Whitetail Deer Adaptability During The Predator Boom
Georgia hardly had any coyotes in 20 years ago. Now generations of deer deal with them daily. Are deer getting better at living with predators?
A bedded newborn fawn lays concealed and motionless when a large coyote appears on the scene. Within moments, the fawn’s mother returns to the spot, the same location where she’s dropped her fawns multiple years in a row. The doe is on high alert. She runs off for several yards, suddenly stopping. The doe’s effort to draw the coyote to pursue her is to no avail. As the coyote attempts to locate the hidden fawn, the doe then begins to approach the predator. She raises her front legs, high steps with her hooves—stomping the ground aggressively and letting out a loud snort. She swiftly charges the canine and darts erratically around it. The yote doesn’t try to defend itself and even appears dumbfounded, but the big old doe continues her defense until the predator finally moves on.
As a wildlife photographer, I’ve witnessed that scene firsthand.
Today, more information is unfolding regarding whitetails and predators. There is lots of research, and there is also a growing index of good anecdotal accounts of what’s going on in regards to deer and predators.
Can predators alone impact deer herds to the declining numbers that some hunters are experiencing, and when do management agendas tip the scales in favor of predators?
Another factor we’re beginning to consider is that deer, at least some of them in some locales, are adapting to the presence of coyotes.
“An important factor that hunters forget—some are too young to even know—is that we didn’t have coyotes in any substantial numbers just 20 years ago,” said GON’s Daryl Kirby.
Daryl and I have had lots of long talks over years about deer, predators and what I see with my own eyes while photographing wildlife professionally.
The idea for this article came about when Daryl was telling me about what occurs on his property in Morgan County. He lives on 25 acres. Every year, a doe drops her fawns right up against his house. She then spends the summer keeping those fawns basically in the yard or very close to the house.
“This has been going on each summer now for years, long enough that it can’t be the same doe. I think it’s now an offspring of the original doe, or more likely a third or fourth generation,” said Daryl.
Interestingly, Daryl’s father lives on another 25-acre tract nearby, and he also has a doe that drops her fawns right up against his house every year.
“We have really good habitat, what biologists would consider very good fawning habitat. And these aren’t tame deer, they’re hunted. So why do these does choose to birth and raise their fawns literally up against the brick foundations of houses?”
Could the answer be coyotes? Have these does learned that the best chance for survival of their fawns is to have them and raise them near houses, where coyotes don’t venture?
A Pendulum Of Data
At times, whitetails display an amazing ability to outwit predators. Other times they do not withstand the carnivorous assault. Coyotes, black bears, bobcats and even wild hogs do have an impact on deer—primarily with the mortality of fawns. Though not as common, a pack of domestic wild dogs can wreck havoc on whitetails. Overall, the degree of predator success varies from habitat to habitat depending on the management of predators, vegetative nutrition, deer densities, weather extremes, disease, as well as the extent of antlerless harvest.
Up North, predators such as coyotes tend to be more effective on whitetails, mainly due to snow and ice hindering deer from successful evasiveness, and periodic nutritional stress. Down South, they are less successful in attacking adult deer; whereas fawns are falling prey. The scientific data and incidental observations are ongoing; and yet, the data fluctuates and is even contradictory in some cases. It can be confusing to hunters and managers. No doubt, it is a complex subject.
For example, studies conducted in South Carolina and Alabama determined that liberal antlerless harvest in conjunction with unmanaged coyotes was seriously impacting fawn recruitment. On the other hand, a Pennsylvania study concluded that although predators (bears, yotes and bobcats) were consuming deer fawns, overall, the predatory impact was not enough to cause a need to curtail antlerless deer harvest.
Observations On Free Ranging Deer With No Management
When natural environmental events (disease, weather extremes, etc.) and human management influence deer populations, seeing the true reality of predator and prey relationships is somewhat distorted. Predators have an edge once the environment, or management practices, tip the scales in their favor.
Where I photograph, there is no predator control and no deer harvest. Habitats with minimal to no predator control and very nominal deer reductions can reveal another aspect of how whitetails adapt to an onslaught of predators. By observing predator and prey relationships with restricted human management, it can actually help to shine a light on whether certain wildlife management practices are unintentionally helping predators in their pursuit of whitetails.
