Those fawns might not be traveling with mom.

Photo: Jacob Dingel

Does and fawns are often seen together in the winter. Everyone knows that it is mom and her fawns from last spring. But as usual things aren’t always as they seem in the deer world.

There is a theory that orphaned male fawns are less likely to disperse as yearlings because they no longer have a mother to drive them away from their birthplace. Research here in Pennsylvania studying male dispersal tested this theory. If a doe and button buck were captured, we would know this buck was not orphaned. Then we could test the hypothesis: are non-orphaned males more likely to disperse?

But we needed to take a step back and first ask if does and fawns traveling together are related.

Tissue samples were taken from does and fawns captured together in 2003 and a genetic analysis was conducted to determine if they were, in fact, related. (To read the Journal of Wildlife Management publication click here).

It turns out you might as well flip a coin to determine if a fawn is related to the adult doe you see nearby – at best, 51% of fawns were related to the adult doe in the capture group!

What does this mean for us regular folk? Well, if someone tells you they saw a doe with triplets… maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. First, the odds of three fawns surviving to the age that they travel with their mom are not good. Mortality rates for fawns make it unlikely that all live to that age.  Second, our research shows fawns don’t always travel with their mother!

Here’s the practical application: if you are managing an area and want to monitor recruitment of fawns into the population, you should look at the ratio of fawns to does –sum up all the fawns you see and divide by the number of adult does you observe. Don’t hang your hat on observations of a how many does you see with fawns.

As fawns become more independent they don’t spend all of their time with their mother. Hanging with Aunt Suzie is just as likely as tagging along with mom.

By: Jeannine Tardiff Fleegle

Wildlife Biologist, Deer & Elk Section

Pennsylvania Game Commission


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