Fawn Communication

Posted on June 12, 2012

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The fawning season is a special time for me. The entire landscape is reborn after lying dormant for many months. Leaves burst forth clothing the tree’s naked limbs. Wild flowers of pink, lavender, white and gold dot spacious pastures of emerald green grass. The fragrant aroma of apple blossoms permeates the air, which is alive with the melodious sounds of various songbirds preparing in earnest for their fledglings arrival.

Setting The Stage

What began fourteen years ago as a research project to substantiate breeding dates for whitetails as they relate to the second full moon after the autumn equinox has, in the process provided me with a ringside seat into the intricate world of the whitetail’s spring.

“What transpires during whitetail spring – that precarious time between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice – will determine whether the next generation of whitetails flourishes or fails.”  John Ozoga

Beginning in mid May I wander this glorious tapestry daily in search of newborn fawns. Initially, the process starts by locating several different does and monitor their behavior. Once a pregnant doe is about to give birth, she will exhibit a much different demeanor. She will lick at her flanks frequently, emit soft grunts, and pace about with her tail raised. This behavior can continue for a couple of days prior to birthing. It is then that I diligently comb the area for a newborn.

Fawns are hiders and with their spotted coat they camouflage quite well with the flora of spring. “The chief defense against predation by a young white-tailed deer may be “hiding,” but when given the proper maternal signals it can become a diligent “follower.” Wide spacing of siblings, mother-infant separation, and an appreciable distance between consecutive bedding sites during the neonate’s cryptic phase are anti-predator strategies common to ungulates (Lent 1974).” Without exception, once detected, each fawn I’ve located that is less than 72 hours old will have its chin resting flat on the ground, ears laid back with only its nose rhythmically moving as it tests the air. Fawns this young have yet to learn that I’m a danger and once the infant is comfortable with my presence, photographic opportunities for me become unlimited.

 

Prenatal Communication

A few weeks preceding the birth of her fawn the pregnant doe begins to perform a behavior known as “rub-urination” when she urinates. This procedure is similar to the way a buck urinates down his hocks after pawing out a scrape in the fall. The doe will bunch all four legs together; balance herself on her front legs while she urinates. Her suspended rear legs will scissor back and forth as her urine cascades down across the tarsal glands. Normally, she will only rub-urinate a couple of times a day returning back to her normal posture for all other urinations.

According to Karl Miller, deer researcher, “Whitetails obtain information on individual identity, dominance position, physical condition, and reproductive status from odors arising from this gland. The tarsal of females appears to be used primarily for individual identification. Does frequently sniff the tarsals of others in their social group, and fawns use this scent to identify their mothers.”

Certainly this scent is used to establish individual fawning areas for each doe, and the maternal odor serves to establish boundaries for her yet-to-be-born fawn.

With each successive year of my research the ability to locate fawning grounds has become easier. The explanation for this is documented by John Ozoga in his book, Whitetail Spring, “Typically, the matriarch returns each year to her traditional fawning ground to rear her young. Within the matriarch’s clan, does fawning for their second time usually shift their fawn-rearing areas about a quarter mile from their previous birthing location. Young does fawning for the first time will establish exclusive fawning areas adjacent to their mothers, and sometimes benefit from being closely aligned with a maternally experienced doe when predators threaten the newborn. This system of range occupation serves to maintain the matriarch’s traditional fawning ground and allows for expansion of the clan’s ancestral range during times when food and cover resources are ideal and conducive to population growth.”

Imprinting

The purpose for a doe’s secretive social isolation from the rest of the herd during birthing and the subsequent first few days of the infant’s life is two-fold: to insure that the fawn imprints on her alone and reduce odors that could draw predators. Because of this, a mothering deer becomes highly aggressive and intolerant of any intrusions by other deer into her fawning ground including her offspring from the previous year.

Upon delivery, the bonding process starts immediately between mother and her fawn. Although being highly vulnerable to predation during the birth, the mother spends from three to six hours at the birthing site with her newborn. During this time the fawn is completely licked clean and all traces of the afterbirth are consumed by the mother including any vegetation that fluids may have landed on.

