This 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.
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 an NDA 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.