Helping Whitetail Fawns Survive a Dangerous World

As a hunter and land manager, you can mitigate the threats of whitetail fawn mortality before it’s too late.

Helping Whitetail Fawns Survive a Dangerous World

Are you ready for the new addition to your family? Relax, the question is only in reference to the arrival of the new fawns on your whitetail hunting property. Let’s rephrase the question: Can you mitigate any/all threats to the survival of those newborn fawns? I hope so.

The antlered bucks you passionately pursue in the fall don’t simply morph into the trophy of your dreams. Slowly, they cook from a newborn fawn, stewing into an adolescent and finally, into the buck you dream about, garnished with a trophy rack. A variety of threats — known and unknown — can stop the transformation well before a buck’s first antler is shed.

Whitetails dwell across the country, and the daily threats they face differ as much as the changing topography and cultures that make up North America. Recognizing the various threats out there and reviewing any remedies that could minimize the dangers, significantly increases fawn survival. Some of the threats can be reduced, while for others you simply have to grin and bear it. Here are a few hazards that could affect your fawn recruitment.

Predation

This is the big enchilada affecting whitetails from coast to coast, with coyotes in the forefront. Due to man’s manipulation of the North American landscape, coyotes have been able to spread from more open environments of the continent’s midsection to parts north, south, east and west. As they set up shop in new neighborhoods, they take advantage of every food source available. In spring, as newborn fawns hit the ground, coyotes in every zip code know the fawn delicatessen is now open.

Percentages vary from region to region, but numerous studies indicate that in May and June, fawns make up as much as 70 percent of a coyote’s diet. One eye-opening study from the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina concluded that there was a 70 percent fawn mortality rate at their site. Coyotes accounted for approximately 80 percent of those mortalities.

Seemingly, healthy fawns don’t have to worry about just being munched on by coyotes. In Pennsylvania, coyotes have also been identified as fawn-munching culprits; with some areas reporting that only one out of two fawns survives its first 3 months in the Keystone State. Unfortunately, that’s not the only hungry furbearer in the forest. One Penn State study asserts that in some geographic areas, bears likely kill as many fawns as coyotes based on research results from two different regions of Pennsylvania. The bad news for fawns doesn’t end there. Bobcats and mountain lions seldom look the other way when a chance at a fawn presents itself.

According to numerous studies, fawns make up as much as 70 percent of a coyote’s diet during May and June. By killing coyotes, you save fawns. Period.
According to numerous studies, fawns make up as much as 70 percent of a coyote’s diet during May and June. By killing coyotes, you save fawns. Period.

Managing predator populations to increase fawn survival becomes a sticky issue. For starters, it’s a never-ending job. If you don’t maintain a year-round program, the predators you remove, are quickly replaced by others looking to fill any menu-rich void. That’s not to say targeted predator management cannot help, but seek out the advice of experts. A recent study at the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana concluded, “That increases in fawn survival through coyote control had a greater impact on population growth than reduction in female harvest.” It would be costly, but possibly the best way to maintain whitetail populations.

Human — Not So — Kind

If you lease hunting property, you likely have to put up with the activities of the landowner as they follow their agriculture routine. You probably mimic some of those same practices as you prepare land for food plots or plant habitat cover. Some of these farming activities could be placing your future deer population in peril. Time your activities to avoid the first few weeks of a fawn’s life.

Fawns are capable of wobbling around within an hour of birth, and in just a few hours can cover the distance of a football field with little trouble. Within 4 to 7 days, they can move around quite easily and may even do so to dodge danger. Typically, between mid- and late-June, fawns have the capability to escape, and even evade dangers such as predators.

Even with their rapid ability to perform like a gazelle, fawn instinct oftentimes dictate that they lie still and let danger pass by. This is where farming and other agricultural activities have the potential to end a fawn’s life. Mowing, baling, spraying and other fieldwork seems harmless. You’d think a fawn would stand up and bound away. But regrettably for some, instinct kicks in causing them to stay put and become a statistic.

Plan your farming activities after visiting with a local biologist. They should be able to pinpoint the window when most fawns are born. Whitetails, like many prey species, have their fawns at the same time throughout the herd, generally. This fawn bombardment overwhelms predators and ensures a stable recruitment.

Wait a week or more after the main fawning window to lessen the risk to fawns with your farming chores.
Wait a week or more after the main fawning window to lessen the risk to fawns with your farming chores.

As fawns mature, they also face dangers such as deer-auto collisions — the insurance industry’s nightmare. Fence jumping could also prove to be challenging, ending in entanglement and death. These and other human-assisted harms are simply part of the harrowing life a fawn has to endure.

Mother Nature Couldn’t Care Less

As if fawns didn’t have it hard enough during their first days on earth already, Mother Nature isn’t cutting them any slack thereafter either. The aforementioned predator category earned its own write up, but there are additional threats waiting in the wild for newborn fawns.

Although insects, such as ticks, can be an irritant, they can also overwhelm a fawn. It’s not an everyday event, but according to the Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases in the Southeastern United States, large outbreaks could result in up to an estimated mortality of 30 percent. That’s an incredible number if that figure affects your hunting property.

Weather can wreak havoc on a batch of newborn fawns. Extended cold spells could bring on hypothermia. Early drought could reduce habitat cover, increasing predation success. Too much rain can trap fawns, or carry them away in a flash flood, and drown them. Some of my friends in South Dakota have even found fawns pummeled to death by extreme hail during a major thunderstorm event. And if Mother Nature weren’t cruel enough already, anomalies such as getting a hoof caught in the crotch of a tree could end in disaster. Maybe Mother Nature should change her name.

Because dangers to fawn living in a particular environment vary greatly, it is advisable to meet with a local biologist or a wildlife management specialist. Identify the major threats and discuss what viable options are available to reduce their impact.

The world is full of threats for you and all animals alike. Building a whitetail nursery to stop all threats isn’t realistic, but you may be able to reduce several of the hazards and make a difference for a targeted population behind your gate.

Images by Mark Kayser
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