Buckmasters Magazine

Give Fawns a Chance

Give Fawns a Chance

By David Hart

Fawns are under intense pressure these days. Here’s how to help.

Shoot a coyote, save a fawn. What deer hunter hasn’t heard that phrase in recent years? It’s an especially common theme in much of the Southeast, where coyote numbers have skyrocketed in the last decade.

With that spike in predator numbers comes a considerably higher level of fawn predation. Some studies have found that coyotes account for as much as three-quarters of all fawn deaths in a given season in the Southeast. That’s astronomical and enough to make even a casual deer hunter declare war on coyotes.

Unfortunately, we can’t shoot our way out of the coyote problem. Various research has determined that in order to keep coyote numbers low, we have to kill upward of 70 percent of their population. Few hunters have the time, skill or resources to undertake such a monumental task.

Killing a few random coyotes has no impact on region-wide populations. Remember the saying “nature abhors a vacuum”? It’s true. Removing one predator from the landscape simply makes room for another to move in and fill the void.

Part of a study conducted in South Carolina illustrates the difficulty of controlling coyote numbers. The study, titled “Factors Influencing Survival of Whitetail Fawns in Coastal South Carolina,” took into account trapping efforts on a 6,300-acre site. Trappers kept records of their catch from 2003 to 2010. They caught 447 bobcats, 313 coyotes and 98 feral dogs during those years.

However, coyote catch rates actually increased as the years passed. Trappers averaged 1.9 coyotes per 1,000 trap-nights from 2003 to 2005, but the catch rate jumped to 14.4 in 2008 before falling back to 6.9 coyotes per 1,000 trap-nights in 2009 and 2010.

It’s going to take more than predator control to protect fawns these days. To help newborn whitetails, hunters and land managers need to focus their energy in an entirely different direction. Shooting coyotes can be a great off-season outdoor activity, but the best way to foil those predators is to give fawns all the help you can.

IMPROVE THE HABITAT? NOT SO FAST

For many hunters, the solution is simple: Give fawns a place to hide by manipulating the habitat to provide high quality bedding cover.

A three-year study conducted in Pennsylvania from 2000 to 2002 seemed to support that. It found that a large portion of fawns were killed by predators. Coyotes and black bears took about an equal number. However, mortality rates were considerably higher in one study area that consisted primarily of mature woods. Just 28 percent of radio-collared fawns survived their first year. Fawns in the agricultural region of the study area were nearly twice as likely to make it to their first birthday.

The difference? Habitat.

Farmland habitat is considerably more diverse than mature woods, which often consists of large trees and little growth below the closed canopy. Farmland tends to be rich in cover in the form of crop fields, dense thickets and edges. Open woods provide few hiding places for newborn fawns, making them more vulnerable to predation. In hindsight, though, researchers could not determine a relationship to the variations in survival to cover type.

Study co-author Dr. Duane Diefenbach, a wildlife professor at Penn State, says the study did not examine habitat or vegetative density at a local level, so he and fellow researchers could not tell if habitat played a role in survival rates. He said the higher predation rate could have been due to a higher number of bears or a lower alternative prey base since open woods don’t have nearly as many rabbits and rodents as farmland.

Clint McCoy, lead author of the South Carolina study, could not find a correlation between habitat and predation rates. Much of his study area consisted of the same type of habitat throughout. Also, other studies have suggested predators find fawns no matter where they are.

“Another researcher in South Carolina examined coyote predation,” McCoy said. “The study area had a diversity of cover, but he couldn’t find any correlation to what type of habitat fawns used and their predation rates. It did not seem to matter.”

A more recent study conducted on Fort Bragg in North Carolina found similar results even after careful consideration of fawn bedding cover characteristics. Habitat type made little difference in predation and survival rates.

Colter Chitwood, a post-doctoral researcher with North Carolina State University, fitted 65 newborn fawns with transmitters and followed their movements for 16 weeks in 2011 and 2012. Surprisingly, 55 of them died, 35 at the fangs of predators. Coyotes killed 30; bobcats took the rest. The remaining fatalities were the result of a variety of factors, including starvation.

Chitwood examined survival rates in relation to bedding cover type, plant diversity in the bedding area and bedding cover density.

“The plant life was very diverse, although the study area was primarily a longleaf pine forest with drainages that consisted of very dense vegetation,” he said. “We expected the heavily vegetated cover would protect fawns because predators would have a more difficult time observing the fawns, but that did not appear to be the case. There was no difference in predation levels based on the density of the cover.”

He and his fellow researchers actually measured the visibility of each type of bedding habitat to determine how easy it was to see inside the various types of cover.

Coyotes not only hunt with their nose, but they also find prey visually. The cover along the drainages was “so thick it was difficult to crawl through,” Chitwood said.

Researchers also looked at plant species diversity in relation to survival rates and found a slight relationship, but not a strong enough correlation to draw any solid conclusions.

“Our results suggest that manipulating habitat has little effect on survivability rates of fawns,” Chitwood said.

In other words, creating thick cover has little impact on predation and fawn survival rates.

However, he warns that his study comes with some caveats. Most important, the thicker cover was along creek drainages, making it relatively linear and narrow. Coyotes and other predators tend to follow those linear habitats, which may make fawns easier to find. There is no science to prove that, Chitwood said, but it certainly makes sense.

“This was just one study area, so our results may not apply to other regions or other types of habitat.”

IMPROVE THE HABITAT, ANYWAY

That doesn’t mean it’s pointless to improve the habitat. Chitwood and Quality Deer Management Association Education and Outreach Director Kip Adams agree habitat improvement can benefit fawns in another way.

“Any time you provide more food and better habitat, you give all deer a higher chance of survival,” Adams said.

“Creating habitat diversity also increases the abundance and diversity of other wildlife, which gives coyotes alternative food sources.”

What’s more, healthier does have healthier fawns. Better habitat translates to a higher diversity and abundance of food. Higher quality habitat and food means healthier deer.

“Healthier does don’t necessarily produce higher quality milk,” explains Adams, “but they tend to produce more milk, which results in healthier fawns.”

Various studies have shown that some fawns actually die of starvation or malnutrition before they make it to their sixth week, the general age when survival rates jump. Some studies also suggest healthier fawns are more likely to evade predators. Chitwood found that all fawns in poor health in his study died from predation. Overall, fawns in poor-quality habitat are more likely to perish from nutrition-related issues than those in good habitat.

Further, healthy does tend to have twins or even triplets. The more fawns on the landscape during the peak predation period, the more likely a higher number will survive to adulthood.

That’s why Adams and Chitwood recommend undertaking some sort of management effort to create thicker cover, particularly in mature forests with little plant growth at ground level. Timber thinning or even clear-cutting will produce a rapid and dense growth of new plant life, producing a high diversity of food along with dense bedding cover.

“If you have the room, create early successional habitat in several locations on your property instead of one large block. Does are territorial when fawning, so even though the cover might look large enough for more than one doe, there might only be one dominant doe using it,” Adams said. “By spreading out the thicker cover into several blocks, you give more does the opportunity to fawn on your land.”

DON’T SHOOT

Having more does doesn’t necessarily mean you can shoot more, at least not when coyote predation is high. Despite increasing numbers of coyotes in many parts of whitetail country, the primary factor in deer mortality in virtually all regions is simple: Hunters. However, as deer populations decline as a result of predation, it’s becoming increasingly important to better manage your herd. In many situations, that means shooting fewer does. The more does on the landscape, the more fawns they will produce.

– Photo by Deb Watson

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This article was published in the July 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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