Nature is unforgiving. It pays no heed to innocence or beauty or age.
Proof of that is coming in the next several weeks.
Fawning season, a time of life and death in equal measure, is here.
White-tailed deer are the most widely distributed large animal in North America, roaming from southern Canada to into parts of South America. Late spring, from May into early June, is when they give birth.
That offspring has some natural defenses.
For starters, their reddish-brown coats have white spots. They fade over time and disappear by fall. But right now, they serve as a camouflage, mimicking the sun-dappled forest floor.
Fawns use it to best advantage by generally remaining still even when predators approach, in hopes they’ll go unnoticed.
That often works because whitetail fawns are virtually odorless for the first weeks of life.
Their mothers, meanwhile, tuck fawns away – in fields of high grass, under trees, in thickets, even sometimes on the quiet edges of yards – to protect them. They employ what’s known as a “hider strategy.” They leave their babies alone, but hidden, for periods of time so as not to draw attention to them.
Periodically, when things are safe, they return to nurse them.
Sometimes, that leads to problems with people.
Well-intentioned visitors to the woods sometimes find fawns and, not seeing their mothers, assume they’re abandoned. Some carry them home.
That’s always a mistake. Wildlife officials across the country are repeating that this spring, as they do every year, in press releases, videos and more, telling people to leave wild babies – and especially fawns — alone.
“There’s a very good chance the fawn is exactly where it is supposed to be,” said Hannah Schauer, a communications coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division. “Leaving baby animals in the wild ensures they have the best chance for survival.”
Fawns taken home – something that’s illegal everywhere – often suffer anyway.
“The unnatural conditions of life in captivity can lead to malnutrition, injury and stress at the hands of well-meaning captors,” said Paul Peditto, wildlife and heritage service director for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Wild animals that become accustomed to humans can pose health risks and become dangerous as they mature.”
Help for them thereafter is scarce.
Pennsylvania, for example, has an Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators, people trained and licensed to help injured or abandoned wildlife. It’s a relatively small group, though, and only a few members handle fawns. Many of those are often overwhelmed in spring, to the point that they have to turn animals away.
Leaving fawns to their own devices doesn’t guarantee long life either, of course. The harsh reality is that only about one in two survive to reach their first birthday.
Their chances of making it depend in part on habitat.
Researchers from Penn State University, in collaboration with biologists from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, radio collared 98 fawns in two areas of Pennsylvania in 2015 and 2016. They tracked their movements.
At the same time, they examined the results of 29 fawn survival studies done in 16 states since the 1970s.
What they found is that fawns born in agricultural landscapes have better odds of survival than do their counterparts born in forests.
Landscapes with mixed forest and agricultural cover had lower rates of mortality due to predators when compared to forested landscapes, said Duane Diefenbach, an adjunct professor of wildlife ecology who led the Pennsylvania study.
Researchers modeled fawn survival relative to percentage of agricultural land cover. The estimated average survival to six months of age was about 41 percent in contiguous forest landscapes with no agriculture. For every 10 percent increase in land area in agriculture, fawn survival increased by almost 5 percent.
The reason is agricultural landscapes offer better cover that allows fawns to hide from predators.
And it’s predators that account for most fawn deaths.
Coyotes are the leading predator in the southeastern United States, Diefenbach said. Elsewhere, black bears take as many or more. Bobcats play a role, too.
None are as hard on fawns around farms as in forests.
“It seems that predators are not as efficient at finding fawns in grasslands or croplands,” Diefenbach said. “And, in a camera-trapping research project we have in progress now, we are seeing fewer predators in farmland habitat than in forests.”
The trade-off for farm country fawns is that more of them die at the hands of people. Those “ag-influenced areas had greater proportions and rates of human‐caused mortalities,” said another researcher, Tess Gingery.
Meanwhile, fawns die of other natural causes – starvation and abandonment – in similar proportions across all landscapes, Gingery said.
Nature doesn’t discriminate, no matter how tender the life.