June is a month when I often observe wild parenting during my walks. On the first day of June last year I was halfway down Pit Mound Trail when a doe ran off. Something in the way she moved made me believe she had a fawn nearby. I walked off-trail to look for it in the underbrush, but I couldn’t find it.
I turned around to retrace my steps, my feet crunching in the dead leaves on the forest floor. When I returned to the trail, I was surprised to see a wobbly-legged fawn directly behind me.
“I’m not your mother,” I said quietly to it over and over even as it came close to me and sniffed both my legs.
I tried to resume my walk alone, but the fawn followed at my heels. Apparently, a fawn doesn’t imprint as easily on its mother as animals do that spend most of their time with their mothers, according to Leonard Lee Rue III in his book The Deer of North America. And while a doe will return to nurse her fawn, she mostly stays away from it to keep predators from scenting her and finding her offspring.
A fawn will sometimes try to nurse any doe if it is hungry, and if it tries to nurse a doe that is not its mother, the doe will sniff the fawn carefully and will either walk away or hit the fawn with her head or forefoot.
Rue recounts watching a doe give birth and after she ate the afterbirth, she licked the fawn dry and then nursed it. Since that doe was living on a deer preserve, she was comparatively tame and allowed Rue to take photos. But the fawn tottered to its feet and went over to him. Rue asserted that the fawn had approached him because he was moving.
It would have been very easy for him to imprint the fawn, he thought, so he moved quickly away and the fawn returned to the resting doe. Furthermore, Rue maintained that the fawn had been attracted to his moving because does move their offspring from their birthplace as soon as they can walk at about 18 minutes of age.
I didn’t know all this at the time, but I did wonder if that explained why the fawn continued to follow me and that it had sniffed around my legs in search of milk.
The fawn and I continued to descend Pit Mound Trail a couple hundred feet to Ten Springs Trail. There I turned right in the direction the doe had run. Still, I couldn’t shake my little shadow.
Then, after a few minutes, the fawn must have decided I wasn’t its mother after all, and it went down the wooded slope below the trail. I watched from above as it sniffed and examined a couple likely places to settle down. Finally, it curled up beneath a shady tree beside a fresh clump of squawroot.
I was hopeful that the doe would find her fawn since it wasn’t far from where she had run when I had disturbed her. Also, I had been careful not to touch the little creature because Rue claimed that about five percent of does will abandon their fawns if they detect human scent on them.
A porcupine mother has a different approach to caring for her offspring. Her porcupette follows her when she goes off to forage in the night and lies down at the base of her parent’s feeding tree to wait for her. During the day, while her mother sleeps high in a tree, the porcupette stays hidden under logs or in the base of a tree nearby. But after six weeks of age, the porcupette travels off and finds different trees to rest in during the day, and the mother travels to find her porcupette every night. Often they forage together.
Here on our mountain, we see porcupettes wandering around on their own during the day. Last June 14, I walked down our hollow road. A porcupette walked into the road in front of me and appeared to be eating gravel. Since porcupines crave salt, especially in spring, I thought that might be what it was after, even though we never put salt on our private road. But our caretakers, their family and ours, drive on salted roads during the winter, and I wondered if salt had been left on our road from our tires.
Several researchers over the years in Alaska, Arizona and the Catskills in New York state have watched porcupines lick or try to eat salt-encrusted mud, sand, or even chew on wood or animal bones and all have been impregnated with salt.
The porcupette at last sensed my silent scrutiny and looked up. Then it retreated to the stream bank side and belly-flopped into the greenery, thinking it was hidden. I said to it several times that I wouldn’t hurt it and continued down the road. When I returned to the spot later it was gone. I assumed its mother was sleeping in a hemlock tree and the porcupette had been left on its own.
Bird parenting includes many strategies, and last June our forest was filled with bird species disturbed by my presence. One June morning I tried to sit on Alan’s Bench at the edge of the Norway spruce grove and was heartily scolded on and on by a pair of birds hidden in the spruces. Finally, I stood up, looked around, and caught a glimpse of one of the affronted birds—a brown thrasher. It must have had a nest somewhere on the ground in the thick brush near the bench.
That same day I made a stop at Coyote Bench on the Far Field Road. I watched what looked like a young black-and-white warbler foraging in the trees. Then there was scolding behind me as a male black-and-white warbler appeared with food in his beak. He came close enough that I could see that he had a caterpillar. He flew from branch to grapevine back and forth and then flew off. Next, a female black-and-white flew in with food in her beak. She was not as brightly-colored as the male, but not as dull-colored as the first bird I saw. From this I assumed the black-and-white warblers had been feeding at least one fledgling and possibly more hidden in the tangle of shrubs and vines in front of the bench.
But the Norway spruce grove remained the center of bird family activity. On June 17 a chipping sparrow emerged from a cluster of spruces with a large, green caterpillar in its beak. Both that bird and another chipping sparrow flew around as if they had a nest somewhere close by in one of the smaller spruces at the edge of the grove.
And late in June for several days I watched a family of black-capped chickadees as they fed their fledged young on a tangle of large fallen spruce trees where I found all of them foraging on subsequent days. Unlike the many birds that protested my presence, they didn’t act with alarm as I sat nearby.
Then, near the end of June, Guesthouse Trail became a center for concerned bird parents. One morning I heard a “chirr, chirr, chirr” from a Cooper’s hawk that dove low at me, first from one side of the trail and then the other. Assuming it had a nest in the area, first I followed a deer trail in one direction and the Cooper’s hawk was quiet. But when I went in the opposite direction, the bird’s protests grew louder. Yet although I peered into every large treetop, I could not find the nest.
I wasn’t worried about aggression from the large raptor because years ago a Cooper’s hawk pair had allowed me to observe their nest life from a hill a few hundred feet above the nest and often they sat quietly in the trees beside me. But every individual bird, as well as species, can behave differently from each other, as I soon learned.
On that day, as I neared the top of Guesthouse Trail, I heard songbird protesting and when I pished, I was hit a glancing blow atop my head by one songbird, as another flew about on low limbs of saplings and scolded. To my surprise, they were blue-headed vireos. Years ago, I had found and observed a blue-headed vireo on her nest and had never been attacked.
Two days later, I walked up Guesthouse Trail again. A Cooper’s hawk verbally scolded me and dove close to me three times, but that day a blue-headed vireo scolded but didn’t attack me. Still, I stayed clear of that trail for several days. But I never saw either the Cooper’s hawks or the blue-headed vireos again.
Different strokes for different mammal and bird parents. Yet all those creatures used different but effective methods to keep predators away from their vulnerable young.