When Do Fawns Begin Eating Natural Forage?

fawn_foraging_cc1_574_547_sThis great photo of a young fawn taking a bite of hopclover was captured by Vermont forester and wildlife expert Susan C. Morse and it helps answer an interesting question about fawns: When do they wean off milk and onto plants and other forage? Let’s look at the timeline of fawn development.

Most fawns are born during May and June in northern environments. Fawns born later than this are at a distinct disadvantage because they will not have adequate time to grow and develop before winter arrives again. Fawns in the South are born over a much wider time frame since they aren’t as accountable to Old Man Winter. The arrival of fawns is cued to align with the flush of spring vegetation because “green-up” provides does with the high-quality vegetation necessary for the final trimester of gestation and for the demands of lactation. Green-up also provides the low-growing vegetation that helps conceal fawns from predators.

Healthy fawns average 4 to 8 pounds at birth, and they will double that weight in approximately 2 weeks — a period during which they survive entirely on their mothers’ milk. However, by 2 weeks of age rumination begins in their stomach, and they begin to supplement their milk diet with forage. They will triple their birth weight within a month of age.

Weaning is not an instant switch but a gradual process in which the fawn consumes less milk over time while eating more green forage. Fawns can be completely weaned and survive without milk by 10 weeks of age (2½  months), but does often wean them at 12 to 16 weeks (3 to 4 months). It’s not uncommon for hunters to see a May or June born fawn still nursing, or attempting to, in October (20-plus weeks). These fawns do not need the small amount of milk they receive at this time of year, if they get any, and I believe it is simply a bonding exercise for the fawn and its mother.

The young fawn in the photo above is several weeks from weaning and still gets most of its nutrition from milk. Meanwhile, the fawn in the photo below, taken by QDMA member Justin Huffstetler, is probably getting most of its nutrition from forage and browse. Interestingly, this photo was taken on October 5 in South Carolina, and the fawn is still young enough to have spots, illustrating my earlier point about fawn birthdates. Only in the South do fawns born this late have a decent chance of surviving winter.

fawn_weaning

While we’re on this topic, did you know newborn fawns lack the ability to urinate or defecate? While nursing, the doe will lick their rectal and genital regions to stimulate them to release their wastes. The doe will then consume the urine and feces so their odors do not attract predators. Now that’s a responsible mother! The doe will continue this behavior for at least 2 to 3 weeks. A newborn’s inability to expel these wastes, coupled with the mother’s protective behavior of consuming them, undoubtedly saves countless fawns from predation.

Whitetail fawns are hiders rather than followers like moose calves or climbers like black bear cubs. Their spotted reddish-brown coat is designed to blend flawlessly into a range of forested and open environments. Even as newborns, fawns will nurse and then move away from the doe to bed. This behavior removes the doe’s scent from the fawn’s bedding site and is an anti-predation strategy. Twin fawns will also hide separately for their first three to six weeks to reduce the likelihood a predator will find both of them.

All of this information underscores the importance of quality habitat and diverse cover types. An abundance and diversity of natural plants in the understory ensures adequate milk and quality forage for fawns, as well as excellent cover to hide them from predators. All of this improves fawn survival, the health of the population, and, ultimately, the quality of your hunting experiences. You’ll learn much more about improving deer habitat quality when you become a QDMA member and begin receiving the full benefits of membership.

Fawns are a true measure of spring across much of the whitetail’s range, and few images can match the beauty of a young fawn taking one of its first bites.

  • Kay Clawson

    I know I’m not in your neck of the woods, but I’m trying to find out if I need to help the twin fawns that are somewhere between 7 – 10 days old in my neighbors back yard. I’m in Northern Utah and the mother is an urban deer that lives in our neighborhood. I think she was born here too. They are fenced in and the guy that owns the house is a recluse and never outside so his lawn is starting to get pretty dry. Should I put a dish of water where they can get to it so if they need a drink of water they will have it? Also firework season is here and I know I can’t do anything to help them from the stress of that, but I’m wondering what I CAN do to help them or if I should just leave them be? Any help is appreciated.

    • Thisisnotmybeautifulwife

      Kay – I’m in a similar situation in NC. Young fawn apparently born in our fenced backyard has been here for over a week. He looks healthy from a distance, but I’m wondering if we should breach the fence so that he can move on with mother. Or if it’s okay (and maybe part of mom’s safety plan) for him to stay within until he is big enough to jump the fence. I just don’t want to see a situation where she gives up on him. Can you please let me know if you get any helpful info? I’ll do the same.

      • bgrossman

        It will probably be fine, but there is nothing wrong with picking the fawn up and moving it just outside of the fence. A doe WILL NOT abandon her fawn just because of a human’s touch.

        • Thisisnotmybeautifulwife

          Thanks for the advice, but this little guy is up and about – way beyond catching, lol. That’s why I was hoping to get some reassurance that mom won’t lose patience if he’s of an age where normally he’s be following her around, but can’t get over the fence. On the other hand, I hate to open the fence and let in potential predators if mom put him here for safekeeping. You see my predicament…

  • Nancy Andrews

    A baby deer was born just yesterday October 17, 2016 in my back yard trail..we live In a highly wooded area in Ambridge, PA..my question is when you say “fats” what exactly do you mean? I would like to help this family out because they have been around for a while and I’d hate to see the baby not survive the winter , we’re supposed to have a brutal one this year. Any advice you can provide would be appreciated, thanks. Nancy

    • Kip Adams

      Nancy – wow, that fawn was born about 4 months later than most in PA. That puts it at a significant disadvantage to survive this winter. The fats i referred to are components of food they eat. For example, Acorns are low in protein but high in carbohydrates (fats). It’s a great acorn crop across much of PA this year, and that high fat diet will help the fawn’s mother as she produces milk.

  • 8/28/2016 – I live in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. This morning, I saw 6 deer (2 fawns) in our next door neighbors back yard. One of the fawns appeared to be very, very young, and I’m quite concerned about this. There are a lot of woods around us, and we have 8 apple trees in our back yard. My question, is there anything that we can do to help this little guy through the winter months, or will he be ok with the vast surrounding of vegetation in this area. Ohio can be a very cold State, and has lots of snow, at times. I’m looking forward to your reply.
    Thank you

    • Marge – From a habitat perspective the best thing we can do to help deer (and especially fawns) survive winter is to provide the best habitat possible so they add as much fat as possible during fall, and then ensure there is adequate cover to help them during winter. Good habitat management is far better than providing supplemental feed. From a deer herd perspective the best thing we can do is ensure there are not too many deer for what the habitat can support. Ohio’s deer seasons are designed to put the proper number of deer on the landscape, and hopefully the landowners in your area hunt or provide access to hunters so deer numbers are kept in check.


About Kip Adams

Kip Adams of Knoxville, Pennsylvania, is a certified wildlife biologist and QDMA's Director of Conservation. He has a bachelor's degree in wildlife and fisheries science from Penn State University and a master's in wildlife from the University of New Hampshire. He's also a certified taxidermist. Before joining QDMA, Kip was the deer and bear biologist for the New Hampshire Fish & Game Department. Kip and his wife Amy have a daughter, Katie, and a son, Bo.