Over the next two months all over New England whitetail does will be giving birth to their fawns. Although it is still late winter and we could have some very cold weather for the next month, impregnated does are already starting to drop their young. You would think it would be too cold and that the young would freeze in this weather, but , in fact, these fawns are very tough little folks.
The breeding season in the fall is the beginning of the life cycle of the white-tailed deer. In our area the rut usually occurs from late October through early December. The length of the rut is generally determined by latitude and the length of the day. In the northern states with the shorter days of Fall, the rutting activity increases and ends within a relatively short period of time. In the southern states differences in the length of the days are not as pronounced and the breeding activity lasts for a longer period of time.
The heat or estrus period in the doe lasts about 24 hours. If the doe is not bred during this time period, she will come into heat again in about a month. A doe that has not bred is capable of coming into heat about 5 times during the year. The gestation period of the typical white-tailed deer is about 6.5 months which means that most of the young born in this area will drop during the last of March and the month of April. If a doe is giving birth for the first time she will usually have 1 fawn. Older does usually give birth to twins and when conditions are really good, triplets.
When the doe fawn breeds is usually dependent on their physical condition. Large doe fawns can breed as early as 6 months old. In a wonderfully detailed four-year study conducted in Pennsylvania, these tendencies have been tracked extensively. Launched in 2000, the inquiry aimed to answer questions about pregnancy rates, the peak and the range of the rut, when fawns are born and the number of young carried per doe. The researchers collected data from 3,180 road-killed deer. The work involved determining the date the deer died and measuring embryos found within the deer. While it wasn’t pleasant work for those gathering the data, results showed, for example, during the months a doe should be pregnant 91 percent of the adult does and 26 percent of the fawns statewide were carrying young.
Dr. Gary Alt, a Game Management Section Supervisor, says that “...the peak in breeding for adult females is mid-November, but for female fawns it occurs in early December. About 90 percent of the adult does checked in the study had conception dates ranging from Oct. 27 to Dec. 10; fawns from Nov. 5 to Jan. 16.”
In our area one would suspect that this might be a little bit later in the year, but not by much. It also showed that environment had quite a bit to do with reproductive rates. Soil fertility, agricultural crop availability, climate, over-browsing and deer health all impact on deer breeding. Weather, range condition, growing season and heredity also play a roll in the overall picture of the breeding cycle.
The newborn fawn is extremely vulnerable for the first 48 hours of it’s life and does are very protective mothers. Fawns that survive the first two days have a good chance of making it into the deer population the following year. The fawn can weigh anywhere between 4 and 7 pounds at birth. For the first 3 to 4 weeks of it’s life it will stay in one location which is determined by the doe. The doe will come to the fawn during this time so it can nurse. The young one is completely odorless for the first few days and will lie motionless when danger is present.
Other than when she returns to nurse, the doe will stay away from the fawn so her odor does not give away the fawn’s location to possible predators. In one of those strange but necessary protective devices, fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives. She then eats these feces to make sure that predators cannot detect the drop spot with the fawn.
At around 4 weeks the fawns start eating solid foods and are able to travel with their mother. The does will nurse the young through about 8 weeks and by 10 weeks the fawns are completely feeding on their own. Fawns lose their spots at about 3 months of age when they start to take on the colors of an adult deer. Young males leave their mothers when they are 1 year of age, but the females may stay until they are 2 years old.
The average life span of the white-tailed deer in the wild is between 4 and 5 1/2 years, but they can live to three times that age. One determinant of how long a deer lives is the health of its teeth. Depending on what the deer normally eats and the quality of that food, the deer’s teeth may be completely worn out by the time it is 7 years of age. With no teeth they will starve to death.
The age of a mature deer can be determined by trained individuals by examining the teeth in the lower jaw for replacement and wear. The molars wear down as they age. The age of deer younger than a year is easy to determine. At 6 months of age a deer’s first molar is fully erupted and at 9 months a second molar has appeared. Among year old deer a third molar is partially erupted.
Deer are very vocal and social creatures. Many times you can locate deer by pinpointing their calls. A fawn trying to locate it’s mother makes a bleating sound somewhat like a sheep. A hurt or wounded deer will make a sound not unlike that of a goat. All deer will snort, either when alarmed or to try to get an unidentified object to move. The sound is like that of air expelled under pressure. And be aware of the low guttural grunt of a buck in rut. It is similar to the low grunts of a hog.
So, if you are walking through Dogtown or the woods in Manchester and Essex, stop and listen, you might be surprised by what you hear. If you find a fawn, walk away from it the way you came to it so you will not leave a trail to it. DO NOT TOUCH IT! The mother is probably nearby and will give it all the protection it needs.