopathy, a fatal condition that develops from severe muscle and kidney damage. And in touching a fawn, humans may leave scent that attracts predators.
If a fawn is obviously injured and does need help, VDGIF advises contacting a local licensed wildlife rehabilitator. For a list of rehabilitators or more information, call the department’s wildlife conflict helpline at 1-855-571-9003, Monday through Friday, 8-4:30. Fawns that have been “rescued” when they shouldn’t have been can often be released at the same location because moms tend to remain in the area for at least a day looking for their missing young. But such situations cause stress to the parent and the fawn.
Keeping wildlife without a special permit is also illegal in Virginia. “Each animal’s nutritional, housing, and handling requirements are very specific and must be met if they have any chance of survival,” another VDGIF article, on injured deer, points out. Fawns, for example, can get severe diarrhea from drinking cow’s milk. “With even the best professional care possible, the survival rate of rehabilitated fawns and many other animals is very low,” the article points out. “More than 50 percent of fawns brought to rehabilitation facilities die before being released due to injuries they come in with and unavoidable physical stress during the rehabilitation process. Of those fawns that are released, a very small percentage survives the first year in the wild.”
Even when left alone, fawns face tough survival odds. According to an article on the Pennsylvania State University website, research conducted in that state showed that only 57 percent of fawns born in forested areas of north central Pennsylvania and 72 percent of fawns born in agricultural areas in the central part of the state survived through the summer. This means that between 28 and 43 percent of fawns do not survive the first six months of life. Most of this mortality occurs before fawns are 3 months old, from predators, starvation, failure to nurse, infections, parasites and other factors.
With all those dangers fawns have to navigate, when we find one, we can at least leave it alone.
© 2018 Pam Owen
Nature photography workshop
Like to take photos of nature? Clifton Institute hosts a photography workshop this Saturday (June 30), 9 to noon, on how to improve nature shots. Cameron Darnell, a gifted young photographer who primarily photographs birds, gives pointers, focuses on birds and larger wildlife in the workshop but also gives tips on insects and macro photography. At Clifton Institute, 6712 Blantyre Road, Warrenton. To RSVP, email Sue Garvin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or register online at cliftoninstitute.org/events.