Column: Baby animals learning the skills of life

Published 10:06 am Thursday, June 25, 2009

Yesterday I was driving a rural road and saw the funniest thing. Ahead there was a really young fawn standing on the shoulder of the road. Just a wee little thing that obviously hadn’t been in this strange new world long.
As I slowed down and got closer I could almost feel his panic. I’m sure he was thinking, “Oh, Lord, I’ve really messed up this time. What am I supposed to do?” Of course, mom was surely close by but she couldn’t give advice now. There wasn’t anything but pavement and gravel around him but despite the lack of cover he did the only thing he knew. Turning his head away but unable to resist walling his eyes at me to see what his fate was going to be, he began to crouch.
Bending all four legs in unison he ever so slowly and smoothly sank down onto the gravel and laid as motionless as a pile of dirt. My truck was barely moving as I pulled alongside him. He clenched his eyes shut, “Okay, I’m a goner. Hurry up and get it over with.” I can only imagine his surprise and relief as I continued on.
There’s a newly sprouting soy bean field adjacent to our yard and the deer find the fresh, new shoots mighty tasty. A while ago a doe was out there with her itty-bitty fawn. It was apparently one of his first outings for he stuck on her heels like glue. There was no frolicking and wandering as you might expect. At this stage of his education his only mission was to match mom’s hind foot step for step. It was cute to watch how intent he was in carrying out his duty.
Seldom do we have the opportunity to see just how much learning and practice it takes for baby animals to make do in their new world. Earlier I had a ball watching the young red-winged blackbirds around the pond in our yard. Only able to fly a few feet at a time, they couldn’t resist trying to land on vertical cattail stalks like mom and dad so adeptly do. With a great amount of awkward flapping they’d flop onto a stalk. But, alas, their tiny feet and unconditioned muscles couldn’t grip tight enough. Slowly they’d start sliding down the stem. Just before a dunk in the pond was imminent they’d flutter their way to a hopefully easier to deal with horizontal willow branch. But more often than not they’d land, lose their balance and end up hanging upside down.
Eventually they’d get it right and after a bit of rest try it all over again.
Then there’s the baby rabbit that’s addicted to the clover just outside my workshop door. The first few times I stepped out the door when he was there had him totally confused. He’d stare at me like, “Who the heck are you? Mom didn’t say anything about this. Am I supposed to run? I really haven’t had enough clover yet.” Eventually he concluded I’m pretty harmless and as long as I don’t move too fast he’s okay with me. And the rabbit/carrot thing? He says that’s for cartoons. Clover is much better.
Snapping turtles face one of the toughest baby challenges. New hatchlings not much bigger than a quarter must somehow find their way to water sometimes a distance of a mile or more. Last summer I found a batch of them around our yard during their monumental do-or-die exodus. Several were doing fine, making their way through the grass pretty much in the right direction. One got confused crossing the gravel driveway. For over an hour he just went round and round in a small circle, unable to decide which way to go. Finally the wife took pity on him and carried him to the creek. Later I found another dead near the garage, apparently unable to find his way around this obstacle.
We have labeled these baby learning processes survival of the fittest. When you think about it, though, with no direction or experience to draw on it’s more often survival of the incredibly lucky. Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at