Lathrop’s Deer: A Complex Society

by Barbara Walvoord

First published in Lathrop Lamp Post August 17, 2017

This fawn, recently photographed by resident Doris Atkinson on the east campus, is moving about with its mother, still nursing, but learning, among other things, the communication skills it will need as an adult.

Communication began at birth in May.  A loud bleat meant “Mom, where are you?” and a soft nursing murmur meant, “Mmm, this is good.”  By lying perfectly still, and having almost no body odor, our spotted fawn communicated to our coyotes and bobcats, “Fawn? What fawn?  There’s nobody here–just dappled shade.”

But now that our fawn is up and about, it must learn to communicate within a complex social unit consisting of related females, their fawns and yearlings, and adult males, all of which have contiguous or overlapping home ranges.  As autumn approaches, the yearling males will leave the home herd to find a new home range with a new social group

To facilitate all this, deer have to communicate. Deer have scent-producing glands between their toes, at the corners of their eyes, inside their hind legs at the ankles, and outside the hind legs between ankles and hooves.  The deer leave their scent just by their hooves touching the ground, by rubbing the corners of their eyes on twigs and branches, and also by squatting to urinate so that the urine flows down their hind legs and carries the hind-leg gland scents to the ground.

When a deer is startled, it will communicate “danger” to its mates by stomping on the ground, blowing out its breath, and raising its tail to show the white underside.

As fall breeding season begins, bucks will communicate “This is my breeding territory” by licking branches, rubbing their antlers on trees, or scraping leaves from beneath a tree and urinating on the scraped earth. Meeting another buck, they’ll communicate their toughness by standing on hind legs and pawing, lowering their heads with their ears in different positions, and presenting a lateral view of the body.  They’ll shove and push another male: “She’s MINE.”

Later in winter, the herd will tighten up its territory again, working within their complex social networks to survive harsh weather, stay safe, and, for the moms, carry the babies that will come again in spring to join this complex, communicating society.

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