fauna tracks & scat

Deer little things
Prefer to listen to the story? Click the image above to hear the narrated version of this blog entry.

There is no stop on the tour when you are out for a walk alone in the unmediated woods. No guide raises a colourful umbrella to get your attention. There’s no floating arrow directed at points of interest. No plaques. Just your own eyes and whatever you pay attention to.

When you walk with a companion, you can see with their eyes as well. When Neil and I walk together, there is usually a fair amount of quiet pointing while we chat about other things. An interesting tree, a patch of new blooms, fruits emerging on the mayapples (oh the mayapples…). But no one stops you from walking right past something marvelous. It is up to you to notice. And there’s an awful lot that hides in plain sight. And not all of it is small.

A couple of days ago I was walking the woods alone. I had gone up to the woods to try for a gentle run, and did a walking lap of the woods first. I often end up walking a full lap before running it. It just gets my feet used to where I am. Besides, my head was many places other than where I was. And that is usually a good recipe for a turned ankle. So I did a walking lap to let my thoughts ramble and untangle. But as I neared a large mayapple patch, I doubled back. Had I seen tiny tracks in the dirt? I retraced my steps, crouched down to the ground, and decided… yes! I had. Tiny hoofprints leading into the mayapple patch. Deer. But so small. Was this the right time to be seeing fawn tracks? I wasn’t sure. Would they be big enough to be walking around? I walked on, thinking to myself about how much I love learning to see animals even when they’re not there in front of me. Oh how right and wrong I was…

I finished my first lap of the woods, and began again. As I passed the mayapple patch for a second time, I thought about the unseen deer. And a few metres further on, I *gasp* SAW. Not a hoofprint, not a flash of white tail bouncing away. A little tiny wee baby deer, curled up and resting in the grass right beside me. And I do mean, right beside me. Three feet away, if that. I had gone right past it on my first lap, moments after spotting those prints. Right past it, and it was right here.

Though I had never encountered a baby deer like this before, I knew well enough to leave well enough alone. I took this fast photo with my phone and then I was the one who hightailed it out of there. The best thing I could do for this baby deer was am-scray. Though my best day is one when I see a baby deer, a baby deer’s best day is when it sees no one.

Baby deer (yes I know they’re called fawns but baby deer) can stand and walk shortly after they are born. But they’re not fast enough to keep up with mom, and they also don’t carry the scent that mom has, and which predators might use to find them. So, for the first few weeks of their lives, mom keeps them safe by keeping them away from her. She leaves her babies secreted and alone in various spots during the day, coming back only to nurse them, once every four hours or longer. In this way, baby deer are very similar to baby bunnies, whose moms also protect them by staying away. (Deer and rabbits are also similar in that our handling the babies and leaving our scent on them may cause the mother to reject it. Excellent reason to keep our paws off the wildlife. This is not, by the way, true of baby birds, an idea that is widespread but unfounded.)

At this age, being perfectly still — and wow was that baby ever still — and being perfectly tiny is a fawn’s best defense. A healthy baby deer lying quietly and still and alone is doing exactly what a baby deer is meant to do. Like so many other times, with so many other critters, the best thing I can do to show it I love it… is to walk away. Just because something is still does not mean it is not frightened. Its mom keeps it safe and alive by leaving it alone, and I should do the same.

Is that easy? NOPE. This is your brain, this is your brain on baby deer. Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhh! As I walked quickly away I literally had to hold my hands over my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. A baby deer! Heaven! We have spooked fawns in the woods before, been right on top of them with no idea until they suddenly flush from under our feet. But never this. A baby deer at rest. So perfect and perfectly still.

I thought I would finish my walk in a daze, processing what I had seen. In the moment, I had trouble connecting my eyes to my brain. It was a baby deer! It was right there! I was right beside a baby deer! Etc! Seeing them in the wild… it’s difficult to process. A fawn staying perfectly still looks like every photograph or illustration of a deer you’ve ever seen. I ran it over and over in my mind as I walked. Curled up, russet-coloured, big ears, white spots, right there. And oh, no, wait…no…nope.. no way… what is that over there??

I was clear on the other side of the woods when something caught my eye. Much farther away from the trail, but a shape I had just seen, and which I guess my eyes will now always search for — it was another baby deer! You can see it in the photo above. That reddish patch in the centre of this zoom. Thaaaat’s a baby deer. A second baby deer spotted on one walk. If you need me, I’ll be over here holding my exploded heart.

In the first few weeks mother deer “store” sibling fawns separately from each other, so this spotting of a second baby was another good sign that all was well and normal. If there were signs things were not well and normal, well, that is a discussion for another day. My decisions around hard questions are not drawn with hard lines. But in general, if it has a human cause, I will intervene. If not, I will let nature run its own course. I have intervened before, on smaller scales, and cost another critter its dinner. I tread more carefully now around my “help”.

Now did I worry about the baby deer? Yuuup. Of course I did slash do. I know what else is in the woods, why it is so important to be still and quiet and scentless. And, for human concerns, people drive too fast on the roads near here, hunt both in and out of season, and it was not out of the question that mom was not coming back.

I will pause here to say that I do eat meat, including deer, and that I am not opposed to hunting, in principle. Though not hunting done ignorantly, or wastefully. A lot of hunting seems to just be a socially-acceptable reason for men to go sit alone in the woods. Which is just… sad. You shouldn’t feel you need to justify a long walk in the woods with a death. It makes a real mess of things. That said, one bad day in an otherwise wild life is incomparably better than the “lives” of almost all the meat we eat.

I decided to keep an eye on things as lightly and from as far away as possible. I thought about leaving a trail camera, but ours flashes red when it takes a photo and I had seen evidence of it spooking deer before. I certainly didn’t want to be the human cause keeping mom away. So I went up the next day to check as discretely as I could. Baby one, by the trail, had not been moved, but baby two was gone. Which I decided was a half-good sign. Some guides will tell you to be concerned and perhaps intervene if the baby hasn’t been moved in 24 hours. So what about baby one, by the trail? But I asked some wise animal-knowledgeable friends of mine who suggested that it was just as likely that mama deer had simply decided it was a good spot. So I waited another day, and checked again. Sure enough, baby one was gone. No signs of anything gone awry. Just a tiny deer bed, the sign of it already being covered over by the growing woods.

I am so glad to have seen these beautiful babies, and even more glad they have safely moved on. I hope to see one again sometime, though perhaps at a greater distance. Where I could enjoy getting a glimpse of it, and it could enjoy that the human was not quite so close to where it rests until mom returns.

It was good to meet you wee ones. Have a good life, you dear little things.