Fawn survey offers insights into deer survival and predation

A trail camera photo shows a fawn walking through the property that Leader sports editor Morgan Rode hunts.

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Nature designed a fawn’s spotted coat as the ultimate camouflage. The white spots break up the otherwise solid brown appearance, protecting it from predators.

There’s the challenge of the annual Fawn Survey, which combines the knowledge and expertise of seasoned biologists with the shear enthusiasm and sweat equity of volunteers. Finding the supremely hidden critters is the tough part.

Despite the mosquitoes (not bad) and weather (pretty good), the crew managed to catch and radio collar a record 128 fawns this spring on 50 private properties in southwest Wisconsin — 28 more than goal, explained Dana Jarosinski, assistant project coordinator with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. There were no accidents or injuries during the annual search for fawns.

Most of the deer were captured and collared in Iowa County. This is the third year of the fawn survival study, which will wrap up next year. Once the collars are in place, the fawns are monitored throughout the spring and summer to determine survival rate and causes of death. Monitoring then continues throughout the year.

“We were a little bit worried about whether or not we were going to be successful because of how the winter was, with the adult deer and the does,” Jarosinski said. “It started off a little bit rocky. We didn’t have as many fawns, but when the peak came around May 26 and 27, like it usually does, we had a string of really successful days and knew that we would easily pass our goal.”

Volunteers from age 8 to 80 donated 1,800 hours of their time to the cause, including middle- and high-school students who get hands-on wildlife research, noted project coordinator Wes Ellarson.

““When you’re working with people that are interested in following this kind of thing in their career path, it’s cool to show them some of their first experiences in the field,” he said.

Keeping volunteers motivated and spirits high, even after long days of searching for fawns, is one of the biggest challenges to the project, according to Crew Leader Samantha Bundick. However, it always lifts spirits when a fawn is discovered.

“They’re very charismatic little animals,” she said. “Seeing everyone’s reaction to that is always a ton of fun to watch.”

Searching for fawns in the woods also turns up other critters and natural wonders — both good and bad, according to Daniel Storm, the DNR’s deer and elk biologist.

“We always see lots of cool things when we fawn search: turkey nests, snakes, mushrooms, etc.,” Storm said. “This was a really good year for monarch butterflies, so that was pretty cool. The ticks weren’t too bad actually. The black flies and mosquitoes weren’t too bad either, until after Memorial Day.”

Storm agreed that keeping morale up with the volunteers can be tough at times.

“Fawns are hard to spot and we really have to actively look to find them consistently,” he said. “Keeping people motivated to actively search can get tough if it’s especially hot or if we’ve gone long stretches without finding fawns. The biggest challenge is just coordinating everything; lining up properties each day and making sure our gear is stocked.”

The annual surveys have yielded some hard data to answer persistent questions about which predators and other killers take the most fawns. It’s important to remember that a fawn is defined as a deer born that spring, so those young deer surviving the fall and winter hunting seasons then face the challenge of winter’s cold and potentially deep snow.

“In the Northwoods, fawn survival can be low following a severe winter, as low as 25 percent, but more often closer to 50%,” Storm said. “In the Shawano/Waupaca area, fawn survival was around 50 to 60 percent. In Iowa County, fawn survival has been 60 to 70 percent so far, but we’re still in the middle of our study.

“We’re just now doing our summer fawn surveys (observations) now. We wait until the end of summer, because fawns are harder to observe earlier in the summer and because we want to wait until the summer is essentially over, since most of the fawn mortality occurs earlier in the spring and summer. This tells us how the many new deer made it to the hunting season and will tell us how winter impacted fawn production.”

Although the multi-year study is no longer radio-collaring fawns in Shawano and Waupaca County area, he does have data to share.

“In the Shawano/Waupaca area, there wasn’t very much coyote predation,” Storm said. “In fact, the number one cause of death was starvation, which indicates that some does were abandoning their fawns because those does were coming out of winter in bad shape. In the north, coyotes will take their fair share, but black bears were number one (predators). In Iowa County, coyotes have been the number 1 cause of death for fawns so far, but we’re only half way through this study.”

If there’s a lesson that everyone can learn from the fawn study, it’s that most of this spring’s fawns seen or found alone are not orphans.

“We occasionally see the mother, but not too often,” Storm said. “Typically, the doe will be bedded away from the fawn. They mostly just go to the fawn to nurse them. Otherwise they mostly keep away, to make it easier for the fawn to hide. So when people see a fawn by itself it is almost never abandoned.”

Read more information about the project and its results at dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/research/predationAndFawn.html

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.