Tuesday, February 2, 2010

White-Tailed Deer

I took these photos on a late afternoon drive on back roads. Temperatures were in the 20’s. The recent snowfall reflected the colors in the fading western sky. The Antietam National Battlefield, protected from hunters, was aswarm with herds of white-tailed deer. The young deer pictured were grazing in a family group directly behind a house. Their elders remained close to the forest edge, but three of these youngsters came running eagerly toward my car, their legs flailing like awkward stilts. But they halted abruptly, as if their mother had called out to them, still too far away for me to capture a good closeup. The expression on their faces here seems to say "why did mom tell us to stop? I'm looking but I don't see any dangers. "

I realize I tend to dismiss white tails as not worthy of my attention due to the overpopulation and frequent sightings. I am upset by the damage to formerly favorite places like nearby Catoctin Mountain National Park due to over browsing. Perhaps too it is a way for me to cope with the reality of all the hunting that goes on each fall—a way to distance myself. So I’m writing this post to correct my prejudice and teach myself something about these animals.

Once can imagine the ancient predators of these deer —cougars, wolves and indigenous human tribes. But they were extirpated from these parts--not all that long ago. Bear still live here and coyotes have arrived from the west but these animals can only take down a young fawn or perhaps an adult deer impaired with an injury or illness.

I am learning to respect hunting as a tradition, especially when the meat is preserved or eaten and other parts of the animal utilized. (Click here for a fascinating article about different traditional uses of parts of the deer.) From a naturalist standpoint, I know the deer population needs controlling so they don’t completely decimate the environment and I consider it potentially a humane activity.

I dislike it when I come upon the leavings of a slaughtered deer ditched illegally along the roadside or in a field, as Squirrel and I did on the Eastern Shore of Maryland this past fall--right at the entrance to a wetlands nature preserve. Disposing of deer carcasses in this way is a serious threat to human health especially if near water, and it also endangers the deer themselves because it can spread Chronic Wasting Disease, a serious problem in other states, but which I believe has not yet surfaced in Maryland. Deer carrion is a source of food for scavengers like vultures, hawks, eagles, and foxes.

I can hardly think of deer without remembering the impact of reading Felix Salten's books as a child. Many people are surprised to learn that the character Bambi was not an original creation of Walt Disney’s. Felix Salten was a highly successful and prolific author in Austria. His book Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was published in 1923 . It is a "coming of age" story about a young male roe deer. In 1928, the English translation, Bambi: A Life in the Woods was a Book of the Month club sensation in the U.S.

The Salten family was Jewish; in 1936 Adolf Hitler had Salten’s works banned. Salten and his family left Austria (which by then had become part of Germany) in 1938, settling in Switzerland. In 1939 he published a sequel -- Bambi’s Children: The Story of a Forest Family, which details the deer's struggle to survive while being pursued by "the thundersticks."

Now that I know Salten’s back story I will need to go back and re-read Bambi's Children--it must reflect some of what was happening in Europe at the time, similar to Richard Adam’s Watership Down. Based on Adam's battle experiences in 1944 Holland, Watership Down is about another easily dismissed animal, the rabbit.

The Bambi books are written in a simple but not childish style. The animal characters are anthropomorphized, but the descriptions of the forest and the facts of their lives are realistic. The Disney animated version of Bambi was released in 1942 -- it has moments of lyrical beauty. The movie’s artists took great care to accurately portray deer anatomy and behavior.

The original Bambi was a Western Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), native to Europe, about half the size of our white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus virginianus) native to southern Canada and most of the U.S. However, these two species share many characteristics.

A male white-tailed deer on average weighs about 135 pounds, females 120. White-tails have a reddish coat in summer, a gray-brown coat in the winter. White-tails communicate in many different ways, including sight, sound and scent. They snort or raise their tails to signal danger to other deer in the vicinity. Deer can make a range of sounds that are unique to each individual, including bleating, squealing, snorting and grunting.

Deer prefer habitat where wooded areas intersect with open areas. They feed in both areas, and can use the forest for cover. The open areas may be croplands, pasture or landscaped yards. When portions of forested areas are cleared for residential development and roads, or conversely, when croplands are transformed into residential areas with trees and landscaping, habitat for deer is created. It is thought that roe deer proliferated during the Neolithic period when agriculture began clearing forest in Europe..

Capable of leaping over a barrier up to 12 feet in height, white-tails are heedless of most fences. As many a rural home owner learns to her frustration, white-tails feed on a wide range of plants. Attracted to woody shoots and stems (such as freshly planted ornamental shrubs or tree seedlings), deer also eat nuts, acorns, berries, mushrooms, leaves and grasses. Their favorite cultivated crops are soybeans and corn.

Perhaps we should thank them for grazing on invasive plants like honeysuckle, poison ivy, and green briar. As ruminants, deer can eat these highly fibrous foods due to a digestive system with a four chambered stomach. Partially digested food is returned to the mouth so they can “chew their cud” which is then swallowed again to complete the process. Cows, bison, big horn sheep, goats, llamas, camels and giraffes are also ruminants.

Hunters prize the bucks’ multi-pronged antlers as trophies of their prowess (the deers’ or the hunters?). These are termed antlers because they are lost and replaced each year unlike horns which grow continuously on animals like sheep and goats. Antlers on does are extremely rare but do occur.

One can often find shed antlers lying in the woods. Antlers begin sprouting on the male deers’ heads in late March and early April. Skin and blood vessels cover the bone of the antlers as they grow. This covering is known as “velvet.” In late summer, the males’ testosterone levels rise, the bone of the antlers hardens and the velvet dries and falls off. Deer scrape and scratch their antlers against trees and other objects to help shed the velvet. The color of antlers ranges from white to brown. Biologists don’t seem to be certain about why—perhaps heredity.

In October, the shortening length of the daylight hours triggers the breeding season. Male white-tailed deer use their antlers to establish dominance and fight for breeding rights with the does. By November most does are pregnant. In January, the bucks' testosterone levels drop and the antlers fall off. The males who are in the best physical condition lose their antlers last. Gestation ends in May or June when the fawns are born. Most fawns are single births, but does in good condition often have twins.

A white-tailed deer's home territory is usually less than one square mile. Family groups consist of a mother deer and her fawns. When a doe has no fawns, she is usually solitary. Bucks may live in groups of three or four, but are mostly solitary in mating season. The large groups I saw on my drive appeared to consist of several adult females with their half-grown offspring.

Newborn fawns lie still in a carefully chosen spot and are visited several times a day by the mother, to allow nursing and grooming of the infant. After a few weeks, the fawn is led by its mother to explore the world beyond and sample vegetative foods. A fawn is supposedly capable of living independently of its mother at only two months of age. But the young deer I saw were enjoying a lengthy association with their family group.

Many facts about deer taken from an article by Brian Eyler, Deer Project Leader, for Maryland DNR.