We are approaching the annual period of white-tailed deer proliferation.
Deer already are plentiful. But this is the time of an immediate numbers upswing.
Typically beginning in the last week of May and continuing well into June, our deer population hereabouts abruptly swells. Many little bitty deer that now are inside momma deer shortly will be outside and on the ground.
The once-yearly fawning season is about to pop.
The fawning time for obvious reasons is directly related to the breeding season. Whitetail reproduction is the result of buck-doe trysts that can happen as early as early fall on through late winter. However, at this latitude, deer breeding is highly concentrated into a stretch of early to mid-late November. Some of it happens sooner, and some later, but a great deal of it comes in a flurry of that November peak.
Just as there are exceptions in the breeding time, there are individual variances in the gestation period of whitetail does. Yet, most are going to give birth 190 to 210 days later — average gestation usually in the range of 200-205 days.
The proof is in the birthing, and that usually starts happening this week, gaining steam to a peak in mid-June, then falling off rapidly soon after that.
How many are to be born in Kentucky? Think hundreds of thousands. Before last year’s hunting season, Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources biologists estimate there were about 1 million deer in the state. Predictably more than half were females. Practically all of the adult does would have been impregnated during the breeding season.
All those does that survived should be ready to drop fawns now. Those that will be 2 years old now can be expected to have a single fawn this spring. Those that are 3 or older, having their second or subsequent birthing, typically have twin fawns. Some in prime condition in quality habitats may have three fawns.
Managers figure that the way it works out, the deer population increases a little more than one fawn for every doe of sexually mature age. And that’s quite a lot.
There is really no way to calculate it closely, but from the 1 million or so deer in Kentucky at the beginning of last fall’s hunting seasons, hunters reported taking more than 148,000. Then, scads more perished as a result of natural mortalities, predation, collisions with vehicles, poaching, you name it.
It is an inexact science, but hunter harvest proves necessary to keep the population from billowing dramatically to the point that it would exceed a social ceiling. Without it, we could quickly see the deer numbers grow enough that people could not tolerate such as the damages to farm crops and the increase in deer-vehicle crashes and the resulting insurance burden.
Beyond the social aspects, an upward spiraling deer population could start inflicting serious damages to the habitat and limit its ability to support the very deer that are eating it into shreds. Unchecked, this sort of damage could eventually cause a collapse of the deer population as the habitat was degraded to an extreme.
As it is, considerable hunter harvest well offsets the annual “recruitment” of the fawning period. Managers encourage more harvest of antlerless deer — does, they hope — to help contain the numbers in areas of highest deer density. Yet, the system of give (reproduction) and take (mortality) is rather well balanced right now.
What is beginning now is the dropping of chestnut brown and white-spotted baby whitetails in weedy and brushy habitats across the state. Each fawn, weighing only about 4 pounds at birth, is helpless for about a month or so if it lives that long.
A mother doe deposits her fawn or fawns in enough cover to hunker and hide. If multiple fawns, she puts them some distance apart so that if one is found by a predator, the other may survive.
A new fawn can stand and nurse right away, but it cannot run and escape a predator for four or five weeks. Therefore, it hides. A fawn uses its spotted coat as camouflage. It has little scent to minimize olfactory detection. The fawn spends most of its time curled up on the ground with its head down.
Know that coyotes specialize in eating deer fawns during this time. Nature counters such by having most fawns born in a short while so such predators simply can’t eat them all.
Mother doe knows her fawn is not fleet enough to flee danger, so she mostly stays away from her offspring to avoid drawing attention to it. A doe visits her fawn only perhaps two or three times a day to nurse it. More visits than necessary to nourish it are too many for safety.
That is why people sometimes find a baby deer alone and do damage by “rescuing” it. Taking a lone fawn essentially dooms it and/or prevents it from growing up wild. In most cases, a seemingly abandoned fawn is simply fine, its mother doe hiding nearby. It is both unethical and illegal to “save” such a baby, so back off and leave nature to its own business.
About five weeks after birth, fawns will be up and able to move around with their moms as they feed. And Kentucky’s deer population will be up around 1 million again.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.