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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

May Brings Annual Reminders to Leave Young Wildlife Alone

   Who needs dandelions, chirping robins and blooming lilacs to confirm spring’s presence when we receive daily public-service warnings each May to leave newborn wildlife alone?


   Whitetail fawns are the poster child of these routine reminders, with every wildlife agency east of the Rockies scolding folks pre-emptively for trying to save Mother Nature’s newborns from death or the orphanage.


   Though annoyingly repetitious, these annual warnings are true. Most fawns, bunnies, fledglings, ducklings, goslings, raccoon kits and other young critters stand a better chance of surviving if humans—yes you—simply ignore them, no matter how pathetic they appear.


   There’s a reason these reminders usually feature fawns. Nothing in nature looks more charming and helpless than a newborn whitetail curled up and batting its eyelashes, as if silently seeking your aid and comfort.


   But that inherent cuteness also makes it hard for folks to walk away, even when they’ve been told a doe won’t abandon its fawn. With rare exceptions, the fawn’s mother is nearby and will return to lead it to safety if everyone would just move along or step inside.


   Instead, many folks hover, and then call the police, sheriff’s department or Department of Natural Resources. Others call Uncle Elmer, the family’s lone farmer, hoping he’ll say it’s OK to take the fawn into protective custody.


   But it’s not OK. It only causes trouble for everyone involved.


   Sheesh. Who died and made them Saint Francis of Assisi, anyway?


   I’ve twice stumbled onto newborn fawns in May while hunting wild turkeys. They were gone when I circled back the next day. Maybe a coyote or black bear got them, but most likely the doe returned, took her fawn in tow, and went about her business, oblivious to my concerns.


   I’ve also twice found tiny fawns in May during morning runs. In 2018 I startled a doe with a newborn during a gray-dawn run past Waupaca’s middle school. As I neared, the fawn flattened itself onto the blacktop, right where school buses would soon start arriving. The doe watched from nearby while I took smartphone photos of her fawn, and then I trotted off. Both deer were gone when I retraced my route a half-hour later.


   And two years ago, I noticed a doe acting oddly as I ran through a baseball park in Empire, Michigan. The doe finally bounded off, its white tail flagging, when I slowed to look around the site she had fled. Sure enough, there was her fawn, lying low in roadside grass.


   Those encounters reminded me that wildlife doesn’t want us to be surrogate helicopter parents. Nature is way ahead of us on the situation. Wildlife synchronize their spring deliveries to swamp the landscape with so many young that predators can’t possibly eat all of them while they’re slow, clumsy and immobile, and more vulnerable to illness.


   Some situations, of course, could warrant our help, such as when fledglings fall from nests, or fawns or ducklings block busy roads. You might want to put on gloves and lift the bird back into its nest or hustle jaywalkers to nearby cover.


   Once finishing your heroics, just  leave. The parents won’t care if you touched their young. Despite what we’ve read or heard about wildlife “rejecting” eggs or babies tainted by human hands, you won’t sever their maternal bonds.


   Meanwhile, those vulnerable times don’t last long. Birds soon fly, making them nearly impossible targets for ground-dwelling predators. And most fawn deaths occur soon after birth, from mid-May to mid-June. Once they’re 3 months old they can outrun most predators, even top fawn killers like black bears in the Northwoods and coyotes in farm country.


   To learn more, visit the DNR’s website, www.dnr.wi.gov, and type “orphan” into the search window. You’ll find the “Keeping Wildlife Wild” page, which has instructions on what to do when finding young wildlife and how to  determine if it’s truly orphaned.


   If you’re certain the critter requires help from a qualified rehabilitator, you’ll find their locations, specialties and contact information on the same DNR website. Or visit the DNR’s main page and type “rehab” into the search window.


  If you’re still not comfortable walking away, remind yourself that all these species survived without human care long before this continent had websites, researchers, rehabilitators or wildlife agencies.


   Individuals die but herds and flocks live on. Recent DNR research found 60% of fawns born in a Northwoods setting in spring 2011 were dead by August. The next year, survival increased slightly, with 47% of the fawns dying by August. At the same time, fawns born in east-central Wisconsin farmlands fared better, with 29% dying before August 2011 and 35% dying before August 2012.


   Predators caused most of those deaths, but that doesn’t mean all fawns would reach autumn if the land held no predators. Chances are, something else would kill them in similar numbers. Delaware researchers, for instance, recently found little difference in long-term survival for fawns living in coyote-free habitats. That 2018 study reported only 49 (45%) of 109 fawns fitted with monitoring devices remained alive 90 days after birth. Not one was killed by a predator.


   Further, a Penn State University review of 29 studies on fawn survival found 41% of fawns in forested landscapers die within 3 to 6 months of birth, with slightly better survival for every 10% increase in agricultural cover.


   Bottom line: Whatever a fawn or fledgling’s situation, nature will handle it, whether we like its solution or not.

If you find a fawn, even in a conspicuous place near home, leave it alone. Its mother is probably nearby, waiting to lead it to safety. — Patrick Durkin photo

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