By C.J. Winand
Since most states and provinces open the bow season in September or early October, many opening-day hunters are presented various opportunities to shoot a doe with fawns. While some hunters do take them, many simply pass on the opportunity. More times than not, their rationale on not taking the shot has something to do with the doe still nursing her fawns.
Is this decision, correct? Let’s look at this scenario from a purely biological viewpoint. Because the growing season is so short in Northern deer herds, the primary rut occurs in November. This is because fawns need to accumulate adequate weight in order to survive their first winter. Once bred, it takes a doe about 200 days to drop her fawn(s). This generally correlates to late May or early June.
In the South, the timing of the rut varies. But generally, the rut and fawn birthdates correlate to when green-up or flooding occurs. Since deer in the South do not have to put up with the rigors of cold winters, a fawn’s birthdate generally aligns with the greatest nutritional demands of the fawn and her mother. This is also when the ground vegetation is starting to grow. This nutritional new-growth food also provides valuable cover for the fawns to hide from predators.
Although many have heard fawns are scentless at birth as a defense mechanism against predators, this simply is not true. All fawns have an odor, and their best defense against predators is to remain still. On average, a “camouflaged” fawn has 300 white spots (ranges from 272–342), which like fingerprints, are unique to that specific fawn.
One online “deer expert” says you can determine the sex of a fawn by their spot pattern. This individual suggested button bucks have a straight spotted pattern, while doe fawns have a scattered or zigzag pattern. Trust me on this one: You can’t determine the sex of a fawn from the alignment or pattern of its spots.
A fawn can be fully weaned (able to survive without its mother’s milk) at 70 days of age. If we assume all fawns are born on June 1, this means all fawns can survive on their own by August 10. From a biologist’s standpoint, fawns are fully functional ruminants any time from 45 to 60 days of age (say, July 15).
With this information, many hunters will still pass on does because they see them nursing fawns, sometimes well into October. Does this mean they aren’t weaned? The answer is most likely, no. Although the vast majority of fawns are 100-percent weaned, some does will still let their fawns nurse well into the hunting season. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting that doe, because remember, her fawns are already weaned.
Given the opportunity, in areas where the deer population is low, you might want to consider taking a younger, adult doe (say, 1½ years old). This is because statistically speaking, older does are much more likely to successfully raise their fawns. In deer populations that are too high, the reverse is true.
What should a hunter do if he/she misses the opportunity to shoot the adult doe, but her two fawns are within range? Since many deer populations are too high, do the herd a favor and take a fawn. Remember, fawns grow up, and will eat close to one ton of vegetation per year.
Although many hunters don’t like taking a chance at possibly shooting a button buck (fawn), there are ways for determining the sex of a fawn. These tips are not always true, but they can give you a guide for achieving your management objectives.
If one fawn is larger in size, it’s probably a button buck, so shoot the smaller one. If the fawn’s head is square versus round, it’s probably a button buck. If one fawn is running all over the place and the other fawn stays closer to its mother, the rambunctious fawn is probably a button buck. Again, many biologists would totally disagree with these observations, but they have served me well over the years. In all deer herds, it’s best to keep the percentage of button bucks harvested under 10 percent of the total harvest.
Shooting fawns may not be a viable option for you, but I can assure you that they taste great. In fact, my buddy calls them “rotisserie deer.” Every year, I personally tip over many fawns — and yes, sometimes even if they still have spots. In these overpopulated areas, I tell my hunters to pick a spot and shoot.
Chances are, many readers of this magazine are totally against shooting fawns for emotional reasons. I get that.But why is it okay for beginning hunters to take a fawn, yet experienced hunters get ridiculed for doing the same thing? Whether it’s your first or your 100th deer, in most herds, it’s biologically acceptable to take fawns.
Taking does or fawns in the early parts of the hunting season has added benefits for the habitat. For example, by harvesting 20 does, say two months prior than usual, you’ll be saving nearly three tons of forage. This is because a deer will consume about five pounds of dry weight vegetation per day. That forage saved roughly equates to a couple one- to two-acre food plots. If you don’t plant food plots, tipping over some does and fawns early in the year is very beneficial to the habitat. In other words, there will be more food later in the year for other deer during the rut!
C.J.’s Summary: A fawn will keep its spots until three to four months of age. If you can’t bring yourself to kill a fawn, a good rule of thumb is to wait until they lose their spots. Although many hunters may disagree with shooting spotted fawns, albeit cute, these are the deer that have the greatest chance of not surviving the winter. As for taking the adult does that have fawns in tow? Remember, those fawns are already weaned and will survive, with or without mama.