A longtime deer biologist/wildlife professor wrote last week to share a unique encounter from the Massachusetts’ deer woods that left him baffled.
John McDonald of Westfield State University is a lifelong hunter and longtime deer researcher. He thought he’d seen just about everything possible in those pursuits, but that was before he got charged by a buck fawn in early December.
McDonald said he was gun-hunting near his home in western Massachusetts on the season’s final day. About 8:20 a.m., he heard deer approaching behind him, and saw a doe 6 yards away leading two fawns past his stand.
McDonald had an antlerless permit, so he shot the doe, which fled behind the hill with one fawn trailing close behind. The second fawn seemed confused. It stood a moment in the trail before moving off.
McDonald turned to follow the blood trail and soon saw the doe lying on its side about 70 yards away in some hemlocks. The second fawn was standing over it. McDonald walked toward the doe, expecting the fawn to flee any second. When he got within 20 yards of the two deer, however, the fawn saw him, instantly lowered its head and charged.
McDonald was confused and startled. Even though he half-expected the deer — a 6- to 7-month-old “button buck” — to barrel into him, he couldn’t believe it would be so aggressive.
After all, he’s shot many adult does over the years, and never seen or heard of an enraged fawn attacking a hunter. He’s also no slouch as a biologist and researcher. He’s taught at Westfield State University the past six years, and during the 1990s he trapped and darted many deer for research projects while working as Massachusetts’ chief deer guru.
In between those stints, McDonald taught at Southern Illinois University and worked 10 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He also served several years as president of The Wildlife Society until stepping down last year.
No matter how or where McDonald dropped deer by gun or syringe, other deer in the group — whether adults or offspring — fled immediately or circled rudderless for a minute before disappearing.
In still other situations curious bucks followed him during the rut, and adult does with tiny fawns made false charges at people who drew too close. But never did a deer of any age or either sex lower its head and charge as he approached another fallen whitetail.
And so McDonald stood his ground, amazed at the little buck’s audacity.
“It was an 80-pound button buck, so it’s not exactly a life-threatening situation,” McDonald said.
Just when McDonald thought the little buck might actually steamroll him, it stopped 6 feet away and stared.
McDonald waved his hands overhead and yelled, trying to scare off the little buck. Instead, the deer took a step closer. McDonald responded in kind, but the little buck didn’t budge.
When the standoff continued at five paces, McDonald grabbed a dead hemlock branch, snapped it off, and tossed it at the deer. It stood its ground and sniffed the branch.
McDonald found a bigger hemlock branch and conked the fawn on the head. This time it took one step to the side.
McDonald then noticed the doe struggling, so he finished it off with a second shot, which he had to fire directly over the fawn’s head. The shotgun blast caused the fawn to move off about 25 feet, where it stood and watched as McDonald went to the doe and pulled out his knife and antlerless tag.
The fawn watched him work a minute or so before finally wandering off toward its sibling. McDonald suspects the duo returned to his yard last night and browsed all the apple trees around his garden, but that’s the last evidence he’s seen of them.
He remains puzzled by the incident, and doesn’t think he just happened to be in the fawn’s escape path.
“I wasn’t standing on a trail, and it clearly saw me before it charged,” he said. “I’ve asked around, and no one I’ve talked to has ever heard of something like that. I contacted you, thinking maybe you or one of your readers had experienced something similar.”
Nope. Not me. I’ve shot many does the past 40 years, most of which were leading fawns and other antlerless deer. Most of the accompanying deer quickly scattered. I can think of only one fawn that stood over a fallen doe, but it fled as I approached.
In March 2009, however, I wrote about Jim Hintz, a North Woods logger in Fifield, who saw six adult deer — four does and two bucks without antlers — charge two wolves and drive them off with front-hoof punches and back-leg donkey kicks. The relevance? Deer aren’t defenseless.
We should also note that McDonald isn’t a monster for shooting an adult doe with fawns. That’s an accepted practice for controlling deer numbers, and it’s not a cruel, heartless act that dooms fawns. White-tailed fawns, which typically are born in May, can fend for themselves by Labor Day, and grow large enough by December to be nearly indistinguishable from adult females.
Besides, nature can be far crueler. Adult does often kick and club their offspring to drive them away from winter food sources until getting their fill. The species’ survival mandates that mature does be the last whitetails standing in late March and early April after brutally cold winters with deep snow. Fawns are the first to die, and adult bucks are next.
Even so, let’s acknowledge not all deer hunters take that detached, practical approach. I know some female hunters who can’t shoot a doe with fawns, even though they know all about herd dynamics, weaning schedules and nature’s stark indifference to individuals.
As one woman conceded: “Maybe it’s just the mama in me, but I can’t do it. But if I see a lone doe, or a group with another adult doe that’s possibly last year’s fawn, I’ll shoot those.”
Fascinating perspectives, huh?
What do you make of Professor McDonald’s encounter? Let me know if you’ve witnessed something similar while deer hunting, and I’ll share your observations with him.