 

Softly, the fawn emits barely audible mews as it nurses for the first time. Simultaneously, its mother follows up the fawn’s vocalization with low grunts. According to research biologist John Ozoga, “Although the mother seems to imprint upon her young within a few hours, it may be several days before the newborn fawns become fully imprinted upon their mother. During the interim, the impressionable newborns risk being attracted to almost any large moving object – even humans.” In large part, this is why I’ve been able to get close to many of the whitetail’s newest arrivals.

Scent Communication

Our world is filled with sights, sounds and verbal exchanges. Without speech and the ability to hear we would quickly be at a distinct disadvantage. Our olfactory glands get little use other than when something pleasant or distasteful fills our nasal passage. Within the whitetail’s world it is quite opposite.

Perhaps that is why we have such a limited understanding of the chemical signals utilized by the animal kingdom. Primarily, the whitetail communicates through scent. That is why the initial bonding process between mother and infant is so important.

On numerous occasions when photographing fawns from my photo blind I’ve observed an adult doe suddenly appear. After detecting her presence, the fawn races over to her only to be rejected and not permitted to nurse. The doe demonstrated complete apathy towards the ungainly little bundle. Why did the doe act so disinterested? Because the fawn didn’t belong to her. This situation generally only occurs when the fawn is very young and has yet to complete the imprinting process. When the fawn’s mother does finally appear, she will give a short maternal grunt summoning the fawn. Before the fawn is permitted to feed mom will thoroughly scent the fawn insuring it’s hers.

Vocal Communication

Led by Thomas Atkeson, University of Georgia researchers have identified 12 different vocalizations made by whitetail deer. Four of these vocal transmissions were maternal – neonatal sounds.

The “maternal grunt” is of moderate pitch with low tonality and emitted for short durations as the doe approaches the fawn’s bedding site as described in the above paragraph. It has been my experience that a doe will call to her fawn when they are traveling. For example, early one evening in late July I was set up on the edge of a secluded field photographing a bachelor group of bucks. Directly behind me I heard the distinct rustling of the underbrush. Turning from the camera’s viewfinder, I spotted a fawn standing ten feet away. Concerned that my cover was about to be blown, the mother of this inquisitive visitor came to the rescue with several “maternal grunts” that sent the youngster swiftly bounding back to her protective care.

Just like when a baby wants to eat, it cries; a fawn that wants maternal attention will do the same. The neonates primary sound is the “mew” and is high pitched with low intensity. This vocalization can be heard in response to the mother’s grunt or as the fawn lies in its bed seeking attention.

When distressed or in trouble, the fawn will sound a loud, intense and continuous “bleat.” This was personally exemplified to me one June morning as I approached a bedded fawn. From a prone position I parted the foot tall grass with my camera lens and proceeded to photograph the little tyke. After a few shots I began to change my position when the fawn bolted and went headlong into a square-wired fence bordering a cemetery. With its head and foreleg stuck, I had no choice but to rescue the little buck. Once in my arms his heart rate exhilarated and his “distress bleats” were ear shattering. I returned him to his bed and backed away. He then wobbly trotted down the slight incline to the woods line bleating all the way. Within moments, mother came racing to the rescue sniffing and licking the frightened infant.

With regards to a nursing doe’s response when the fawn’s distress bleat is heard, John Ozoga writes, “The mother normally maintains an alert vigil while concealed in thick cover – a necessary component of favorable whitetail fawning habitat – usually within a few hundred feet of her resting fawn. If threatened, the distressed fawn’s bawl brings mother running to the rescue within seconds. It’s interesting to note, however, that the doe cannot readily distinguish the calls of her own fawns from those of strange individuals. Nether can she recognize them visually. Early in her fawn’s life, its odor (possibly from the tarsal glands located at the hock, on the inner surface of the hind legs) seems to be the only sure means of identification. Therefore, especially when doe fawning territories are closely aligned, it’s not unusual to see two or sometimes even three does rush to defend a bawling fawn.”

The only other vocalization made by the fawn is the “nursing whine” which is a brief, low-intensity sound barely audible. It is usually made repeatedly by a content suckling fawn.

Conclusion

Communication is the heartbeat of our society, as we know it. The stability of the family unit rests squarely on each individual member’s ability to connect with the other. When dialogue breaks down, chaos is sure to follow, particularly in the raising of children.

 

Amazingly, without words, the whitetail proficiently communicates in ways that leads to a highly organized social structure, a society that continues to produce fawns year-after-year.

All images on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

    © 2012 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer