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Wed February 12, 2014
Parents With Noisy Babies Shouldn't Read This. They'll Be Too Jealous
If only ... if only, instead of that noisy, bawling, crying little person, you could have produced an antelope baby — and oh, the quiet! The blissful, total silence. When pronghorn antelopes have babies, nobody hears anything for weeks and weeks — which is the whole point.
Let's be one and see how it goes. Most antelopes have their babies in the open, in a meadow like the one below — we're in Montana, in the National Bison Range. It's springtime. You are about to have twins. (Pronghorns always have twins; it's just what they do.)
Out comes the first one. It drops (about 2 feet) onto the ground. You, the mother, eat the afterbirth, quickly, to get rid of any telltale smells. The baby doesn't cry. Instead, it stays very, very still, like the baby in the meadow below. Can you see it? If you follow the thicket of bush running through the center of the picture, it's directly in the middle — a little hint of brown ... no?
Then hit the "Revealed" button on the lower right.
Well, there's another one hiding in this next picture.
Stacey Dunn, who studies pronghorns in Idaho, took these photos. She says once the fawn hits the ground it flattens its body, keeps its head down, ears back ("Its ears are several inches long," she tells me, "sort of like little flags"); nothing protrudes, nothing moves, not a twitch. In this photo, the fawn is pretty close — tucked, I think, under the leafy plant a few feet in front of us.
The problem is that coyotes roam these spaces, and while adult antelopes can easily outrun anything on the plains — even the fastest coyote — it is now, when the babies are wobbly, slow and vulnerable, that they can be eaten. The coyotes want them. Meanwhile, as soon as the antelope mother finishes cleaning the first of her twins (which includes removing fecal matter), she is already having contractions for her second, so she has to find another spot — one hopes an unpredictable one — for fawn No. 2. No. 1, meanwhile, is left alone. Here's one ... its two eyes and nose are just visible, and I can see its ear. It's a telltale white.
Within an hour, it will be able to walk. Not very well, but in three days, it will be able to bolt and hit speeds (not for long, but long enough to escape a slow coyote) of 30 miles per hour. "After a few days," says Stacey, who tries to put identifying tags on fawns, "we can't keep up with them." They can't graze for food on their own, so these babies move almost entirely on energy provided by their moms. Pronghorn milk, says writer Craig Childs, "has 2 1/3 times the protein of cow milk and nearly four times the fat."
Mothers return every three or four hours for nursing, day and night, staying away in between so as not to reveal the babies' location. The coyotes, of course, are watching, tracking the mothers. Over the weeks, the young ones are getting stronger, but when their mothers go, they curl back down, getting quiet again.
Fawns born in April stay quiet till June.
"The technique works," writes Craig. Researchers can see them across a meadow, when the mothers are nursing, but once the baby goes back down to the ground, it vanishes. "I've almost stepped on them without realizing they were there," Stacey told me.
Labrador retrievers have been known to walk right over a fawn without stopping. So yes, nature has created baby mammals that don't make noise. They're not your babies, I know (but then again, you aren't being stalked by baby-eaters day and night). Different moms have different burdens, different pleasures. Antelope moms rolled the dice and got ... quiet.
Probably the coolest work on pronghorn mothers and their hidden fawns was published back in 1983 by John and Karen Byers. Their paper describes how coyotes watch antelopes; how antelopes watch coyotes; and how humans, trying to watch everybody, end up wandering around clueless. These two were incredibly persistent, sitting for hours in their truck, trying to track hiding animals, so it's a fun paper to read. Fun, in a very different way, is Craig Childs' delightful essay on pronghorn fawns in his incandescent book, The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild. If you've ever wondered what it's like to have accidental encounters with all manner of wild things, that's what Craig does, over and over. Stacey Dunn is a fool for antelopes. As a field researcher out of Moscow, Idaho, she has met a great many pronghorns, watched a lot of them not make it to adulthood; but one little antelope was so fetching, so admirable, and such a survivor, Stacey named her son after it. She's a zoologist. That's how she rolls.