Wash and brush-up
Females initially groom the fawns quite intensively, but this falls away rapidly after about three weeks. Indeed, Stadler wrote in his Ph.D. thesis that as early as mid-July the frequency of licking had dropped to “only occurring exceptionally” among some does. Similarly, Christine and Robert Mauget found that, at Branféré, acts of grooming declined sharply from about 10 times per hour in the day after birth to just once per hour by the time the fawn was a month old.
The most thorough grooming event occurs immediately after birth as the female eats the birth membranes and cleans the newborn's coat. Subsequently, grooming is typically carried out during or proximate to suckling, and on very young fawns the dam will vigorously lick the anogenital region (i.e., the anus and surroundings) to stimulate defaecation, which the fawn is only able to carry out itself from around two weeks old. Later faeces, once more plant material is included in the diet, are firm pellets and can be expelled easily, but for the first few days the poo, or more technically meconium (first sticky tar-like poo composed of cell, amniotic fluid, mucus, bile etc. swallowed while in the uterus), is, as Raymond Chaplin described in Deer, “shapeless, yellow and sticky like egg yolk”. Chaplin recalls finding a sickly fawn with its anus completely gummed up, suggesting this early grooming is essential for the fawn's wellbeing. When suckling but not grooming, Stadler found does remained in the alert posture he termed “sichern”, with head upright and ears pricked.
Once suckling has been terminated, the dam can focus on grooming other areas of the fawn. At Whipsnade, Endi Zhang recorded the grooming focus during 17 bouts, observing that dams concentrated mostly on the head (63% of the time), then the anogenital region (14%), followed by back (8%), flank (7%), chest (6%) and neck (2%). Fawns remained with their mothers for two minutes, on average, up to seven minutes in some cases, during which they played and/or were groomed, before moving away to find another hiding spot. The act of grooming appeared calming for the fawn and, in his thesis, Zhang wrote:
“Fawns often responded to being groomed by slowly nodding their heads and closing their eyes. Fawns were very rarely observed to groom their mothers; when they did so, the grooming was of a very short duration and directed only toward the mother's face and ear.”
Stadler observed that fawns also groomed themselves, and from less than 48 hours old. They were also observed to stand and scratch from about four days old.
As discussed, the suckling duration drops off rapidly during the first eight weeks or so of a fawn's life. Indeed, the oldest age at which a fawn was seen to suckle at Whipsnade was 89 days (about 13 weeks) and, using a regression equation based on 54 suckling bouts for which age was known, Stefan Stadler calculated 95 days as the age when suckling duration was zero. Consequently, it seems that weaning starts when a fawn is 10 to 12 weeks old and is completed at around 13 or 14 weeks, by early to mid-September.
While weaning can take three or four months, fawns begin to take solids early on. Raymond Chaplin commented, in Deer, how fawns begin nibbling at soil and blades of grass within a few days, postulating that soil may help counter the stomach acidity and acquire gut microorganisms or aid solidification of faeces. Stadler found that fawns manipulated objects within the first few days of life, some nibbling on grass during their first day; by a week old they regularly fed on grass and other vegetation. Similarly, Endi Zhang observed that grass intake increased steadily until fawns became regular grazers at around 10 days old, although initial attempts at grazing by very young fawns resulted in the blades being dropped immediately or rejected after brief chewing.
During feeding, Stadler observed fawns often tried to gain nose-to-nose contact with their mothers, giving the impression they were seeking information on the forage fed upon by their mothers. Stadler points to studies of bovids, where calves have been observed to stay very close to their mothers and “imitate” their feeding behaviour. We also have some limited data suggesting that rabbit kittens can gain information about the diet of their mother based on contact during nursing, although neither of these aspects have been studied in water deer to my knowledge.
By mid-July or early August, fawns will accompany their mother on grazing forays. Stadler described fawns gaining independence at an early age, and even by two weeks old they were regularly spending considerable periods of their active time alone or in loose fawn associations, sniffing, feeding, play-running, and so forth. Indeed, Stadler noted how:
“In 1987, as early as 13 July, the general impression was recorded that mother-young pairs were often hardly recognisable as such (unless suckling was seen).”