Spotted Recruitments

Posted on July 2, 2013

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 The Deer of the Future

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                  Few things in nature are more precious and delightful than the miracle of birth …

                  especially so when the arrival is that of a spotted, whitetail fawn. 

Like the blossoming of a delicate flower, which, without warning, suddenly bursts forth from its bud into full bloom, a baby fawn enters the world. The unblemished innocence of this new arrival invigorates all of us. We are instantly captivated with the sight of it and watch in wonderment as the infant unsteadily attempts to walk. We smile inwardly when the fawn nuzzles up to its mother and begins to nurse. Why is this so fascinating?  Perhaps it is the warm recollections of our own parental nurturing, or possibly it stems from knowing the struggles this baby deer will encounter along the way to maturity. Whatever the reason, one thing is for certain, babies do indeed have a unique way of stirring emotions. Unfortunately, in the whitetail’s world there are no pediatric wards, incubators or neonatal care ensuring the survival of each spring’s fawn recruitments.

 

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 Mortality

 According to wildlife biologist, John Ozoga, “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.”  For years it was believed that the percentage of fawns that fail to make it to six months was  40% to 50%. However, research suggests that these figures are much higher.

Stephen Ditchkoff, Associate Professor at Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences conducted a research project on the survival of neonatal white-tailed deer between March and August in 2004 and 2005 in and around Auburn, Alabama. Using VITs (vaginal implant transmitters) inserted into captured, pregnant does, Steve’s team was able to be at the birthing area of each individual doe within a short time of her giving birth. Once on the scene, the team captured the fawns by hand, weighed them, and then fitted them with an expandable radio collar. The result of this study, which was done in an exurban area, was a mortality rate of 66.7%.

 

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In a similar study conducted in west-central Texas bewteen 2004 and 2006 by Vermont Fish & Game deer biologist Shawn Haskell, fawn mortality reached as high as 85%. Given these grim figures, what a typical land owner has laid out in terms of time, money and energy on food plots, forest management, water sources, and sanctuaries, shows a poor return on investment and certainly would not be viewed well by Wall Street. Since today’s fawn could one day be the buck of a lifetime in your sights, the question is what, if anything, can be done to ensure a better survival rate of fawns born on your property?

 

 Prenatal Care 

Stress in a whitetail’s life manifests itself in multiple ways. A long cold winter coupled with deep snow results in under-nourished does that will either reabsorb the fetus within them, or birth weak fawns doomed before they ever hit the ground. John Ozoga points this out when he writes,  “Pregnancy typically increases the need for protein. If the diet is inadequate, the mother sacrifices her bones and body tissues to nourish her fetus. After prolonged malnutrition, however, the mother’s reserves are drained and her fetus suffers the consequences.” When provided a diet of more than 13% protein, pregnant does rarely loose one of their babies due to nutritive failure. On the other hand, the greater the percentage drops in her protein levels the more susceptible she is to loosing her newborns.

 

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The only known way of increasing a deer’s dietary intake of protein is planting food plots. No matter where a  deer lives they can only derive 6-10% protein from natural browse. However, a plot of ground turned up, fertilized and planted with a perennial blend of clover can provide the animals with double the protein and critical carbohydrates necessary to insure their young are born healthy. The greatest benefit of this food source is that it is available to the deer when they need it most.

 

 Birthing Room

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In today’s modern hospitals an expectant mother is assigned her own private birthing room. Whitetail does demand the same privacy when going into labor. After temporarily driving off last year’s offspring, she will take up residency on a specific piece of real estate, usually the same location on each successive year, to birth her fawn. At this time, the doe becomes very territorial, as she needs to feel secure during this critical time. If you create several sanctuaries on your property that contain thick, almost impenetrable understory they will be just the kind of delivery rooms a doe requires to birth. Incidentally, it’s the very same cover a buck will feel secure in come hunting season, and will aid immensely in helping to keep these deer on your property.

 

Playpen 

Research indicates that a fawn is most vulnerable during the first week of its life. Its chances of survival increase with each successive week. Because fawns are predisposed to remain motionless between feeding cycles, the vegetation in which they hide must meet the demand of the highest security.

 

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In his fawn mortality research, Ditchkoff implied that poor landscape contributed greatly to the loss of fawns within his study area. “We suspect that the high rate of predation was due to efficient detection of bedded or nursing neonates in the open landscape of the exurban area. During the study, the majority of neonates that we captured inhabited and bedded in areas of sparse cover (i,e., wooded yards with open understory, hedge rows, landscaping near homes, etc.). Coyotes are visual hunters, and therefore it has been suggested that increased predation on neonatal white-tailed deer by coyotes is associated with sparse vegetative cover. This effect would be most evident within the first 30 days of life because neonates spend much of their time bedded and therefore rely on camouflage to avoid predation.”

 

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So, what does quality fawn cover look like? Some of the best fawn cover available, that takes the least amount of effort to produce, is a simple field where grasses, weeds and flowers grow. As long as the horizontal cover is at least 1 ½ feet or higher, a fawn can both bed and move about without being detected. Another ideal cover is   a clear-cut that has been allowed to grow back. The best are those cuts that are 3 to 7 years old.

These fawning grounds really need to be a patchwork scattered throughout your property rather than a single spot. They should also be at least a half-acre in size; the larger the better, as fawns will routinely bed in different locations within the same general area.

 

Amber Alert 

This is the one signal that no parent ever wants to see flashing, and that includes mother deer. There is nothing any more pitiful to hear than a mother doe frantically grunting for her fawn with no response. And, it would not make a whole lot of sense to follow through with all of these recommendations only to lose the fawn crop to kidnappers.

 

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Predation is the number one cause of fawn mortality, and the number one predator is the coyote. As stipulated earlier, a coyote hunts primarily with its eyes. Fawns emit little-to-no scent during the first few weeks of their lives. If the coyote can’t see it and he can’t smell it, it is difficult for him to kill it. If you suspect that there may be a coyote problem on or near your property I would suggest an aggressive trapping and or shooting program to reduce the numbers. A coyote is by nature an opportunist that will gravitate to where he meets the least amount of resistance in acquiring his next meal.

 

The Next Generation

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We live in the present, but we plan for the future. Whitetails live for today with no thought given to seeing another. We, as stewards of our little piece of the planet, have the ability to plan, prepare, and help ensure that what we do with our hands and our heart will benefit the health and welfare of the whitetails that inhabit our land. The choices we make today will have an impact – positive or negative – in the future. By working towards ensuring the maturation of each year’s recruitment of fawns we enhance our future hunts. It promotes having a balanced age structure within our herd, makes for a shorter but more intense rut (less stress), and helps assure the propagation of the species. Substantiating these facts, Dr. Dave Guynn states, “When a balanced age structure is achieved, it ensures the behavioral and biological mechanisms that shape deer populations are allowed to function. This provides for a nutritionally and socially healthy herd.”

 

Conclusion

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As a parent on the other side of my kid’s childhood, it is both pleasing and fulfilling to see them flourish in adulthood. Yeah, it required a lot of time, work, sacrifice, money, prayer, and a few tears along the way. But as I look back, it was well worth every bit of the investment. And although kids and whitetails are much different, the satisfaction of a job well done is equal. Whether you’re observing your offspring succeeding in a world of uncertainty or watching a magnificent buck quietly feeding in your food plot, a smile of accomplishment comes to your face. A feeling as warm as the setting sun overtakes you with the knowledge that this very buck, one that just 4-½ -years ago was nothing more than a vulnerable, spotted fawn, has become a product of your investment.

 

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier© 2013

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

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer