Doe’s Defense Might Kill Its Fawn

Although a doe’s decoying tactics work to save many fawns, it is easy to understand why their decoying habits are also the reason many fawns are killed by predators.

By Charles Alsheimer

whitetail deer fawnQuietly, I inched my way along a narrow brush-choked roadway that led to one of our farm’s food plots. When I was close enough to see into the field, I spotted a doe nursing her newborn fawn.

I watched through my binoculars as the doe licked and groomed the fawn while the tiny deer frantically waved its tail back and forth as it nursed.

As the fawn yanked on the doe’s udder, its mother came to full alert, staring toward the end of the field. Within seconds she bolted from the fawn and stopped near the center of the food plot. She glanced at the fawn, then began snorting loudly. She then ran back and forth in the center of the field, and finally bounded into an overgrown orchard.

Any moment, I thought the doe would reappear. When she didn’t, I began to look in the direction I had last seen the fawn. Nothing was in sight.

I was certain the doe hadn’t seen me, so I began to scan the field to see what had alerted her. It didn’t take long to spot a coyote, slowly making its way toward where the doe and fawn had been. When the coyote got to the spot, it paused briefly to check for scent before quickly disappearing into thick brush at the edge of the food plot. Less than a minute later, the fawn’s frantic bleating could be heard resonating across the landscape.

I waited to see if the fawn’s mother would come to its rescue. When I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen, I hurried across the food plot and made my way into the brush, hoping I might be able to save the fawn. The lush spring growth made it tough to see far, so I just poked along, scanning the brush. I zig-zagged back and forth in the thick tangle for 30 minutes before finding the fawn’s carcass. The coyote had not had time to tear into the body, but the fawn was clearly dead.

Poor Parenting?
I’ve witnessed both coyotes and black bears killing fawns on our farm. Each time, it was clear the doe’s behavior played a role in the fawn’s demise.

What I witnessed 20 years ago was viewed as a rarity then, because the public was told coyotes pretty much preyed on only old and weak deer. Now there is growing scientific evidence — along with reams of anecdotal data — that this may not be the case.

During fawning time, when a doe encounters a predator in close proximity to her fawn she will instinctively attempt to protect her fawn(s) a number of ways. A common behavior I’ve seen is described in the opening of this column. Another behavior a doe often exhibits is faking an injury to see if the predator will follow her away from the fawn.

When all else fails, the doe may revert to aggressive measures. This is often the case with older does that have great mothering skills, especially if the predator is a coyote, dog, or a person. In addition, many adult does will also become aggressive when other deer get too close to their newborn fawns.

A doe’s aggressive behavior can take many forms. This type of behavior normally begins with foot stomping and snorting, which is meant to let the intruder know she is upset. If that doesn’t work, she might begin to run back and forth close to the offender with her ears pulled back, while aggressively snorting. She might even charge the intruder, and on rare occasions, actually stand on her hind legs and fight with her front legs and hoofs.

No Fooling Hunger
Anyone who has hunted or photographed black bears and coyotes knows they are incredibly smart. Their survival is dependent on their ability to hunt. Consequently, they learn quickly everything about their environment, including the behavioral traits of their prey. They know from experience that if a doe doesn’t run, fakes an injury, or darts back and forth while snorting, that a fawn is nearby and ripe for killing. So, when bears or coyotes encounter a suspicious acting doe and suspect a fawn is nearby they will literally vacuum the area to find it.

Wildlife rehabilitators who have raised black bears and coyotes understand how intelligent they are, and once these animals learn something they don’t forget it — especially if what they learned is linked to food.

Although a doe’s decoying tactics work to save many fawns, it is easy to understand why their decoying habits are also the reason many fawns are killed by predators.

— Charles Alsheimer is Deer & Deer Hunting’s contributing editor of deer behavior.