Managing for Whitetails: Don’t Forget About Fawns

Help your fawn crop now for better hunting down the road.

Managing for Whitetails: Don’t Forget About Fawns

High-protein foods such as clover are important for fawns both as a food source and transfer of nutrients while nursing. Photo courtesy Whitetail Institute of North America Facebook.

Skim through the pile of magazines on your coffee table and one thing should become apparent: deer hunters place a lot of their management efforts on growing mature bucks. Planting food plots, managing age structure, and providing minerals are popular themes in many deer hunting magazines.

Of course, this makes sense. Who doesn’t love the sight of a heavy-antlered buck slipping through the woods? But in order to have an abundance of bucks a few years from now, place your focus on the bucks that are currently fawns. This year’s fawn crop will grow into the mature bucks you hope to hunt in 3, 4 or 5 years from now. Instead of placing so much management emphasis on bigger bucks, managers should be putting as much effort into the fawns that are hitting the ground in May and June.

The good news is many management activities you undertake for adult whitetails will benefit fawns, too. Everything from food plots to larger-scale habitat improvements provide a direct and indirect boost to fawn survival and health.

The Predator Problem

Can we do anything about predators? It’s no secret coyotes take a heavy toll on whitetail fawns, especially in the Southeast. A study conducted in South Carolina found predators kill upward of 70 percent of newborn fawns every spring. A number of other studies in the South and Southeast found similar predation rates.

What can you do? The obvious answer is to shoot every coyote on sight and trap them at will. A dead coyote will never eat another fawn, which should translate to higher fawn survival and a better, stronger deer herd in the future. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The same South Carolina study that examined predation rates also looked at the impact of coyote control efforts on fawn survival. After 3 years of intense trapping, researchers found that predation rates were just as high as before trapping efforts began. The study used professional trappers who put a substantial amount of time and effort into catching coyotes.

Other studies have shown that predator control can boost fawn survival, but only temporarily, says Auburn University wildlife ecology professor Dr. Stephen Ditchkoff.

“I compare predator control to digging a hole on a beach. You empty it out at first, but then water starts seeping in, and no matter how fast you dig, it keeps filling in,” he explained. “You can reduce resident coyote numbers pretty significantly that first year, but then you have all these transient coyotes coming in and filling that void. The studies we have conducted show that fawn predation goes right back up to pre-treatment levels the following years, even when coyote removal efforts continue at the same rate.”.

Those predator removal studies also used professional trappers who targeted the animals in the weeks prior to the peak fawn birthing dates. That’s important for a number of reasons. First, coyotes are one of the most difficult animals to catch in a trap. It can take years of experience to catch them consistently. And trapping must be done for an extended period of time.

“If you insist on attempting to trap coyotes, do it in the weeks leading up to the peak fawning date in your area,” Ditchkoff said. “That removes the resident coyotes and it gives fawns time to grow before many transient coyotes move in.”

Thinning or clearing stands of mature timber produces more food for all deer, but it also creates better fawning and escape cover.
Thinning or clearing stands of mature timber produces more food for all deer, but it also creates better fawning and escape cover.

Escape Cover

A better solution? Give fawns a place to hide. Another study in South Carolina found that fawn survival was higher in habitat with more diversity. In fact, there was a strong correlation between the amount of edge habitat and survival. Generally, land with a variety of cover types has better fawn survival. Edges, thickets, overgrown fields and large areas of dense cover give fawns lots of places to hide.

“We know fawns need escape cover and we know coyotes often hunt visually,” Ditchkoff said. “They need to see their prey in order to catch it. Providing ample escape cover may help reduce predation.”

The key word is “may.” Ditchkoff adds that scientists don’t fully understand the relationship between habitat and fawn predation. Few studies have looked at the two together. However, most biologists agree escape cover, which typically consists of thick, short growth, is far more beneficial to young and adult deer than open woods or neatly manicured fields. 

Friendly Fencing

One study in Georgia did succeed at boosting fawn survival without any habitat manipulation. Researchers enclosed large tracts of forest with a woven-wire fence and a strand of electrified wire running along the bottom to create a sanctuary for birthing does and young fawns. The fence was low enough that deer could easily jump it. The hot wire a few inches above the ground kept coyotes from digging under. Fawn survival doubled in the habitat surrounding the enclosures.

“The study found that does actually gravitated to those refuges, as if they knew they were safe inside the fenced areas,” said Ditchkoff.

The enclosures were large, about 100 acres, and they included an electric wire. Few hunters have the resources to erect that much fencing, not to mention run a wire from a reliable source of electricity. The good news is there are other ways to boost fawn recruitment and health. Even better, they are relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to undertake.

Food plots don’t just help adult whitetails. They also boost milk production in lactating does, which ultimately leads to healthier fawns.
Food plots don’t just help adult whitetails. They also boost milk production in lactating does, which ultimately leads to healthier fawns.

Nutrition

Food plots are one way to help your fawn crop. Although fawns will start nibbling on plants just a month after they are born, those plots aren’t necessarily providing food for the fawns themselves, though. Instead, says Ditchkoff, they are giving the does high-protein foods when fawns are nursing.

“One of the best things you can do is provide high-quality forage for the does, particularly in June and July,” Ditchkoff said. “That’s when food becomes more limited. It’s hot and it’s dry, and natural forage can provide less nutrition. Warm-season plots high in protein can fill in the gap. You want to do as much as you can to maximize a doe’s milk production.”

What many hunters ignore, however, are the months leading up to a fawn’s birth. A healthy, well-fed doe in February, March and April will give birth to a healthier fawn in June. That results in a healthier adult deer in a few years. Food plots in most regions, however, are either dormant, dead or too immature to provide adequate forage during late winter and early spring. The solution? Work on the habitat.

“Anything you can do to get sunlight to the ground will result in an increase in quality natural forage,” said Ditchkoff. “The things many people call weeds are actually very good native deer foods. The more plants you can get to grow that are within reach of a deer, the more food your deer will have all year.”

Thinning stands of mature timber is a great start. Cutting pines, sweetgums, poplars and other trees that don’t produce mast allows sunlight to reach the forest floor. That not only results in an explosion of new plants that deer eat, but it will eventually create thick escape cover that helps fawns survive. Reducing or removing non-native plants such as fescue, tree-of-heaven, sericea lespedeza and other invasive species can also boost native forage.

“The more you can do to increase the amount of food on the landscape, the better off your does and nursing fawns will be,” said Ditchkoff.

And that means you will have more bucks to manage in the future.

Creating a diversity of habitats, especially edge habitat, can increase fawn survival rates.
Creating a diversity of habitats, especially edge habitat, can increase fawn survival rates.
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