When We Talk Deer Impacts, Let’s Remember the Deer Themselves

CT doe with ticks, courtesy Tom Rawinski

Locally hyperabundant deer are not a trivial nuisance.  They have profound, long-lasting impacts on entire ecosystems.  These deer impacts affect every other plant, animal, and bird out there.  It’s an important, vastly under-reported story, one that’s unfolding right under our noses in America’s sprawling suburbs and exurbs.

In DEERLAND you met a few of the botanists, ecologists, and foresters who helped me trace these connections, and at times I’ve told a simpler version of the story here at my blog.  I’ve shown you forests with browse lines and a missing understory, and exclosures that tell a simple “deer on the right, no deer on the left” story.  I’ve explained how overabundant deer reduce songbird numbers and diversity in the forest canopy, and why all these effects are incredibly persistent.  Even when deer are weakened and starving, their numbers can remain high enough so their habitat never fully recovers.

But let’s not forget the deer themselves.  In their weakened state, they’re more vulnerable to disease—and also more likely to spread disease.  They tend to carry a much higher parasite load, which only weakens them further.  They host protozoan parasites that include toxoplasmosis, babesiosis, and theileriosis, and they’re often infested with some combination of liver flukes, lungworms, stomach worms, meningeal worms, arterial worms, abdominal worms, and tapeworms.  And then there are external parasites, like the ticks tormenting the deer in these two photos.

(The rather scrawny, tick-bitten doe was spotted in the suburbs of Connecticut, and the fawn in the photo below was found out on Long Island near Calverton, N.Y.  For earlier posts on Long Island deer, see here and here.  And here’s an op-ed on Long Island deer that I wrote for the Wall Street Journal.)

The moral of the story?  When deer populations skyrocket, standing by to “let nature take its course” is not always our best option—or our most humane.

Long Island fawn with ticks in eye calverton NY, courtesy Clifford Dayton

© 2014 Al Cambronne.  Photos courtesy Tom Rawinski and Clifford Dayton. For more of Cliff’s photos, visit his website.




Update on Non-Abandoned Lawn Fawns

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In my previous post, originally written about this same time last year, I reminded readers to not “rescue” fawns that appear to be abandoned by their mothers. Later, go ahead and check out that post for more details.  But here’s the short version: If you spot a fawn that appears to abandoned and doomed, it probably isn’t. When fawns are very small it’s safest for them to remain behind while Mom is out foraging. She may be gone for hours at a time—or even all day.  But she’ll be back.

The fawn is neither abandoned nor doomed—but it probably is doomed if well-meaning humans decide to rescue it.  Every year about this time, animal shelters get a flood of phone calls—and even drop-ins—from people who had good intentions but should have left that non-abandoned fawn right where it was.

After all my preaching about this, I now have new empathy for people who are tempted to rescue “abandoned” fawns. Two days ago we spotted a days-old fawn at the edge our lawn, not fifty feet from where I’m writing this. It walked a few steps on very shaky legs, then settled down into some grass about six inches high. It was invisible. Even through binoculars, I could only see its ears.

Then yesterday morning I walked over to take a picture of the spot where it had bedded down. The grass was still flattened, and when I included my size 11 foot for scale, it was clear that the flattened area was very small indeed.

When I turned around and walked back toward the house, there it was—nestled right against the concrete slab under our deck. For the next twelve hours, it didn’t move more than a few inches.  Nearly every time I tiptoed to the edge of the deck and peered over, it was asleep. Or was it dying?  Was it starving?  Was it OK?  Maybe it really was abandoned.  Was its mother ever coming back?

This morning it was gone—but not abandoned.

© 2014 Al Cambronne

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Encore Post: Please Don’t Rescue “Abandoned” Fawns


As a public service, I’d like to bump this post back up to the top. This information is so important, I may do the same next May…

Whether you live in the boonies or the ‘burbs, one thing is certain. Your new neighbors will be arriving soon.  They’ll have four legs, spots, an abundance of cuteness, and a vigilant mother who’s closer than you think.  So please…  don’t “rescue” them.

Every May and June, wildlife agencies and animal rehab centers all over America receive frantic calls from well-intentioned souls asking what they should do next with the whitetail fawn they’ve just rescued.  The answer: As quickly as you can, put it right back where you found it.  Better yet, don’t rescue abandoned fawns in the first place.  With rare exceptions, they’re not abandoned at all.

At birth, whitetail fawns weigh from 5 to 8 pounds. Their mothers immediately lick them clean and consume all traces of the amniotic fluid and afterbirth.  It’s part of the bonding process, and it also reduces the scent trail that would attract insects and predators.  A newborn fawn is almost totally scent-free, and its spots are more than just Disney decoration.  They’re perfect camouflage for a motionless fawn laying hidden in the sun-dappled shadows.

For the first weeks of its life, a fawn is safest if it stays right where it’s put.  Its mother leaves to browse on her own for hours at a time, returning only to nurse.  Although some visits last mere minutes, a doe’s high-protein, high-fat milk allows fawns to gain up to 10 percent of their body weight every day.

Later, they’ll tag along with mom and follow her wherever she goes.  For now, their instinct is to stay hidden and await her return.  Even when danger approaches, their best chance for survival is to stay hidden until it’s past.  The youngest fawns may even allow themselves to be picked up without a struggle.  This doesn’t mean they’re sick or injured, and it definitely doesn’t mean they’re abandoned.

The doe is probably nearby, and its fawn doesn’t need your help.  (Nor does it needs cow’s milk, which is less nutritious, poorly digested, and certain to give it debilitating diarrhea.)  Odds are, your “rescue”will be its death sentence.  Most fawns taken to animal rehab centers don’t survive.  To make a deer or any other wild animal a pet is illegal in most states, and it’s a bad idea for lots of other reasons.  The best mother for a baby deer is its own.

As tempting as it might be, just touching that fawn you’ve discovered could increase its risk of being detected by predators that include coyotes, bears, and your neighbor’s dog.  Even your close approach could create a scent trail that leads curious predators to a tasty meal of very tender venison.

(Most experts, however, don’t believe that does will reject their fawns because of human scent; their bond is way too strong.  And the advice to cleanse human scent from a fawn by rubbing it with a towel that’s first been rubbed in grass and leaves?  Probably not all that helpful, considering where else your towel has been—plus the scented detergents and fabric softeners in which you’ve washed it.  A deer’s nose has over 300 million scent receptors.  Bloodhounds have around 220 million, and humans fewer than 5 million.)

When you don’t see the fawn’s mother, that doesn’t mean she’s not there.  You may not see her, but she sees you.  And if you repeatedly observe the fawn in the same general area but haven’t glimpsed its mother for hours or even days, that still doesn’t mean the fawn is abandoned.  Leave it be.

The only possible exceptions?  If you discover a fawn that’s bleeding, has obviously broken limbs, or is crawling with flies or maggots.  Or, if you spot one that refuses to leave the side of a roadkill doe.  Otherwise, leave it where it is.

If you ever encounter a curious fawn that approaches you, the best way to ensure its survival is to help that wild animal stay wild.  If it approaches you without fear or wariness, clap your hands, yell obscenities—or, if you prefer, the word “venison”—at the top of your lungs, and chase it away.  Someday soon that lesson will be a valuable one.

For all the other newborn fawns you encounter, remember the words of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: “If you care… Leave them there!”

© 2013 Al Cambronne

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons