Water Deer Reproduction - Hiding Behaviour

Even very young water deer fawns can move significant distances while their mother is off foraging. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Fawns develop rapidly. Typically, they can stand within about 30 minutes and walk within an hour or so. Stefan Stadler observed how fawns tended to lie-up quite close (i.e., within a couple of metres) of the birth site for the first 24 hours, but Arnold Cooke notes that they may move as far as 114 metres (125 yds) within their first day, allowing the litter to quickly become quite widely dispersed. Nonetheless, in his 1982 article the Shooting Times and Country Magazine, Bob Lawrence described what he called a “territorial identity” among fawns that's established within the first 24 hrs after birth, and which meant he was able to approximately predict where they could be found. This “territory” is not necessarily anywhere near the birthplace. At Whipsnade Endi Zhang observed something similar; fawns often relocated close to, or at, the site where they were captured to be ear-tagged at two days old. Stefan Stadler described how fawns tended to remain in or close to their original home range even once fully independent, found anywhere between five and 80 metres (87 yards) from their birth spot within the first six weeks or so. At Branféré Zoological Park in France, Gérard Dubost and colleagues recorded fawns limiting their movements to a small area of about 0.63 hectares (1.6 acres) during the first 21 days of life.

The proclivity of fawns to move comparatively large distances and lie-up on their own (Stadler reported that most fawns were found singly, with only the occasional pair or trio being encountered), coupled with observations that they appear to choose their own resting spots, raises the question of how the doe finds her fawn(s), given that she may spend her time resting or feeding several hundred metres away. The answer appears to lie largely in the dam's memory, although vocalisation, scent and the fawn's attraction to movement may also be factors.

Unlike herding species, such as red and fallow deer, and akin to roe deer, water deer fawns do not appear to form creches, although littermates may be found feeding and playing together.

Hide and seek

As a typical "hider species", water deer mothers leave their fawns lying up in long vegetation while they're off feeding, returning to suckle periodically. Quite how the mothers relocate their fawns, given that the youngsters may move around during the day and choose their own hiding spot, seems to have a lot to do with memory and scent. - Credit: Sharon Scott

Anyone who has spent time watching deer will have noticed that early in the fawning season the fawns/kids/calves are in “hider mode”, and it must be emphasised that it is completely normal for a mother to leave her fawn lying up somewhere while she is elsewhere. Indeed, at Branféré Zoological Park in France, Christiane and Robert Mauget found that, even while lactating, does spent only about 23% of their time resting with or tending to their fawn(s). Similarly, Stefan Stadler observed that dams at Whipsnade always laid up (varying distances) away from their fawn(s) and were away for several hours at a time.

Typically with deer, females are highly attuned to any potential threat in the broad vicinity of their young and will start alarm vocalisation to distract potential predators once they breach what I refer to as a “comfort sphere”. This gives the impression that dams remember the approximate area in which they left their youngster and, in his review of ungulate mother-infant relationships, Peter Lent concluded that the mothers of most hider species “will not approach and make contact with their infant at its hiding place. Rather, they await its emergence from some distance away”. Indeed, Endi Zhang remarked on how dams at Whipsnade became restless just prior to visiting their fawn, grazing intermittently while moving gradually towards the location - sometimes a doe moved deliberately and directly to her fawn, while at others it would take up to 10 minutes of hesitant approach. Paul Childerley has, however, written about how fawns are often easily found in standing cereal crops by following a distinct “trod” made by the doe to the seat, suggesting that they may return to their fawns via the same direct route repeatedly.

Stadler, during his Ph.D. studies at Whipsnade, observed that it was often the dam that initiated contact by moving to the area of last interaction. In some cases, a soft whistle was emitted that seemed to attract the fawn's attention, a call perhaps more common than currently documented owing to the difficulty Stadler had hearing it. Stadler's impression was that the females chose the general area where the fawn(s) will hide, but the specific hiding spot is chosen by the fawn itself, a conclusion that Zhang also arrived at. That the approach of the doe initiates contact with the fawn corresponds with other observations suggesting fawns are attracted to animals moving nearby. In his research notes, for example, Raymond Chaplin described how Pippa's fawns were wandering around within a couple of hours of birth and were “attracted to any movement that I made, or by deer in the lower half of the garden”. This had changed radically by day two, however, when the fawns showed a dislike of other animals (including humans), and they appeared fully identified with their mother by day three. In his 1953 article to& Country Life, Kenneth Whitehead noted how a hand reared water deer doe trusted no one but the family who raised her for the first seven months of her life, before becoming “absurdly tame” and allowing anyone to stroke her and very difficult to perturb, even with loud noises.

In his Ph.D. thesis, Stadler recounted how, on 26th August 1987, a female fawn was found lying about 10 metres (11 yds) from an adult male when the buck was disturbed by a vehicle, causing it to stand and flee in the direction of the fawn. The fawn immediately stood and ran towards the male, making no effort to establish identity of the adult, and started looking for teats. When the fawn realised her mistake, she at once returned to and laid down exactly in her former resting spot. At Branféré Zoological Park, Gérard Dubost and colleagues observed how fawns were apparently solicited by the approach of unfamiliar adults to follow them to even quite remote places, this being a cause of mortality among fawns in the park.

For the first few hours after birth, water deer are attracted to any large moving objects in the vicinity. Here, a young fawn, approaches a female blackbuck (_Antilope cervicapra_) at Whipsnade, having been disturbed from its resting spot by a fallow deer. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Interestingly, the male in Stadler's description showed no sign of evasive or aggressive behaviour towards the fawn that attempted to suckle, despite that often being their reaction. Indeed, several authors have commented on how unrelated adults of both sexes can be hostile towards fawns and, in June 2019 at Whipsnade, I observed a fawn no more than a couple of days old approach both a pregnant blackbuck antelope (Antilope cervicapra) and a water deer buck, both of which acted aggressively towards it. Writing in 1953, however, the 12th Duke of Bedford implied that some encounters are amiable, recounting how he had seen a fawn “teasing an old buck, possibly his father” and was “surprised by the latter's forbearance and good nature”.

Finally, regarding locating fawns, Sharon Scott reported an intriguing instance during the summer of 2020. Sharon described seeing a fawn urinate and then walk around in a circle a couple of times before moving away to lie down. When the mother returned, it apparently followed the track taken by the fawn, nose-to-ground, suggesting it was following the scent trail. While this seems a risky strategy, advertising the fawn's presence to passing predators, we know fawns of other species urinate on their tarsal glands from soon after birth (e.g., white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus), which possibly helps the mother sniff them out given that their scent glands are yet to fully develop. Sharon has previously described to me how she has always found twins and triplets lying apart and, when returning to suckle, the dam visits them in order of decreasing distance (i.e., the furthest fawn first, then next furthest, then nearest) before returning to her resting spot. Under such circumstances, the individual scent of the fawns may help her keep track of the litter's dispersion. It should be noted that I have not come across any similar reports in the literature.

A short compilation of a water deer fawn following its mother (dam). When the dam returns to suckle, the fawn(s) may follow her for a while before choosing a new lying-up spot. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

During his studies at Whipsnade, Endi Zhang noted how, for the first two weeks, fawns always chose sites with thick vegetation, especially nettles. After suckling, without any apparent prompting from the mother, the fawn would move 20 to 50 metres (22-55 yds) away and curl up. The preference for resting spot characteristics changed once the fawns had reached about two-weeks-old. Nearly 87% of a fawn's time during the first 10 days after birth was spent lying up, and this tended to be among tall vegetation (i.e., 50-70cm / 20-28 in.). Beyond two weeks old, fawns spent less time lying-up and were more likely to be found resting in more exposed locations (e.g., with short grass). At Woburn, Raymond Chaplin observed that fawns preferred to sleep in the open, even during the rain. In his 1977 book Deer, he described how when picked up and put under cover the fawns immediately moved back out into the rain and would stand up periodically to shake themselves, as adults do. Chaplin didn't say what age the fawns were at this point.