(This Spring we thought we’d finally publish a story we did not publish last year. It’s a year late but perfectly topical anyway.)
OK, I’ll freely admit it: it’s a bit of surprise to have a doe give birth less than a hundred feet from our kitchen window. And, while I can imagine that it happens somewhere on the property’s 148 acres once in a while, it’s very unusual for it to happen this close to our house.
It was 7:30 pm, on June 1st 2016, and I was the first to notice the doe and call Cherry’s attention to it, standing on the flattish part of the vineyard road by the gate to the vineyard. We’re used to seeing deer often but this doe was behaving oddly, pacing back and forth slowly, her back legs stiff and craning her neck to look at her rear end. We quickly figured out that something was going on, and deduced that she was about to give birth. She settled, her head towards us. We dared not approach and remained in the house, observing from the kitchen window.
By dusk, we knew the doe had given birth. We observed her stand up and nose something on the ground. The house is somewhat lower down that the area where she was, so we couldn’t see what had her attention and dared not approach. When night came, she’d settled down on the flat area just beyond the dog run fence that surrounds the house, and appeared to be licking her fawn clean. Overnight, a few light showers fell. We wondered if they would be there in the morning and if the pair would be safe from the coyotes that roam the property at night.
Cherry got to the kitchen first the next morning. She informed me that the mother was grazing lower down the slope and that she had not seen the fawn. As the doe moved further down the slope towards the paved road below, I quietly opened the kitchen door and walked up to where they had been. I was half expecting to find a dead fawn since its mother had moved on. To my surprise, instead I found the fawn curled up on one of the large stones that serve as steps from the level of our yard to the vineyard road. It’s head was down to one side but one large black eye was staring at me unblinkingly. I walked right up to our little gate, wondering if it was alive. Observing it closely, it appeared to be breathing very shallowly. To my inexperienced eye, it seemed to be unwell, and possibly in a bad way.
Not knowing what to do, I walked back to the kitchen door. As I closed the door behind me, I saw the doe walking back up the slope toward the fawn. She was walking hesitantly, freezing in place every few steps, and glancing around cautiously, clearly hyper-alert to her surroundings.
With hindsight, I realise now that the doe was being very cautious not to reveal the location of her fawn to predators, and that she had purposefully hidden it on the steps where it would be out of sight. But, at the time, I worried that she was rejecting her fawn because it was not healthy.
Instead, Mama deer gradually made her way to the fawn, walking right by our little wire-mesh gate. Once at the fawn she nudged it with her nose and then started to lick it on the butt. That caused the fawn to come out of its catatonic state and get up on its skinny and wobbly little legs. With motherly prodding that involved more butt-hair licks, the little one went up the steps and back to the flat area. Soon it was trying to suckle from his mother. The slap of the camera’s mirror as I took a few shots caused her to spin her head in my direction while wrinkling her forehead in irritation.
It was only later, while the mother was standing there, and the fawn was walking around between our dog-run fence and the vineyard fence, that we realised that the doe had not only one fawn but two and that they were both walking around.
We looked at the fawns for a while. One clearly lighter than the other. The light-haired one was the one that had been on the stone step earlier. The other one, darker brown, must have been really well hidden. But then I noticed something odd. The doe seemed unable to get to the darker haired fawn.
My eyesight is far from perfect and the type of highway fencing made of wire that is around here can be hard to see. It took a few moments for it to dawn on me that the second fawn was inside the vineyard fence and that the doe could not reach it. The fence that surrounds the vineyard is an 8-foot deer fence, 8-foot high because deer can jump any 4 or even a 6-foot fence with little effort and then go on to munch on everything, from tender leaves to the grapes themselves.
Although the doe was trying to coax the fawn to come to her, clearly the fawn did not understand how it got there in the first place and therefore could not figure out how to get out. Looking at the situation, and the size of the fawn, my guess is that somehow it had managed to walk in-between the gate and the gate post where the gate latches: a space approximately 4 inches wide that was sufficiently wide for the little thing to get through. I decided to try to get the fawn out. I opened the kitchen door immediately catching the doe’s attention, and walked up to the fence. The doe became very agitated as she saw me approach and started jumping around. I kept talking to her in a very calm voice repeating “it’s OK, it’s OK…” I opened the little gate in our dog run fence and walked up the few steps to the flat area where she had had her fawns. She was bouncing all over in a slightly threatening fashion, but was clearly scared as well.
I opened the vineyard gate and walked up to the fawn. The poor thing was making every effort to melt into the ground since it could not get away. I picked it up gently, grabbing it around the chest to lift it. Its skinny little legs flopped loosely beneath; its big ears remaining horizontal like airplane wings. I could feel all of its ribs under its white-spotted brown fur. It hung limply as I carried it out, and deposited it gently below the gate and in the shade. By this time the doe was standing a dozen feet away, calmer but still nervous. She’d watched me carry her fawn out. I could only hope she’d understood that I wasn’t about to harm it, and that I was trying to help.
After placing the fawn on the ground, I slowly walked back down towards the house, noticing that the other fawn was now hiding between the vineyard fence and the 4-foot fence that surrounds the house. Like its twin was when it saw me coming towards it, the other fawn was frozen, lying flat on the ground, trying to be invisible (photo at left — the fawn is in the middle).
I glanced back to see the doe move to the fawn I had brought out of the vineyard, and lick it vigorously on the butt, forcing it to get up. Things appeared to be back to normal. I got into the house and closed the door. A couple minutes later, both had moved down the road and were out of sight, but the other one was still lying flat, waiting for the mother to come and collect it. Some twenty minutes later, she did. I assume she took it to her new hiding place, where she’d left the first one.
We haven’t seen any of them since. Let’s hope all’s well.