How To Help Deer

deer-doe-and-fawnPublic Health Concerns

Deer are not considered a significant source of infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans or domestic animals. However, as you would when dealing with any wild animal, it is recommended that you wear rubber gloves if you need to handle a sick or dead deer, and wash your hands afterwards.

Anyone who believes they may have contracted any disease from a deer should consult a physician as soon as possible, explaining to the doctor the possible sources of infection.

Reproduction and Family Structure

Deer breed during a rutting season that normally occurs in November and December. Bucks compete for the right to breed using ritualized posturing and movements, and occasionally through intense fighting.

Unlike elk, deer bucks do not herd groups of females; however, a single mature buck may breed with several females.

Pregnancy lasts 180 to 200 days. Younger does give birth to one fawn, while does three to nine years of age and in good condition often have twins. White-tailed deer will occasionally have triplets.

Newborn fawns nurse soon after birth and can walk on spindly legs almost immediately.

Adult bucks take no part in raising fawns, and generally remain solitary or form bachelor groups throughout the summer.

Family groups usually consist of a doe and her fawns, and sometimes her fawns from the previous year. Occasionally, groups of several does may be seen together.

In winter, deer may be observed in larger groups of 15 to 30, usually grouping because they are concentrated in limited winter habitat.

Mortality and Longevity

Cougars, bears, coyotes, and domestic dogs prey on adult deer; young fawns fall victim to these species as well as to eagles and bobcats.

Hunting, vehicles, and diseases all take their toll on deer. In many deer populations, hunting dampens the effects of other mortality factors; as hunting mortality decreases, other forms of mortality tend to increase, and vice versa.

Few deer live longer than ten years, and most live for no more than five.

How to help a baby Fawn

A doe will stake out a territory and her fawns are the only fawns in that particular area. It may be as small as 2 acres or as large as 20 acres. She will give birth, clean the fawn, feed it and move it away from the birthing site.

The doe leaves the fawn alone for eight hours or more, while she feeds, drinks, and her milk replenishes. She will return several times during the course of the day to feed and/or clean her baby before leaving once again.

Young fawns have little scent and spend most of the first 2 weeks of their life inactive, except while nursing. Since their natural instinct for these 2 weeks is freeze behavior, it is unlikely fawns will be found by dogs or coyotes (unless they trip over them).

If a doe stayed with her fawn, it would give away its hiding place. If her fawn is moved, she will look for her baby for 2-3 days, continually returning to the area where she last left it. By one month of age, most fawns begin to venture out to browse with their mothers.

Fawns may be abandoned because its mother may have been killed, because of multiple births, inexperience of first time mothers or people or dogs frightening mothers away.

Under certain circumstances the fawn should be rescued immediately:

  • If found next to a dead doe

  • If it is injured, has severe scrapes, deep puncture wounds, or broken bones

  • If it has maggots or lots of flies around or is heavily infested with ticks around the eyes

  • If it has diarrhea

  • If it is severely dehydrated

  • If its body temperature is extremely low

  • If it is found laying on its side with outstretched limbs

If the fawn you have found doesn’t fit the above criteria, a hands-on check can help determine if the fawn can safely be left for a few hours.

Be aware that when you begin the exam, the fawn may run away or bleat, bringing the doe to the rescue. If that happens, back away-you have your answer!

Otherwise, stand the fawn up, feel under the stomach for the umbilical scab (if it’s there, the fawn is under a week old), lift the tail and look for diarrhea, check for maggots, scrapes, punctures or other injuries.

Put your little finger in the mouth, toward the back of the tongue. A healthy fawn’s temperature is about 102 degrees, so the mouth should feel warm to the touch and the saliva should not feel sticky.

Pull up the skin on the back and check for tenting. There is a small indentation between the corner of the eye and the ear. When a fawn is healthy and hydrated, this depression is barely visible.

When severely dehydrated and the fat reserve is used up, these depressions can be as much as 1/4inch deep and the eyes will look like they are protruding.

It takes several days for a fawn to starve to death (depending on its age and size), so if none of these factors are present, it is reasonable to leave the fawn or put it back where it was found.

Keep dogs penned up and people away and check in a few hours. If it’s morning, wait until after dark. If it’s evening, leave the fawn until morning -WEATHER PERMITTING.

Young fawns cannot tolerate cold, wet conditions. Fawns will usually move no more than 50 feet without the urging of their mothers. After waiting 10-12 hours, if it’s still near the spot it was found, bring it in.

Putting human scent on the fawn could cause the doe to perceive her baby to be in danger and cause her to move it to the farthest part of her fawning range rather than the average 200 feet, or so, she would move it if there were no perceived danger. Following these steps helps fawns from being ‘kidnapped’ and assures only the fawns truly in need of rescuing are brought in.

If you have to rescue a fawn, follow these instructions:

  • Place old towels in a cardboard box or dog crate and put the fawn inside

  • Move it to a warm, quiet, dark place to reduce its stress. Place a heating pad, on low, under the back half of the crate. Keep it away from pets and people


  • Only after the fawn has warmed up, can you attempt to rehydrate it. Make a 50/50 mixture of Pedialyte OR Gatorade and warm water and offer it to the fawn in a bottle or a bowl

  • If it does not swallow, do not force it, as this could cause it to aspirate

Food and Feeding Habits

Deer eat a wide variety of plants, but their main food item is browse—the growing tips of trees and shrubs. In late winter and early spring, deer eat grass, clover, and other herbaceous plants.

Deer also eat fruit, nuts, acorns, fungi, lichens, and farm and garden crops if available.

For their first few weeks of life, fawns thrive on milk, which is more than twice as rich in total solids as the best cow milk.

Deer eat rapidly and, being ruminants, initially chew their food only enough to swallow it. This food is stored in a stomach called the “rumen.” From there it is regurgitated, then re-chewed before being swallowed again, entering a second stomach where digestion begins. From there it is passed into a third and then a fourth stomach, finally entering the intestine.

Tips for Attracting Deer

Although property owners with large acreage can provide significant deer habitat, those with small acreage can also contribute. Keep in mind that deer may damage ornamental plants and gardens, and might also attract animals that prey on deer.

The best way to attract deer to your property is to protect and maintain deer habitat:

  • Provide hiding cover. Deer use hiding cover year-round during resting periods throughout the day, but it is especially important during hunting season and the first few months of a fawn’s life. Hiding cover can consist of stands of trees or dense shrubs. Where cover is limited, providing large, disturbance-free areas may still encourage use by deer.

  • Conserve areas with forage plants that deer prefer.

  • Prevent infestations of noxious weeds that degrade areas containing preferred food plants (contact your county extension office for information).

  • Conserve vegetation along streams and other freshwater areas and avoid placing roads near these areas, which are among the most favored habitats of deer. Consider developing artificial watering areas if water is scarce on your property.

  • If a contractor is clearing vegetation, make sure the contract states that the contractor will be held responsible for plant restoration or alternate improvements if areas set aside for deer are inadvertently cleared. Temporarily fence important areas and supervise the work to keep disturbances to a minimum.

  • Consult with local resource management agencies for advice on specific habitat-management activities that may be highly effective in your local area. These activities might include prescribed burning to rejuvenate shrub species, fertilizing of old fields to increase palatability of forage to deer, and not mowing areas that provide food and shelter.

  • Do not let dogs run loose and chase deer. This fatigues and weakens deer, especially when they are forced to run on crusted snow. Deer can also be killed by dogs, either directly or indirectly, because fleeing burns up energy needed to combat cold and starvation. Dogs running in packs are even more threatening to deer. Some county laws provide for shooting dogs and/or fining their owners if dogs are observed harassing wildlife.

  • Inform guests, visitors, and contractors coming to your property that you do not allow dogs to roam free.

  • Property fences and wire fences constructed on ranges used by deer should have a 17-inch gap at the bottom to let fawns and adult deer pass beneath them, and be no more than 4 feet high to let adults jump safely over them.

Know Your Native Deer Foods

Food studies have identified several hundred plant species that deer will consume during the course of a year. Some are used seasonally, some only when little else is available, and some are preferred regardless of season and other species’ availability. In helping the deer, it is important to understand the preferred forages where you live, and while learning everything deer eat in your area is a daunting task, we have made it a little easier.

Whitetails eat a variety of plant types such as trees, shrubs, herbaceous forages (forbs), and agricultural crops. Some of these species are region specific while others are used across much of the whitetail’s range. For example, brambles (blackberry, etc.) are an important deer forage in all three U.S. regions and in Canada. Grapes and greenbriar are top forages in all three U.S. regions, and poison ivy, ragweed and wild rose are in two of three U.S. regions (wild rose was also in Canada).

Midwest – Brambles and grape are the most common food sources. Coralberry, dogwoods, greenbriar, Illinois bundleflower, ragweed, trumpet creeper, wild lettuce and wild rose were also important species. Other notable plants included asters, plums, pokeweed, sumac and trillium.

Northeast – Bracken fern, brambles, grape and greenbriar are the most common food sources. Canada mayflower, jewelweed, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, wild rose and wild sarsaparilla were also important species. Other notable plants included blue bead lily, goldenrod, plantain, sumac and winterberry.

Southeast – Brambles, grape, greenbriar, honeysuckle (primarily the native coral, but also non-native Japanese/white) and ragweed are the most common food sources. Pokeweed and strawberry bush are the most common food sources within about half of the states, and American beautyberry, beggar’s lice and poison ivy were are the most common food sources by a third of the states. Other notable plants included Alabama supplejack, devil’s walking stick, Florida pusley, old field aster and trumpet creeper.

Canada – Asters, brambles, choke cherry, fireweed, pondweed, snowberry, sow thistle, trillium, Virginian strawberry and wild rose are the most common food sources in more than one province. Other notable plants included Canada mayflower, jewelweed, lupines, ragweed and wild lettuce.

Put Green Leaves at Deer Level

Everyone knows the leaves of most deciduous trees are green during summer. Most also know that leaves grow on a tree’s branches originating in spring and falling off in the fall. However, how valuable are green leaves to deer? Extremely valuable.

Green leaves provide important food and cover for whitetails. For the most part, research has shown green leaves constituted high percent of the daily diet for does during summer. This statistic would differ dramatically in, say, Iowa, but the point is green leaves are a very important food component in forested regions.

It should go without saying that for deer to eat green leaves they have to be growing within 5 to 6 feet of the ground. No offense to the leaves in the canopy, but they’re useless to whitetails from a forage perspective. Proper forest management practices ensure an acceptable percentage of the forest is in a young age class (0 to 10 years). It’s good to see at least 20 to 25 percent of forested acreage in this age class. Mature, closed canopy forests only provide an average of 50 to 100 pounds of browse (leaves and buds) per acre while young forests can provide up to 1,000 pounds of browse per acre. That’s the equivalent of a full grocery store vs. one where the shelves are 90 to 95 percent empty!

Interestingly, leaves growing on stump sprouts (sprouts that originate from the stump of a tree that has been cut) have a higher nutritional content than leaves from the canopy of a mature tree. This is a win-win situation as those leaves provide more nutrition, and they are within a deer’s reach. This is where timber stand improvement (TSI) work such as thinning, hinge-cutting, and other techniques can drastically improve habitat quality for deer.

All leaves in a deer’s foraging zone are not equal however. Some species such as red maple, yellow birch, and red and white oak are far more preferred than American beech, white birch, ironwood and musclewood. A little observation on your part can clearly identify the more preferred species in your area.

Creating food close to the ground also provides quality cover for whitetails. Good cover can reduce fawn-predation rates and entice adults to spend more time on the property, as well as move more during daylight hours.

So, the next time you look at leaves in the woods try to view them from a deer’s perspective. Do the woods provide an abundance of preferred green leaves within 5 to 6 feet of the ground? If not, get your chainsaw and get to work.

How to Provide Emergency Winter Deer Food

Deer have a limited supply of fat reserves to carry them through winter in the upper middle to northern states. In fact, research showed that a healthy doe begins winter with a 90-day fat supply. This ticking clock begins winding down in March and is the reason why weather patterns in this month often play the biggest role in deer mortality.

If January and February are brutal but relief comes on time with warming temperatures in March, most deer will sail through with no trouble. If January and February are mild but winter lingers until the end of March, or brutal cold and snow hit late, deer carcasses can begin to pile up.

If March comes in like a lion and eats the lamb for breakfast, can we do anything to give struggling deer a survival kit to help more of them see April?

The best option is to give them more of the winter foods they are already adapted to eating: winter browse. This includes buds and twigs of woody plants. Introducing new foods in the middle of winter, especially in high quantities all of a sudden, can actually be more harmful to deer than not feeding them at all.

In southern states, we don’t often see big problems with winter deer mortality.

“A deer has to eat a new food for one to two weeks before it can start pulling in nutrients from that food. This is because it takes time for the micro-flora – the bacteria that live in the deer’s gut and help with digestion – to adjust and become capable of dealing with the new food source. The best thing you can do during March, if conditions are severe, is to give deer more food of similar quality to what they’ve already been eating throughout winter, and that’s woody browse.

Put Woody Browse in Reach

deer-food-woody-browseThis means breaking out the chainsaw or lopping shears and putting more buds and twigs within reach of deer (like the buds on a twig end seen in the photo on the right). By late winter, especially in a tough winter like we’ve seen in 2014, much of the reachable browse may be gone. Use hinge-cutting to drop branched trees and shrubs within reach of deer.

“Do any type of TSI (timber stand improvement) where you’re putting those buds at ground level where deer can consume them,” Kip said. “Some of the better species to cut are trees like red maple and yellow birch, but the species is less important than the quantity. There’s not a lot of difference in the nutritional quality of the buds and twigs by species. Quantity is more important.”

Of course, hinge-cutting and TSI can also help enhance the quality of deer habitat in the long run, producing more browse and cover at ground level for future winters.

Also, if you grow apple trees or maybe ornamentals in your yard that require pruning, leave the pruned limbs in piles where deer can reach them.

Don’t Disturb Deer

When you head out with your chainsaw, do your best to avoid going into known bedding or yarding areas, where you might disturb bedded deer.

If weather conditions remain severe in March, don’t go into cover to look for shed antlers or do habitat work. Deer are counting on their fat reserves, which are running low by March. Don’t make them waste any additional energy running to escape from you.

Think Before You Feed

If you haven’t already been providing supplemental feed, don’t introduce it suddenly in large amounts in late winter.

The worst thing we can do for deer in a tough winter is shock their system by providing a new food, particularly a high-energy food such as corn or high-protein food such as alfalfa hay that they are not used to. In most cases, it ends up being worse for the deer than if they had not been fed. The benefits of supplemental feeding come from long-term feeding, not from a short-term food supply when deer are already in poor condition. So, if you’ve been providing supplemental feed, continue to do so. If you have not been, do not start now.”

If you can’t supply woody browse, and you feel you have no other option but to provide a new food source, introduce it slowly, in tiny amounts, at multiple sites scattered across the landscape. Give deer time to adjust over a period of two or more weeks before providing unlimited amounts of feed for deer to consume.

It comes down to how poor their condition is when they are exposed to the new food and how much of that food they get. The worse shape they are in when they receive the food, the more likely they are to die from it. Lots of studies have shown this.

Remember Predators

If you do provide supplemental feed, provide it at as many locations as possible rather than at one or two sites to avoid creating concentration points that predators, like coyotes, will use to their advantage.

Deer are in the poorest condition all year in March, and they are easier prey for coyotes. In winter there is often an increase in coyote predation around feeding sites. These sites funnel a lot of deer into a small area and making them easier for coyotes to kill.

If you’re concerned about deer survival in this year’s tough winter conditions, the best thing you can do to help them get through the critical last days of March is provide more of the food they are adapted to eat in winter: woody browse.

Tips for Driving in Deer Country

Vehicles kill thousands of deer each year. Deer will cross roads at any time of the day or night, creating a hazard for the vehicles, passengers, and deer.

More than half of all deer vehicle collisions occur in October and November. The rut (mating season) and peak days for hunting may account for this.

Here are driving tips to help prevent collisions:

  • Deer are most active at dawn and dusk. Be especially watchful during these times.

  • One deer crossing the road may be a sign that more deer are about to cross. Watch for other deer, for they will move fast to catch up with leaders, mothers, or mates and may not pay attention to traffic.

  • When you see brake lights, it could be because the driver ahead of you has spotted a deer. Stay alert as you drive by the spot, as more deer could try to cross.

  • Wonder why the person ahead is driving so slowly? The driver may know where to slow down and be extra alert for deer. Don’t be too quick to pass, and watch out.

  • Take note of deer-crossing signs and drive accordingly. They were put there for a reason.

  • Try to drive more slowly at night, giving yourself time to see a deer with your headlights. Lowering the brightness of your dashboard lights slightly will make it easier to see deer.

  • Be especially watchful when traveling near steep roadside banks. Deer will pop onto the roadway with little or no warning.

  • Be aware that headlights confuse deer and may cause them to move erratically or stop. Young animals in particular do not recognize that vehicles are a threat.

  • Deer hooves slip on pavement and a deer may fall in front of your vehicle just when you think it is jumping away.

  • Deer whistles, small devices that can be mounted on your vehicle, emit a shrill sound that supposedly alerts deer nearby. (Humans cannot hear the sound.) How well the devices work is not scientifically known.

If a collision with a deer seems imminent, take your foot off the accelerator and brake lightly. But—and this is critical–keep a firm hold on the steering wheel while keeping the vehicle straight. Do not swerve in an attempt to miss the deer. Insurance adjusters claim that more car damage and personal injury is caused when drivers attempt to avoid collision with a deer and instead collide with guardrails or roll down grades.

If you accidentally hit and kill a deer, try to move the animal off the road–providing you can do so in complete safety. Otherwise, report the location of the deer’s body to the city, county, or state highway department with jurisdiction for the road. If no action is taken, contact the non-emergency number of the local police department, and the agency will arrange for the body to be removed. This will prevent scavengers from being attracted onto the road, and eliminate a potential traffic hazard.

If the deer is wounded, call the non-emergency number of the local police department and describe the animal’s location. Emphasize that the injured deer is a traffic hazard to help ensure that someone will come quickly.

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