Finding a newborn fawn is like finding a needle in a haystack. Except that haystack is 18,000 acres big and the needle can move. These were my sentiments over the summer while working on a deer research project. Finding newborn fawns is nearly impossible. Even with infrared monoculars and radio telemetry, the spotted little animals are practically invisible. We’d searched the same area for hours looking for the fawn, and had only succeeded in stumbling across several very unhappy water moccasins. It was mid July, we’d just had an afternoon rain shower, and the sun was now beating down on us, making the waist high brush a miserable sauna. After close to two hours of searching, we finally gave up and started walking back to the truck. And as luck would have it, only feet from the same path that all three of us used to walk in, we looked down to see the fawn. It was just sitting there, perfectly still, and we’d all walked past it repeatedly over the course of several hours. Unfortunately, that scenario happened multiple times. But it’s probably a good thing that fawns are so hard to find. If they weren’t, coyotes and bobcats would be getting fatter than they already are off of them. And just how fat they’re getting is what this research project focused on. Fawns are, after all, nature’s hamburgers.
When darting season ended in late May, it was time to start collecting fawns as they were born. A task that proved to be much easier said than done. Adult does were tranquilized, radio collared, and monitored until we received signal of a birth, and then our job was to find the fawn(s), collar it, and monitor it over the course of the summer. Thick cover, and does that were continually on the move, even while giving birth, made a difficult task nearly impossible. But against all odds, we still managed to find and collar many fawns for the study.
The purpose of monitoring them was to compare fawn mortality in areas where coyote control is practiced versus areas where it is not. When a fawn died, it was our job to locate the body, and swab the collar/body for later DNA analysis. Those swabs would later help us determine the probable culprit in the fawn’s death.
Whitetail Deer Fawns with collarsOften times, the culprits were coyotes, and one of the most enjoyable things I got to do was “control” coyotes during my off time. With nightvision, FLIR technology, and an electronic game call, I spent many nights calling in coyotes. Though most nights were unsuccessful, the ones that were proved to be not only exciting, but a lot of fun. Probably my favorite coyote encounter happened back in April.
We’d spent the entire evening trying to dart does. In my usual good luck, I’d shot and missed one earlier that night after stalking her for close to 30 minutes. I was tired, and it was already past midnight. But rather than go to bed, we opted to give coyote hunting a brief try. Our call had some absurd number of animal calls on it. Just about everything you can think of from Deer to Elephants. And it just so happened that there were about 25 different calls for coyotes. We had our go-to call that we almost always used, but after calling for a few minutes, I decided to switch it up. The only problem was that they were listed on the remote control as “Coyote Howl #2. Coyote Howl #3.” Etc. And I couldn’t remember what was what. So on a whim, I just picked one: Coyote Howl #21.
What came out of the call was one of the most horrible sounds I’ve never heard. It sounded about like someone putting a dog in a blender. The worst part was that it was LOUD. Very loud. And the horrible gut wrenching noises echoed through, what moments before, had been peacefully silent woods. I frantically mashed the pause button on the remote, but nothing was happening. The noise continued and I’m sure every animal within a square mile was wondering what poor creature was suffering such a long, painful, and noisy death.
I employed every electronic troubleshooting method that I know: I smacked the remote around, cursed wildly at it, and even threw it to my buddy, sending the batteries flying off into the darkness somewhere. Nothing seemed to make it work. The call continued to screech one of the most unnatural and terrible sounds I’ve ever heard. Finally, one of friends crawled out to the call, and shut it off manually.
We couldn’t help but laugh. The night was ruined and we might as well have been playing the elephant call. We were sure nothing was going to come in after that terrible display of calling. So we stood up to get ready to leave, and I scanned the field one last time with the FLIR.
But something caught my eye. A small white dot that wasn’t there earlier was moving toward us. It continued to get closer and I soon realized what it was.
“Yote…Yote. Get ready”, I whispered to the guys that were with me. It was sprinting directly at us from about 400 yards away. I watched as it got closer. 300 yards, 250, 200, 150. And the moment it hit 100 yards, our spotlight shined it.
We’ll probably never know why that coyote decided to come to such a terrible sounding call. I certainly wouldn’t come running to such a sound. But then again, I’m also not a coyote.
With the field seasons completed, now is the time for data analysis. It will take some time to complete, but I’m interested to see what sort of impact coyotes are having on these fawns and whether or not controlling them makes any sort of difference. But while we wait for results, I can’t help but look forward to the actual hunting season. I cannot describe how good it will feel to sling an arrow or pull the trigger on a rifle instead of a tranquilizer gun. I’m tired of dealing with needles; especially the ones that hide in haystacks.