Fawns, The Gift of Spring

Posted on March 20, 2018

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How a doe’s nutrition plays a vital role in her offspring’s survival

 

 

The darlings of the spring come forth amidst a sea of blooming, multi-colored flora bedecked in their velveteen, spotted raiment to replenish the whitetail herd. Initially, these new recruitments face the first of many struggles in their effort to survive.

 

 

During the previous twenty years I have conducted an extensive research project which included daily observations of the autumn rut, winter severity index, and then followed up by monitoring spring fawn births. At the outset, it was meant to collect data to substantiate a theory on the timing of the whitetail’s breeding cycle, but along the way, some rather incredible experiences, interesting sights and a greater knowledge about the secretive life of the white-tailed deer has burgeoned. Of equal value was recognizing how vital a doe’s nutrition becomes throughout her pregnancy and its relationship to birthing strong, healthy fawns.

 

The Three Trimesters of a Doe’s Pregnancy

As is the case with all expectant mothers, bearing young is not an easy proposition. Unlike humans where doctors, through prenatal care, oversee the pregnant female during their entire nine-month ordeal, including labor and the birth itself, whitetails must rely completely on inbred maternal instincts.

A doe’s gestation period is between 195-202 days or roughly 6 1/2 months. She is carrying her developing fetus through the winter months which can prove to be some of the harshest times in a calendar year. Predominantly, the first and last stages of pregnancy for the whitetail are the most critical. If a prospective mother becomes severally stressed nutritionally, she will ultimately either bear underweight fawns, or in extreme cases, absorption of dead embryos will internally transpire saving the mother’s life.

The struggles of winter traditionally begin in early January with deep snow, cold temperatures and limited available feed making it essential for the doe to be in tip-top shape as she enters this 100-day stretch. The greater the fat content layered beneath her coat, the better suited she becomes to withstand any lean times that are sure to lie ahead.

But fat content can only carry a deer just so long. Deer on poor diets consume on average 3.5 pounds of browse per day whereas those animals benefiting from a moderate to ideal winter diet will consume 4.8 pounds of browse per day. Despite however plenteous or nutritious the wintering whitetail’s rations become, a certain percentage of a deer’s body weight will surely be depleted by the time the snow pack melts and the animal is at last freed from old man winter’s forceful grip.

 

 

Whitetails are eating machines and never more so than following the winter season. They are quick to locate the first green plant life of spring and gravitate voraciously to the source. The well-being of a doe’s forth-coming offspring hinges on her ability to ingest highly nutritious feed during the final trimester. It is at this critical stage where the fawn’s growth and development within the womb becomes greatly influenced by its mother’s nutritional intake of protein. When nutrients are limited during the last third stage of gestation, one member of the twins tend to receive a greater share of the nourishment.

According to deer research biologist John Ozoga, “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.”

 

The Strain of Pregnancy

 

As labor approaches, the doe temporarily separates herself from the rest of her family, driving her fawns from the previous year away. She will begin to emit sporadic grunts, lick at her flanks and back end. She will become increasingly restless and uncomfortable, bedding and rising repeatedly. Once her water breaks and the clear mucus appears, the birthing process begins. It becomes an agonizing struggle for the doe as she diligently works at pushing forth this new life. Once the fawn hits the ground, mother’s work really begins. Despite the exhausting process of birthing, particularly if there is more than one fawn; she must now meticulously lick and clean the infant and completely ingest all of the remains before finally relaxing herself.

 

The Importance of a Doe’s Milk

The first and most important order of business for the new arrival is its initial feeding, which generally occurs within the first hour after birth. The doe’s milk, known as colostrum, is thick, rich, sticky and yellow in appearance. This formula is vitally important to the fawn as it contains immunoproteins-antibodies that prevent disease. Initially, the doe’s milk contains 12 percent butterfat but after approximately three weeks of nursing the butterfat content is reduced to 8 percent. A doe will produce between 1 ½ and 2 quarts of milk per day. Her diet will affect the amount of milk she can produce, but has little effect on the quality.

 

 

For those does labeled, “poor mothers” as a result of them ignoring their fawn’s heart wrenching pleas to be fed; there is a justifiable explanation. These non-lactating does have a condition known as “Maternal Rejection Syndrome.” Michigan researchers Ed Langenau and John Lerg substantiated an explanation for this abandonment phenomenon. It stems from the insufficient production of a hormone known as prolactin. This hormone is produced by the pituitary gland and is responsible for inducing milk production and the promotion of maternal instincts. Much like humans, even whitetails, develop chemical deficiencies or imbalances that can greatly affect their normalcy.

 

Nutritive Failure

 

Ozoga, who after studying the findings of another noted biologist from Michigan, Louis Verme, came to this conclusion with regards to fawn mortality, “Fawns born alive generally died because of four kinds of nutritive failure: poor weakened condition, too small to reach a doe’s teats, were not permitted to nurse, and mothers did not produce milk.” Any way you slice it, the fawn’s survivability after birth is in direct relation to the mother’s spring diet preceding the delivery.

 

Healthier Fawns Equal Healthier Adult Deer

Let me assure you, there is nothing that will tear at the heart of even the most hardened of sorts than observing one of nature’s newest spotted arrivals in the throes of death. Trust me, it leaves one feeling quite desolate as there is nothing that can be done to reverse the inevitable. With that said, how is it that we can help insure a healthier recruitment of fawns each year, especially when we have no control of winter’s severity?
It seems our answer reverts back to the whitetail’s groceries and the nutritive value they contain. When provided a diet of more than 13 percent protein, pregnant does rarely lose one of their babies due to nutritive failure. On the other hand, the greater the percentage drops in their protein levels, the more susceptible she is in losing her newborns.

 

The only known source of increasing a deer’s dietary intake of higher protein values is planting food plots. It is common knowledge that no matter where a resident deer lives, they can only derive 6-10 percent protein from natural browse. However, a plot of ground turned up, fertilized and planted with clover can provide whitetails twice the protein required to insure their young are born healthy. As a bonus, this benefit is available to them when they need it most. By assisting the doe when the greatest demand is placed upon her body, the intuitive land manager is investing in healthier deer, which will eventually pay off in dividends that produce bigger bucks and better antler growth.

 

Conclusion

 

 

The frailty of life is never more prominent than when the spotted darlings of the deer world emerge; wide-eyed to experience their first breath. Wobbly, they stand on insecure legs while mother feverishly licks them dry of her amniotic fluids. The warmth and tenderness of the moment radiates from a doting mother as the fawn eagerly drinks from her swelling udder. Because of her maternal instincts, every effort is afforded this infant to see adulthood. Despite admirable mothering qualities, the longevity of this youngster and many more just like him has already been predestined by the health of the doe during her final stage of pregnancy.

 

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© 2018 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer