Saturday, June 11, 2011

The First Fawn

The wily little antelope doe ambled on ahead through the dense prairie shrubbery, stopping periodically to glance back at me or to just shake off the pesky flies that are a constant for her species this time of the year.

Slowly dropping her head, she began to munch at the grass around her. Then, with equal calculation, she suddenly rose up, turned about and threw a long hard stare into the far distance to my left.

She was still pretty young, but already worldly wise in every trick known to her species. I knew it unlikely that anything lay in that direction she faced and that she was just "looking me off." The phrase is a football term where a quarterback, as he retreats to pass, looks away with exaggeration from the primary receiver -- hoping to mislead the defensive backs in their pursuit of the play.

"Clever.... clever." I thought.

For nearly two hours now I had watched that unmistakable style in her body language -- exaggerated stares to a distant ridge; quick glances back over the shoulder, first at me and then beyond. Occasionally she would break into a trot, covering maybe 30 yards, and then stop to begin the cycle again -- always moving in a circular pattern over several hundred yards.

This doe had a secret.

Somewhere in the endless sea of grass surrounding me was new and vulnerable life awaiting the return of motherly care -- one or maybe even two newborn fawns. Her behavior was part of that motherly care -- the meandering stares and encircling routines were all designed to lead me away from her secret in the grass.

I had been crouched in the same spot for about ten minutes now when I realized the doe had changed her pattern. She would stare right at me and then lift her head to look beyond. "Could it be....?" I thought. I began to scan my immediate surroundings.

Incredible! No more than two feet from the toe of my boot was a buck fawn -- curled in the typically circular posture with his ears down flat against his neck, perfectly still. Born during the night, he's been there all the time and done absolutely nothing to give away his position. I could have tripped over him.

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(above) During the first few weeks of its life, a pronghorn fawn will spend many lonely hours lying still in the grass like this while its tiny legs develop the stamina that will carry it like the wind across the grasslands, away from swift predators like the coyote. Notice the similarity in both color & texture between this fawn and buffalo chip beside him -- still another example of how these remarkable creatures blend into a wide open environment like the northern plains.

(right) At birth, a pronghorn fawn weighs 6-7 pounds and stands about 10 inches at the shoulder. Instead of the brilliant tones of the adult's coat, their colors are very subdued, helping them to blend more effectively into the grasslands.

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Few animals possess the stealth of an antelope fawn. They can hide behind a blade of grass. At birth they lack the trademark and striking pelage of the adults and are instead a nondescript grayish brown with their hair running in curly waves. That brilliant, distinctive white rump patch is a subdued yellow. In fact, lying curled like this one today, he bore a striking resemblance in shape and color to the buffalo chip beside him.

This genius for camouflage plus his mother's discretion will be the little guy's chief allies during the next few weeks as, barely out of the womb, he enters the most critical period of his life. Like this morning, he will spend hours at a time lying flat and motionless in such a way as to blend perfectly into his prairie environment.

This fawn most likely had a sibling as multiple births are very common among antelope. If so, the doe will keep the two bedded separately, thereby enhancing the odds that at least one will survive this critical period. She will visit each one periodically throughout the day to nourish their seven pound frames with some of the richest milk known on this planet -- more than two-thirds the fat content of a dairy cow's milk.

Nurtured by this milk, these young spindly legs that now lack stamina will develop and soon carry the youngster across the prairie at speeds of more than 60 mph, leaving swift predators like the coyote far behind.

I glanced back at his mother. She seemed to realize I had spotted the baby as she took a few steps toward me and then stopped to cast a wary eye, though she didn't really seem upset. Stressing her was the last thing I wanted to do, so I needed to move away as soon as I could.

I rose up slowly. Using a camera with a wide-angle lens, I fired off several frames of the youngster as he lay perfectly still. Then I grabbed the rest of my gear, carefully moved off and crouched down again about 50 feet away.

I knew if I were patient enough, sooner or later the doe would get the toddler up for feeding and care, giving me great pictures of interaction between mother and child.

For another hour, the doe continued to browse for food, moving in a circular pattern about me. And then it all came together. She suddenly trotted straight over to where the little buck lay and he stood up instantly to greet his mother. I quickly focused on the two, but before I could press off a single frame, I heard a bleating sound similar to a baby lamb or goat. Thirty feet to their right, the twin (a doe) stood up in tall shrubs and stumbled over to her mother and little brother. Perfect.

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(above & right) If the doe has twins which is normally the case, she will bed each youngster separately about 100 yards apart to help insure that at least one will not be discovered by a predator. Four or five times a day the doe will return to each fawn's bedding site to give care and feeding.

(above) In one of the least glamorous aspects of antelope motherhood, the doe will also lick the anus & genitals of the fawn and consume its urine & feces as it eliminates. A pronghorn fawn has very little scent, save its body wastes and this act makes it more difficult for a predator to follow its trail.

(above) During this time a mother doe is usually on a high ridge where there is good visibility in all directions and rarely more than 100-200 yards away.

(above) Throughout the hiding period, a fawn's perspective of its world is limited to what it can see just beyond through the developing spring grass.

(above) And always lurking somewhere about during this time is the persistent coyote in search of a quick, but not necessarily easy meal as antelope does are known to even attack these cunning predators in an effort to save their young.

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We all have our ways of marking the passage of time, ways in which we catalog the events of our lives. For many Native American cultures it was observing the moon's cycles or keeping a winter count. For me, it is the coming of the antelope fawns. Every year, in late May or early June, I await my first sighting as I recall the first time in each of the previous years because I consider them to be among the most beautiful creatures of our planet.

This morning marks the first day of fawn season.

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(above) As the fawns grow older, they become restless and no longer able to tolerate the endless hours of hiding. At this point the does band together into "daycare" groups with more eyes to keep watch on the irrepressible imps.

(above & left) Amidst these groups, the fawns become fast friends as they run and chase about in daily activities that will help prepare them for adulthood.

(above) Now about ten weeks old, this little buck fawn is no longer fearful of wandering from his mother's side as he peeks through the sage to investigate new things.

(above) Spirited play develops between the fawns as they engage in antics that are actually practice for their adult years.

(right) After some fun and frolicking, this little buck stops for a cool drink at a prairie pond on a hot July morning.

(above) Again like most youngsters coming home from play, this pair enjoys a big lunch from their mother's dugs as they consume her extremely rich milk.

(left) And then it's down for a nice, long afternoon nap to top off the perfect pronghorn morning.


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