So, what is the survival rate of the whitetails in the midst of unmanaged predators? And is the “old doe” vital for successful fawn recruitment?
The Old Doe
My personal anecdotal photographic field observations for more than 30 years now, along with several scientific studies, especially those of highly respected deer researcher Dr. John Ozoga, have shown that the old matriarchal female does of a deer family unit are by far the most successful parenting mothers. Younger does are more inclined to abandon their infants, especially when predators intrude.
Older females display superior adaptability by constantly shifting fawn bedding areas and utilizing vegetative cover to the fullest extent. They also tend to command vocal sounds and body gestures to fawns more so than younger females. This degree of communication contributes to teaching fawns concealment, making it more difficult for predators to pinpoint them.
Being that old does hold a good track record of fawn recruitment—given adequate cover and nutrition—the odds are favorable for their fawns to survive predator encroachment. Matriarchs have also been known to produce fawns even at the ages of 6 years and up, and they work to maintain solid female clans that enhance survival.
Nutrition And Predators
John Ozoga’s research and numerous other studies have determined that quality nutrition is vital for parenting mothers and their offspring. Newborn fawns not obtaining good nourishment from their mothers are more likely to call out. Their bleat echoes, and it doesn’t take long for predators to pinpoint the cries. Meanwhile, I’ve observed silent fawns—healthy ones—survive right in the midst of numerous predators.
Nutrition is important, but be wary of concentrating deer. With small high-quality food plots and supplemental feeders, deer move less and are more predictable. Fawns born near these concentrated feeding areas are more vulnerable, despite the nutritional benefits. Opportunistic predators quickly learn where the good food is, and fawns in the vicinity can become easy pickings.
With the recent influx of videos and trail-cam photos showing predators ravishing fawns, as well as attacking adult deer, it needs to be stressed that a great deal of predatory success comes from the advantage they get due to concentrated food sources. Overall, though food plots are vital for whitetails and supplemental feed can greatly improve the health of deer, these management tools are giving predators an edge in some cases.
When whitetails are foraging for native browse, they are typically more dispersed and harder to pattern. Numerous female groups in one particular locale I photograph traversed more terrain in comparison to deer where there was supplemental feeding. Only when berry crops or hard mast were abundant did predators and deer occasionally mingle. Otherwise, predator activity was almost non-existent when deer were very mobile in search of native browse. Although these doe clans kept a typical home range of roughly half a square mile and up to occasionally a square-mile radius, they were consistently mobile in search of native browse, minimizing their exposure to predators. Deer that fed in more concentrated areas were easier for predators to pattern.
With that said, there are recommendations to capitalize on predator control around supplemental feeding areas. Of course, if black bears show up during fawning time to ravage the food plot, it is illegal to shoot them out of season—adding another dilemma to predator management.
Surprisingly, a few deer groups avoid open areas when coyotes were on the prowl, excluding rutting bucks. During the late afternoon and at dusk, the deer fed. But when night fell, some deer took refuge in the adjacent timber and old growth fields. When day broke and the coyotes retreated to secluded resting areas, the whitetails came out to feed in the open again until the rising temperature forced them back to the woodlands. I’ve observed this type of pattern for years. It clearly showed that these particular deer clans moved and fed in avoidance of concentrated predator activity and opposite of normal deer behavior. They bedded down at night and fed in the open during the day.
Fawns Concealed Out Of Sight
The visual count of “fawn to doe ratios” usually reveals if fawn recruitment is working. Females with fawns indicate good survival rates; whereas, females without offspring signals that fawns could be falling prey to predators, nutritional stress or abandonment.
However, one of my photographic locales has consistently shown that parenting females have been concealing their young to such an extent that visual ratio counts are extremely difficult to conduct. The fawns have survived; yet are out of sight. Unless one can confirm a female’s milk bag (udder) with active nursing, the initial impression is no fawns exist. Yet, when the grown up offspring comes out of nowhere in the fall, or even into late fall and winter, it reveals that fawn recruitment has been working.
This clearly reveals that some parenting females are not exposing their newborns, even after two to three months when deer fawns are old enough to out maneuver predators. Also, before the predator populations escalated, fawn to doe sightings were common. However, as predators increased, the deer adapted, using vegetative concealment to the fullest extent for longer periods of time.
