From Mother’s Milk to Sticks and Leaves

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This fawn, less than three weeks old on June 10, is getting the nourishment it can’t live without.

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

The current shortage of baby formula has taught us that milk isn’t milk. We can’t just go out and buy cow’s milk for our newborns because the nutritional needs of a baby are far different from those of a calf.

Cow’s milk is suited to calves, while human babies need mother’s milk or a close substitute — what we call baby formula. It’s far more suited to the human baby’s digestive and nutritional needs than milk from any other species. Compared to cow’s milk, human milk has more fat, more carbohydrates, more vitamin C and other nutrients. It includes enzymes that aid digestion and antibodies that boost the little guy’s immune system. Milk sugars (lactose) are also different from one species to another. That’s why, if you give an infant of any species milk from another species, it might be difficult to digest.

This is the time of year we see one, two, or even three pretty little spotted fawns following momma everywhere, so let’s consider the fawn’s nutritional progress. The needs of fawns in the wild can be met only by their own mother’s milk, which is richer than cow’s milk or human milk, and most similar to goat milk in fat, proteins, and sugars.

Fortunately, the shortage of baby formula can’t affect whitetail fawns. Their mothers are producing plenty of milk and fawns, like human babies, need to eat frequently. They’ll guzzle milk from their mothers about eight times a day for the first 12 weeks of their lives. Then, they begin transitioning to solid food.

Right now, most fawns are only four or five weeks old, and though we may see them nibbling on grass, they’re not eating it. They’re either imitating what they see their mothers do, or they’re taking in the scent of vegetative matter or some other odor.

A lot changes in the deer woods around Labor Day. We tend to focus on bucks shedding the velvet skin from their new antlers, but that’s also when the fawns begin eating solid food. Right at the time these delicate spotted babies need it, Mother Nature provides a smorgasbord of nutrition. The last burst of summer’s growth is happening as plants prepare for a winter of dormancy. Crops are ripening and apples are falling. Before long acorns will litter the ground.

As the days get shorter the air temperatures drop. The spots will soon disappear from the fawns along with their short summer hair, as their heavily insulated winter coats grow in. They look almost like miniature clones of their mothers. By the end of October, only late-born fawns will still have spots.

Even though the fawn is now able to eat solid food, it will nurse as long as the mother lets it. If the fawn loses its mother to a hunter, a coyote, a roadway collision or any other cause, the fawn can survive. It will probably align with a maternal relative, perhaps its mother’s mother or sister and their young, and receive protection and guidance.

Throughout the fall fawns will learn to paw the ground for roots, they’ll sample leaves, and they’ll discover which tender twigs and leaves they favor. (The term for it is “browse.”) That’s what will sustain them through a long, frigid winter when nothing grows and everything may get covered by snow and ice.

It all starts with a healthy mother and the nourishment she provides during the summer months. Next comes the fawn’s transition to solid food. At six months a healthy doe fawn might even be mature enough to breed. At about nine months that fawn will start eating sticks and leaves that are less nourishing, but necessary to survival during its first winter. It’s enough to sustain the fetus until spring green-up. And the full circle can be closed in a single year when she gives birth around the end of May and provides her own spotted beauties with all the milk they need.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He is a field contributor to Deer and Deer Hunting magazine, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.