After Ruthie deer delivered two female fawns, Ellie and Jojo, on June 27th, Forrest and I did our best to keep an eye on Ruthie’s habits and ability to care for her twins. Ruthie herself had suffered a snake bite to her mouth and jaw prior to birthing, which left her unable to eat well and get much nourishment the last three to four weeks of her pregnancy. Seeing the tiny size of the fawns at birth made us wonder if Ruthie had delivered prematurely. And hours after birthing them, Ellie was up on her legs, getting around well, while Jojo’s legs were underdeveloped, not allowing her to stand or move about freely. Considering Ruthie’s emaciated state and Jojo needing special care, Forrest and I made the decision to take Jojo into the house and start rehabilitation. In the wild, Jojo would likely have perished in a day or two not being able to nurse or get around properly.
We wondered when Scout, Gracie and Penelope would have their fawns. For more than a week after delivering her twins, Ruthie had managed to run Penelope off the property, but she allowed Gracie and Scout to stay. Ruthie had originally set up her nursery area in the old deer pen she’d been raised in, but later moved baby Ellie to the cover of a large Oak and Sycamore tree in the back yard of the rock house, alternating with a yarrow patch near my garden, not far from the Sycamore tree.
Once we could see Ruthie was not as interested in hiding Ellie in the deer pen anymore, we moved little Jojo to the barn and deer pen. Jojo has been coming along well, and seems to like her safe place in the barn. When she is around and JoJo is out and about, Ruthie is encouraged to come into the pen with her, and she is very receptive to bonding with Jojo. But after thirteen days of being bottle-fed, Jojo will not latch to Ruthie’s nipples, or even look for her udder. We will continue to encourage this bonding relationship, hoping that after the weaning process, Jojo will be able to keep up with her Ruthie and Ellie, join the little herd, and learn the ropes of being a deer from her real mother.
As the next two weeks progressed, Scout looked as if she could produce twins, but we could not be sure about the other two. We checked udders daily and, finally on July 11th, Scout disappeared early in the morning, and did not come home that evening as she normally did. Her udder had increased in size, so we felt it was time for her to deliver.
The next day, I saw Penelope head into the willow grove in the orchard. I never got a look at her udder, but when she didn’t come home that night I wondered if she too had gone off to have her baby elsewhere. Sure enough, by July 13th we saw both Scout and Penelope for a brief few minutes, eating deer feed. Obviously no longer pregnant, they looked svelte and seemed calm. They both ate quickly, then took off for the woods.
After Scout and Penelope delivered their babies, Gracie continued to roam in our yard and pasture, often lying around in the shade, panting and looking miserable. Occasionally, she’d get up to eat, but she didn’t venture far from home. By the 13th, her udder increased greatly, and suddenly Gracie was territorial – running Ruthie and little Ellie out of the area. She also behaved strangely around Forrest, mooing at him, and aggressively stepping in front of him or blocking him from leaving. She could not seem to get comfortable. I thought that night she would deliver but the next morning it was more of this strange behavior.
The next day, July 14th, after watching Gracie lie for a short time in several different spots up top around our home, Forrest found Gracie bedded down in the woodlands not far from the slope behind our house. He was with her there when she gave birth to a nice-sized buck fawn. Within minutes the fawn was up on its legs. Soon it was nursing, and Gracie was busy cleaning him and also cleaning the birth area. Just like we had observed with Ruthie, Gracie finally passed the placenta and ate it. Her little buck was already up and walking around. A couple of hours later, Forrest went down to check on her, but she had already moved from the birthing site and relocated the baby to a safer place.
Early yesterday morning, July 15th, when Forrest and I got up to let the dogs out and get Jojo’s bottle ready for the first feeding of the day, we found Gracie with her nose to the ground, walking slowly, sniffing and mooing forlornly as she moved along. This went on all day. I had observed this behavior with our first orphaned deer, Daisy, each time she lost a fawn. The first two weeks of a fawn’s life are the most dangerous for it. Helpless to run far, their only means of survival is to be still and hope any predator passes on by.
Yesterday afternoon I was busy mowing our pasture, trying to beat a rainstorm headed our way, when I spotted something odd ahead of me in the tall grass. About five feet apart, lay both forelegs of a fawn. My heart dropped. It was now for certain that Gracie’s fawn had not just “gone missing” but was the victim of some predator. Though I could not find any other body parts, I knew these legs belonged to the little buck. It was impossible to know what killed the fawn – the legs were severed at the joints, but there were no signs to indicate that a carnivore had done the killing. Before burying them yesterday, Forrest showed the legs to Gracie, who sniffed and licked them before eventually moseying along, still mooing and continuing to look for her baby.
And then last night, after Forrest and I fed Jojo her last bottle of the day and headed back to the house, I shone my flashlight around the yard and spotted something strange in the distance. Forrest went out to the pasture to investigate, finding a large, adult barred owl perched on a tree cage just a few feet from where I had found the fawn legs. Forrest attempted to shoo it away, but it landed only a short distance from the site, and would not fly away until Forrest yelled aggressively and banged sticks.
Back at the house, I read up on barred owls and learned that they are indeed very capable of killing small mammals like fawns, rabbits, cats, chickens and small dogs. With smaller prey like squirrels or birds, barred owls gulp the prey down at the site of the killing, but with larger mammals, they are often dismantled in larger portions and flown to a favorite perch in a tree where they can take time to eat and be safe from ground predators. All of these years I thought the predators we were dealing with were coyotes, bobcats, wild hogs, and foxes. Who knew there were eyes in the dark of the night sky as well?
This morning’s gentle rain might wash away the last scent of Gracie’s little buck, but she will continue her vigil until she decides to let go and move on. In our observations of doe mothers, they may go on looking for a lost fawn for days, and sometimes it will be a couple of weeks. For me, I have a new awareness of a predator I did not think could be a threat. This will change how we protect the orphaned fawns we care for. For that knowledge, I am thankful. For Gracie’s little buck and for Gracie herself, however, we are deeply saddened.
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