Moderate to high counts of fawn-to-doe ratios may be the case with habitats where predator control is being done, or where predators are not prevalent. However, even where predators are not properly managed, the odds for fawn survival rates are still potentially good if older females are allowed to raise their young with adequate nutrition and good vegetative cover.
A Time To Fight And Doe Family Social Structures
My observations have consistently shown that the overwhelming majority of whitetails are evasive of roaming coyotes, using vegetative cover and woodlands with circular routes. Yet in time, as predator numbers rose, I watched as the flight behaviors of several whitetail clans shifted. Some female deer, primarily older mothers, are now facing lone coyotes head on to protect their young. They have even grouped up to confront coyotes. These behaviors are taking place whether fawns are nearby or not.
Smaller deer groups with just yearlings and 2-year-olds are less inclined to confront coyotes, and therefore their fawns are far more vulnerable. Age and experience, along with more numbers, increases the chances for survival.
This also brings into question as to what degree antlerless harvest might change the social structure of female deer groups. Some scientific studies have questioned if this contributes to negative effects on fawn recruitment.
If the “normal” clan structures of female deer is disrupted through liberal harvesting and the older matriarchs are removed, then predators such as coyotes can have an advantage due to inexperienced younger females that are less effective in successfully rearing newborns.
Adaptability Amid Suburban And Rural America
There are enough incidental observations throughout the country to show that older female deer are quick learners and highly adaptability when it comes to selecting fawn birthing grounds. Though there are still the occasional predators that defy the norm, for the most part coyotes and bears tend to avoid human populated areas.
Older female deer have been known to utilize suburban neighborhoods as well as other human habituated structures/locales to raise their young where predators are less inclined to roam. For example, some fawns are born right in the middle of college campuses adjacent to WMAs, while others are born in neighborhood backyards and golf courses. For years now, I’ve seen where female deer in some state and national parks I photograph have been birthing their offspring in recreational campgrounds. These unique accounts clearly show, to me, how adaptable older female deer can be and how they learn to increase the survival success of their fawns.
Carousel Of Management
Today, whitetails in some habitats are showing that they can adapt and survive even unregulated predator numbers when they have adequate habitats—that is as long as the female social structures are not liberally reduced. These observations, along with some scientific studies, indicate that deer declines are not solely a predator issue. Properly managing deer densities for a particular habitat, quality nutrition and vegetative cover all contribute to herd health. In turn, fawns have a better chance for survival when these positively factors come together.
Some who advocate the harvesting of older female deer may beg to differ, but there seems to be enough evidence now that shows careless antlerless deer harvest can give predators an advantage in taking fawns. Older females carry a higher fawn success rate than younger females.
Some hunting organizations and state agencies may have acted too fast when implementing and promoting liberal doe harvest years ago, and then we were taken by surprise when predators adversely impacted fawn recruitment and even overall deer numbers.
Yet even today with so many other biological changes and events unfolding, deer herds across the country should not be “stereotyped” with a one-size-fits-all management agenda. Just because wide open doe harvest is working elsewhere—or conversely just because limiting the doe harvest is working best elsewhere—doesn’t mean it’s right for your deer herd.
Harvesting female deer is necessary, especially when their numbers exceed the habitat’s ability to sustain the deer herd. The question again is when, and how many antlerless tags to fill?
Not every private hunting property and public lands can effectively manage predators, posing additional problems. As mentioned before, mangers must take into account environmental factors such disease, drought, habitat degradation, vegetative cover, as well as liberal antlerless harvest. Deer numbers can undoubtedly decline when predators are taking fawns.
To hopefully prevent extreme deer declines, numerous hunters and managers are now stressing that female bag limits should be adjusted according to accurate deer density surveys and predator activity for a hunting locale.
Yet, we are learning that if other factors are not pressuring whitetails, a moderate to good portion of fawns can still survive even when predators are sharing the land.
Finally, although predator and prey relationships are highly complex and ever-changing, adjusting management agendas and implementing consistent predator control will help to alleviate the pressure and negative impact that predators can inflict on local deer herds.
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