Here on our little ranch, the summer provided a predictable rhythm of deer movement. With three little fawns hidden in various areas of the property and the orchard beyond, it was common to see the mama does coming and going. They were either nursing their young, munching on browse and deer feed, or patrolling for predators. Scout, whose babies we never did see and assumed she lost them somehow at birth or just after, continued to stay with the herd. She and Ruthie often took off for long periods, even though Ruthie was nursing little Ellie.
The slough area of the orchard seemed to be the gathering spot for all of the deer by the end of August. It was at that time that we noticed all of the mamas bringing their babies out in the open more, and the little ones becoming familiar with one another. Generally, a doe brings her young out of hiding around one month of age.
Right away, Gracie showed us what a dedicated and protective mother she was to JoJo. It was a good feeling to know our efforts in joining Gracie and JoJo had paid off. After Gracie lost her little buck fawn to an owl attack, and Ruthie could not manage the care of both Ellie and JoJo, it was a miracle that Gracie accepted JoJo as her own. But over the course of the summer, we watched JoJo flourish under Gracie’s care.
Ruthie, on the other hand, was still showing us what a vagabond she could be, returning to her adventurous ways not long after giving birth to twins Ellie and JoJo. I wondered, if it wasn’t for Ruthie’s ever-expanding udder filling up with milk, would she even bother returning to Ellie at all? As a result, poor little Ellie was somewhat unkempt-looking. We often observed her with hair ruffed up and full of stick tight seeds, and with ticks on her ears. This made us wonder if Ruthie’s snake bite injury might have limited her ability to groom her baby and herself.
Still, even as tiny as she was, Ellie proved to be just as resilient as her mama. She was spry and smart. Ruthie kept her hidden in the neighbor’s woolly back yard, but Ellie knew her way down to the slough, where we often saw her join the other deer in the evening hours. During the days sometimes, Ellie could be seen peering through the neighbor’s chain-linked fence. I wondered just how much of the day she spent alone over there while her mama was out galivanting around, and was always happy to see Ruthie return to feed Ellie.
Penelope was the last of the mamas to bring out her tiny fawn, little PJ. Penelope was very secretive of her and PJ’s whereabouts all along, and we never did know where she had hidden her baby. But Penelope would show up near our home each day for feed and fruit and vegetables that we offered. When she finally did bring PJ around with her, we could see that she was a mirror image of her mama. Penelope had come from the far southwestern part of the state, where the whitetail deer are smaller in stature. Tiny PJ had the smallest set of ears we had ever seen on a fawn, and she tucked her tail tightly just like her mama did. They were such a cute pair to observe together.
In early September, summer apples and pears began to ripen and fall from our many fruit trees. Crab apples too, became a favorite snack of the deer. Chicory and clover patches also provided abundant grazing spots in the yard and deer pen. In the evenings, Forrest and I delighted in sitting at the picnic table, watching the babies run and play while the mamas kept watch and nibbled on plants and deer feed. Sometimes, after the deer retreated to the woods, Forrest and I would venture down to the slough area and watch the fawns frolic and gambol in the shallow water, while their mothers kept close watch. Eventually, each mother would lead their fawn back to the safety of hiding in the woods or orchard.
It was hard to say exactly when Ellie simply disappeared. Looking back at photos, September 9th was the last we saw Ellie with the group of mamas and fawns. Though we looked for her in the days and weeks to follow, there was no trace of her to be found. We searched the neighbor’s back yard, all through the woods, and down to the slough, but found nothing amiss. Normally, a predator will leave evidence of a kill, but we discovered no signs of death. I had to wonder if Ellie had simply yearned for more stimulation or the company of others and followed the other deer or perhaps followed a couple of wild deer we had been seeing in the area on the game cameras.
As it was when we had to take JoJo from Ruthie due to her premature birth and underdeveloped joints, ligaments, and tendons, Ruthie did not show signs of missing Ellie. Over the years, we have become familiar with a mama doe mooing pitifully, and searching for days trying to catch scent or sight of her lost baby. But we never observed that with Ruthie. It was simply as if she accepted that Ellie was gone and immediately resumed her independence, though she remained with the herd.
What was more disturbing, however, was the disappearance of Penelope. We saw her with the herd on the evening of September 27th, but she did not return with the group the next morning. We did not worry so much at first, since PJ was with the larger group and we had recently noticed the mamas taking turns babysitting each other’s fawns. But that evening, there was still no sign of Penelope. PJ continued to tag along with the others, but it was evident she was always looking for her mother to appear.
Days turned into weeks of searching and combing the property and beyond for Penelope. But we found no signs of death. It was truly too early for rut (mating season) activity, but it was possible pre-rut activity could have caused her to stray. We also wondered if instinct could have led her to head back to the area of southwestern Oklahoma where she originated. But Forrest and I both knew that, as attentive and protective a mother Penelope was to PJ, it was unlikely that Penelope would have abandoned her fawn.
Despite the hardship of losing her mother so young and being forced to be weaned a month earlier than normal, PJ is doing well with the little herd. We often see her hanging out with JoJo and Gracie. Scout and Ruthie help to look after her some days too. It is evident though, when PJ is mutually groomed by Gracie, Scout or Ruthie, she enjoys the touch and attention of a mama. It has been good to see that the little herd has taken PJ in as one of their own, and that she is doing well. We still wonder what might have happened to Penelope, and we miss her greatly.
Now, the autumn season is upon us and, with it, the whitetail rut has arrived. We have already observed a few bucks competing for the girls. With the adult does getting such attention, it is common to see Jojo and PJ bedded down together in the pasture, while their mamas and aunties are being pursued by local bucks. These times when the little ones are on their own, I just have to trust they know the lay of the land and are able to flee if danger presents itself.
I find myself wondering if our little herd will remain nearby, or if the rut will lead them to the river valley and beyond. Daisy deer remained here for many years, but other orphaned deer we have raised, disappeared during the rut. For a short time, we would see them, via game cameras, near the river area. After a while, however, they simply disappeared altogether, never to return. I guess it is the strong pull of instinct that eventually leads them on to the wild and free lives they were intended to live – wherever that may be. I try to take comfort in knowing this, but still, a little piece of my heart goes with them all…
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