We often imagine the most protective and ferocious mothers in nature to be large and frightening. The mother lioness will lactate enough to feed not only her cub but also all the other cubs within the pride. And we all know about mama bears that fiercely protect their cubs at all costs. The very root of nature is referred to as MOTHER nature, a strong yet unforgiving force that drives even the strongest of hurricanes. But what about a mama grouse? Or a mama deer? Not that same intimidating image we are used to. But, there are many other impressive mothers in nature besides bears and lions.
Working in the Ottawa National Forest for the last three months revealed to me many of these other notable mothers. Deer are one of the greatest prey species, and yet surprisingly are very fearless mothers. Aside from giving birth, does will immediately clean their fawns off (usually giving birth to twins), eat their placenta, feed the little ones, and then move them anywhere from 50 to 180 meters away from the birth site—all within two hours of giving birth!! This is to ensure the safety of fawns—away from the birth site and hidden from predators. Talk about no bed rest.
A fawn’s natural defense against predators is remaining still and scentless. Because of this, the mother will only visit the fawns every couple of hours to either feed or move them to a new place of cover, intending to not draw extra attention to them. However, in cases where a predator does stumble across her young, she will make a warning huff noise and stomp her hooves at the intruder. Brave for an animal that usually runs at the crack of a stick. During our field season, we were often huffed at and stared down by mother deer while conducting research on her young—a reaction that both surprised and fascinated me. You would not expect an animal so low on the food chain to so readily put up a fight. There have even been records of does fighting off coyotes.
Another unexpected mother we came across was the female ruffed grouse. Being another prey and game species, grouse also nest on the ground, making their broods even more vulnerable. However, when we got too close to a nest, we were always greeted by a mother hen rushing towards us with menacing, raised plumage, and repeated hissing noises. Hens will often charge predators like fox, coyote, or weasels to distract and allow time for her chicks to hide under the closest brush.
So while it is commonly known that you should never get between a mother and her babies, don’t forget that this can pertain to more than just big mama bears. Mothers of all shapes and sizes can display a surprising, aggressive, and very respectable challenge to any that dare get too close to her young. After all, mother knows best.
In what ways does maternity differ in humans and animals? In what ways is it similar?