Parents may experience great joy at the births of their offspring … and again when they finally run the grown-up kids out of the house.

With notable exceptions, it's the way of things. Babies are born, cared for, develop -- and then at some point they strike out on their own. We know it from a human perspective, but there are many parallels in nature.

Especially at this time of year, lots of wild critters are leaving their adolescence behind, taking that giant step away from the family den. Survival rookies are setting out to find their independent places in the world of tooth and claw.

Some biologists refer to this outpouring of wildlife as the fall shuffle. Animals and birds are leaving litters and broods, departing from siblings and one or two parents, to go solo. It's quite a change considering that many are just a few weeks old and must endure on little more than instincts.

Life is sketchy for most freshman varmints. Routinely, the lifespan of many animals might be a few years -- but only if they beat cruel odds for the first few months. The mortality rate in the first year for many species is staggering.

Some don't even make it to the fall shuffle. Driving recently, I passed a spot on the road where three raccoons out of the same young litter had been hit and killed.

Young coons are among the most common of the fall shufflers. That's partly because there are plenty of breeding raccoons out there now, and most adult mother coons have three or four, maybe more, offspring ready to solo about now.

Most juvenile coons leave their litters in September and October, sometimes taking up residency nearby, sometimes not. Male coons may wander miles before finding suitable territory. Conflict and competition with older resident males may send youngsters 10 to 12 miles to establish home territories.

Meanwhile, in some late-born litters, juveniles may remain with their mother, denning together through winter, then dispersing when she is ready to breed again in the spring, research has shown.

In yet other instances, a raccoon litter may disperse in early fall, then the youngsters return and den with Mother Coon during the coldest part of winter, splitting again in the spring.

Raccoons are a good example that there are tendencies but no absolute rules. Individual critters may go about it differently.

Opossums are another set of routine fall shufflers here. Baby 'possums are tiny at birth, taking shelter in mom's marsupial pouch. They wean at about the age of 100 days, and a little after 4 months old, they're ready to hit the highway (unfortunately, often literally).

The 'possum isn't gregarious, leaving littermates early to establish a solitary lifestyle. A young one may be as small as 7 inches in body length when it shuffles off. Even so, one study showed that a routine dispersal distance for juvenile 'possums is about 4 miles.

Gray squirrels have litters twice a year, and their fall shuffle -- that of second litters -- is light on dramatics. This second batch of baby squirrels usually emerges from nests and takes to the woods in September.

Squirrels may not stray from their den sites during the first year of life. Yet, by now, some may seek out alternative tree cavities in which to take shelter during winter. Even so, they may not stray far from their birth sites unless a bleak food (acorn) supply forces a longer move.

Some predatory sorts may be shuffling now, but some aren't. Red foxes, for instance, breed once a year, but their litter break-up may be as early as September or late into winter.

Coyotes vary dispersal behaviors, so much that parental 'yotes may never have an empty nest. Some younger animals may hang around in extended fashion, giving these canines a genuine pack structure.

Researchers find that when coyotes do break away, they may disperse many miles to start their own sewing circles. Coyotes commonly disperse 30 to 50 miles and occasionally up to 100 miles.

The fall shuffle is an extended experience for some white-tailed deer. It's mostly a non-event for the baby girls. Female fawns routinely remain with their mother does through their first winter and beyond. For baby bucks, it's different.

Very commonly, a mother doe will run off her spring-born buck fawn in summer or early fall. He may remain nearby but won't be allowed to hang out with mom or mom and a sister. These baby bucks, "button bucks" for the nubbins where antlers will grow next year, are the most vulnerable deer in the woods.

Young bucks that survive learn plenty in that first year, and research shows that about 70% of them in their second season disperse significantly, 5-7 miles on average, to set up their home/breeding territories. That's nature's way to spread around genetics and prevent inbreeding.

When hunters encounter yearling bucks, about 18 months old, in the fall, there's a good chance they're new in town -- just having wandered in from their birth habitats. They may be unfamiliar with the new territory and unsure about even other deer living there.

That's an example of extended fall shuffle putting young animals in a bind. But whether it happens now or later, shuffle we all must. And we really can't go home again.

Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for Reading!

Please log in, or sign up for a new account and purchase a subscription to read or post comments.