The future of any whitetail herd rests in the success and survival of each year’s fawn crop. Deer are exceptionally adaptable but they certainly require adequate cover for their safety. Trying to grow “giant bucks” is useless if you fail to maintain a positive offspring recruitment rate.
What is the hatchling recruitment rate? It is a measure of the number of fawns per adult doe that survive to at least six months of age. Therefore, a rate of 1.0 is a fawn recruited into the herd by an adult female. An effective way to capture this data is through trail camera surveys and recording observations during the hunting season. This is something I discussed on episode 529 of the Wired To Hunt podcast.
Predation is the main cause of mortality for fawns. But what is killing the newborn deer? A 2020 study in the Chattahoochee National Forest in the Appalachian region of South Georgia found a 16% survival rate for fawns, with predation accounting for 81% of mortalities. In a 2016 research paper “The Impact of Predators on Deer in the Southeast,” David Osborn and Mark McConnell reported that of “91 radio-collared fawns, 56 (80% of deaths) were likely killed by coyotes.” “. A University of Georgia study conducted in southwest Georgia collared 47 fawns, of which 11 were killed by coyotes. Some other deer survival studies have similarly shown that coyote predation may be the source. of fawn deaths and could limit fawn recruitment in the southeast.
Coyotes have continued to expand eastward in recent decades, although the canids it already had a storied history of survival and adaptation to a wide range of environments in North America. They will quickly recolonize habitat niches left by other packs that have been wiped out. Their ability to adapt and recover quickly makes them quite difficult to handle.
These predators wreak havoc on my farm. Last spring, while driving a lumberjack across our property, we saw a coyote run off with a dead fawn in its jaws. If you trust the data, you have to assume that a large portion of the fawns each year fall into the hands of yip-dogs.
So what options do land managers have to combat fawn predation? Even with year-round trapping and predator hunting, you’ll never stop new ‘yotes from filling vacancies, either as transient solos or with nearby packs. If you ask any land manager, they will tell you that the best defense against predation is to improve deer habitat.
Prescribed fires, the use of light discs, and the felling of smaller sections of wood are good examples of soil disturbance, which creates high-quality, densely littered sites. The results of controlled burning and disc formation are highly dependent on tree crowns, basal area densities, and frequency of disturbance. It doesn’t take much to diversify the soil and let the native seed bank take over. Check the results and repeat as necessary. Rotating sections each year is ideal and effective, as soil disturbance can produce excellent brood cover for many years.
Creating a cut is also an excellent practice to promote fawn survival through bedding and native forage. When National Deer Association founder Joe Hamilton visited our farm in 2019, he left me with many suggestions for improvement, but one in particular stood out and I won’t forget. We have a series of farm fields with a very open wooden stand adjacent on one side, but it’s a bit too exposed for whitetails to travel comfortably during the day. This means that the deer will not arrive in the fields until after legal hunting hours. Mr. Hamilton suggested cutting down a smaller section within the block, letting it grow wild and re-establishing vegetation after three years of natural growth by burning or cutting it down and starting the cycle over again.
What would this accomplish? First, it would provide deer with beds adjacent to fields, allowing hunters a realistic opportunity to fill out a tag. Second, the new natural thickness would offer mothers excellent brood cover with a distinctive edge created by the thickness.
Edge is key for fawns
According to a 2017 research paper, “fawns with the least available home range were 2 times more likely to be predated by a coyote than fawns with the highest available home range.” These are amazing data, to say the least. The research was conducted between 2007 and 2012 at a site on the Savannah River in South Carolina.
Diversity is king. Monoculture is generally not suitable for fawns, especially if the area is predominantly open wood with little or no cover. I recently wrote an article on whitetail pine habitat that covers my “checkerboard” approach to logging farms. By consistently clearing small 5- to 50-acre sites every five to 10 years, you’ll safely maintain thickets that provide plenty of security for fawns.
The benchmark of basketball
Dr. Bronson Strickland and Dr. Steve Demaris of the Mississippi State University Deer Lab give us a simple but highly effective way to measure sycophant coverage: Take a basketball and throw it as far as you can. In the woods. If you can still see the ball, it’s poor coverage. If the ball disappears from view, it’s probably excellent coverage. Predators often travel along paths of least resistance (highways, field edges, firebreaks) in search of their next meal. If a section is thick and nasty enough that you don’t want to go through it, chances are a predator won’t either. Deer, on the other hand, will close their eyes and bury themselves in a thicket of heather with ease and agility.
By upgrading and creating beds, you will increase the carrying capacity of your local herd. This must be done in conjunction with improved food sources. Also, you will surely need to hunt more deer.