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Are Fawns Really Born Without a Scent?

Have you ever heard that fawns, or baby deer, are born without a scent to help keep them safe? It’s a commonly held belief, and it’s pretty close to the truth.

A white-tailed fawn standing in tall grasses and vegetation.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Fawns do have a scent when they are born, but it is very faint and hard for other animals to pick up. The reason they have very little scent is because their scent glands are not fully developed when they are born.


Because their scent is so faint at birth, it makes it more difficult for potential predators to sniff them out. This is also why their mothers leave them alone for long periods. They are left by themselves so their mothers’ scent does not rub off on them, making them easier to find.


During this period, the mothers, or does, return several times each day to nurse the fawns. Although she may not be with her fawn or fawns, she's rarely very far away. The does are not usually more than 100 yards from their babies, and they are always keeping a watchful eye on them.

 

Words to know

Dapple: To mark with spots or rounded patches.

Faint: Barely visible or perceptible.

Protective: Capable of or intended to protect someone or something.

Wean: To change to food other than a mother’s milk.

 

It's not just being nearly odorless that helps fawns remain hidden from potential predators. Those white spots on their coats are another protective measure. When we see them up and walking, those white spots may seem noticeable, but when their mothers leave them hidden in tall grasses or other hiding spots, they help them blend in.


Those white spots mimic dappled sunlight falling to the forest floor. The dappling effect, coupled with having only a very light scent, makes it more difficult for predators to find them. The spots typically fade by winter, after the young deer are old enough to survive on their own.


In Illinois, fawns are usually born in late May or early June. They can stand and even run within a few hours of being born, but they don't usually start going with their mothers on short trips until a few weeks after they are born. They are typically fully weaned between four and five months after being born.


Because fawns are often left alone for long stretches, well-meaning people often think they have been abandoned or need to be rescued. This is almost never the case. Does rarely abandon their fawns, and when people are trying to help, the mothers are likely nearby keeping a close watch.


If you come across a fawn alone, you should quickly and quietly back away unless it is somewhere it is likely to be injured. If you know the fawn is orphaned or the fawn has been wandering alone and crying for more than a day, contact a wildlife rehabilitator that is licensed to care for deer. Do not attempt to care for the fawn yourself. They require special care, and your help could cause more harm than good.


If you must move the fawn for its own safety, look for a safe spot nearby so its mother can easily find it. A doe will not abandon a fawn that has been in contact with a human.

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