For many families, the Memorial Day Weekend represents the first group outing of the year into the outdoors with visits to Pennsylvania's State Parks and State Forests. These outings can be a time of bonding with nature, but should not be a time of "adopting" young wildlife that mistakenly are thought to have been abandoned by their parents.
This is especially true when finding young whitetail deer fawns nestled away in deep grass or hidden behind fallen trees. According to research by Pennsylvania Game Commission deer biologists, the majority of does give birth at this time of year, and they often hide their fawns away for safety while they feed to regain their strength.
Fawns use a "hider" strategy when born, remaining curled motionless and quiet in the weeds and on the forest floor. Their spotted coats provide camouflage, they emit relatively little scent and they rarely travel their first few weeks, as does return periodically to nurse the hiding fawns.
When fawns are about a month old, they begin to travel with their parents, and research shows about 65 percent of fawns make it through their first two months. Most making it through this critical period go on to represent about a third of the state's overall deer population and their addition offsets the losses from hunting and other mortality factors in the previous year.
Each year the PGC examines tens of thousands of deer taken during the statewide firearms deer seasons, and through this analysis, the deer-management deer determines the percentage of fawns in the harvest and, ultimately, the statewide population. This work would uncover if predators or some other mortality factor were causing an unacceptable level of harm to fawns or the overall deer population, which has not been the case for decades.
Fawns confronted with peril in their first several weeks usually escape the dangers from exposure, sickness, parental abandonment, predation, loss of parent or being struck by farm machinery. Many of these mortality threats are escapable, but the natural response of fawns is to remain in a fetal position and motionless, making them susceptible to prowling predators, such as black bears, coyotes and other predators, ranging from dogs to fishers.
Field research has shown that predation has never been a significant fawn mortality factor in Pennsylvania. During a fawn mortality study conducted in 2000 and 2001 by the PGC, Penn State University and Pennsylvania Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, similar numbers of fawns less than three weeks old were captured and radio-collared in agricultural landscape and forested landscape, and no relationship was detected between fawn survival and habitat or landscape features.
After 34 weeks, predation accounted for 49 of 106 mortalities sustained by the 218 study fawns. Coyotes took 18 fawns; black bears, 16, and the study concluded fawn survival in Pennsylvania was similar to rates from studies in other northern states and that overall fawn mortality in the Commonwealth was not preventing population growth.
At birth, an average fawn is about 7.5 pounds, the weight of a small housecat. At one month, fawns weight about 23 pounds.
A doe feeding fawns needs to consume large quantities of food to fuel their rapid growth and milk lifeline. That means she has to forage often, leaving her fawns unattended and at risk, and it is when the doe is away that people usually find fawns.
These fawns should not be disturbed, and no good ever comes from removing a fawn from the wild. People who care about wildlife can best help fawns and other young animals by leaving them alone.