Deer Instincts Can Trigger Weird Behaviors, Like This Doe Eating a Dead Fawn

June 29, 2021 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

A lot of deer behavior is pre-programmed, not learned. The way they react to certain stimuli is instinctual as a result of millions of years of testing, with death serving as an effective cancellation of deer that made poor choices. Survivors passed on superior programming, and on rare occasions these natural algorithms produce surprising, grim, even disturbing actions. We believe photographs captured by NDA member Cody Altizer of Virginia, which show a doe eating the mangled remains of a fawn, are a good example.

Some facts are unknown, like whether the fawn belonged to the doe, but here’s what Cody knows, as posted on the Instagram account of the Dear Hunter Project:

“Last week, I was on a sunrise drive enjoying the morning and hoping to catch a newborn fawn up on its feet or a buck well on his way to an impressive set of antlers. I found a fawn, but not at all how I expected. I drove by a field of freshly cut hay well before sunup and noticed a doe with her head down feeding. It was dark and foggy, so I drove past not giving it a second thought. Nearly an hour later, with the sun up and in much better light, I decided, for some reason, to make a second pass by the same field. I noticed the same doe, in the same exact spot. I thought it was peculiar and that she might have just given birth and was standing guard over a newborn fawn so I went in for a closer look. As I stopped, she lifted her head, and plain as day, I could see in her mouth the mangled carcass of a dead fawn. I watched for several minutes as she licked, chewed, and consumed part of the carcass. It’s most likely that the fawn was hit by the mower, or perhaps killed by a predator, but it was still an incredible sight to witness. Some biologists might consider this to be some form of cannibalism; a deer consuming another deer. Others might simply view it as the doe taking advantage of protein source, not unlike a buck eating his velvet.”

This is not “cannibalism.” This doe didn’t seek out the fawn for food, she didn’t kill it herself, and she wouldn’t scavenge a fawn carcass under normal circumstances.

Cody shared his photos with me, and I discussed them with my NDA teammate Kip Adams, a certified wildlife biologist and our Chief Conservation Officer. We agree, this is not “cannibalism.” This doe doesn’t “know” she’s eating parts of a dead fawn. She didn’t seek it out for food, she didn’t kill it herself, and she wouldn’t scavenge a fawn carcass under normal circumstances. What you see is an instinctual reaction to specific conditions.

In his own writing, Kip has pointed out that a doe will usually eat the afterbirth when a fawn is born. This behavior has several survival benefits. First, it recycles nutrients back into the doe’s body when she needs them badly. Pregnancy is enormously draining on a doe’s body, and once her fawns are on their own feet, she’s going to need all the nutrition she can get to produce high-quality milk for them, let alone her own maintenance and survival. Though shocking to us, especially when we think of deer as herbivores, consuming the afterbirth provides a large dose of nutrition. 

The bigger lesson for humans from Cody’s story? If you own that grassy field, clover plot or brushy cover, don’t mow it while fawns are this young.

As a bonus, or maybe even the primary goal, cleaning up the afterbirth and the fawn reduces the chances of attracting scavengers or predators to the scene. As Kip has also written, a doe will even consume the feces and urine of her fawns for the first few days of life – again, repulsive to us, and yet a perfect survival instinct. A doe is not taught to do this. Each doe becomes an extreme loner when she’s about to give birth and does not tolerate the presence of “apprentice” mothers. Also, it’s not likely she learns it from experience. There’s not enough time for that in the lifespan of a prey animal. A doe giving birth to fawns for the first time usually exhibits these behaviors, because they are instinctive.

So, we believe Cody’s doe was seen eating a fawn carcass because of an instinctual reaction to stimuli that are very similar to a birth scene: blood and organs on the ground at fawning time. Very likely, this fawn belonged to this doe. She may have even given birth to it only hours before it was killed by a mower. She likely returned to locate it after the mower was gone. 

“It’s possible the fawn was stillborn and she was still trying to consume the afterbirth, but I’m not entirely sure,” said Kip. “I’ve never heard of a doe eating a fawn for a protein source. Whatever happened to the fawn, I believe what we’re seeing is the instinct of eating the afterbirth.”

The same week Cody took his photos, a viral trail-camera video appeared on social media showing a doe attacking and killing a hawk that had just caught a rabbit. I believe that video shows the same sort of instinctual reaction we see in Cody’s photos. The rabbit’s scream sounded much like a fawn would sound when attacked by a predator, triggering the doe’s protective instincts. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a fawn, or that the doe stood to gain no benefit whatsoever from saving the rabbit or killing the hawk. In fact, I wonder if the rabbit’s squeal isn’t itself a survival tactic meant to imitate a dying fawn. I mean, a mother rabbit is not going to fight off a hawk or other large predator, but if you can pretend to be a fawn, help might arrive in a larger form, as it did in this case. It worked: the rabbit escaped from the hawk.

So, the right stimuli at the right time and place triggered both does to behave in an unusual way.

The bigger lesson for humans from Cody’s story? If you own that grassy field, clover plot or brushy cover, don’t mow it while fawns are this young. New habitat research is telling us that mowing is the poorest of management choices anyway, whether we are growing clover or producing “old field” cover. Unless there’s some agricultural necessity, like making hay for your livestock, park the bush hog.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.