Wild Life / white-tailed deer

celebrating small victories

Hi, friends — this issue marks the one-year anniversary of Wild Life! It all began with wild turkeys, and here we are 34 animals later with white-tailed deer, below. To celebrate small victories, I’m starting a paid/gift option with a new feature Rabbit, Rabbit. Arriving on the first of every month, Rabbit, Rabbit will bring good luck, and we’ll also learn more about rabbits (wild rabbits, pet rabbits, rabbit legends and rabbit lore—and possibly the three in my driveway right now). Here’s the link, or click on the rabbit above.

The regular twice-a-month newsletter will continue for free with a focus on the many animals we encounter, and some that we don’t (I’m curious about the deep sea, for example). Gift subscriptions are great for older kids, as stocking-stuffers and whatnot; share your love for all the creatures out there. Biodiversity is under threat, with millions of species at risk of extinction. I’ll always send some of the proceeds to the scientists and organizations working to support wildlife. I like the idea that art and stories can be useful in multiple ways.

Here in Connecticut, the leaves are off the trees, opening up skies we haven’t seen since April. Night arrives at 5pm, darker than ever. Ambling through forest paths and suburban parks are white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), their antlers poised somewhere between bones and branches.

As always, please send me your stories, and thank you for reading. —Amy Jean

White-tailed deer are big animals, the stuff of fairytales, powerful and attractive with charcoal-black eyes. They meet us at eye level. I once saw a big buck at the edge of the woods near our house. He was maybe 30 feet away when I spotted him, standing 6 feet tall and looking right at me. I looked back, and, for a moment, we just looked at each other, seemingly on the same terms. It was the most neutral encounter with a wild animal I’ve ever experienced.

White-tailed deer get around. We see them in small herds through the woods, sauntering easily or at pace, tails flicking in the light. Deer communicate heavily through scent, but their striking tails are white flags raised in alarm, warning others of danger. They are faster and more agile than you could possibly imagine for a body shaped like an old Volvo—they run at speeds of up to 30 mph and can leap over a 9-foot fence without breaking stride.

Deer are mainly nocturnal, though you may catch sight of them at dawn or dusk, and occasionally in full daylight. In winter, I often find their heart-shaped hoof prints in the morning snow, evidence of close snooping.

As with many, many animals in North America, white-tailed deer were hunted to near extinction in the nineteenth century (to a few hundred thousand by the 1930s). They have successfully rebounded by millions, adapting their behavior around humans. It’s possible they’ve learned to live closer to us in order to avoid being hunted by us (at the very least, they move toward higher-density cover during hunting season; see link below).

White-tailed deer are hungry herbivores with four stomach chambers, chewing their cud like cows. They are adaptable and eat a range of vegetation. In lean years, they have devoured our rhododendron. Their diet is not entirely destructive, however—in many respects, they prune wild vegetation such that understory plants grow in more densely. But the relationship between deer populations, plant life and diversity, forest canopies, predators, and humans is, as you might imagine, complicated.

Deer mate in late November or December, and the male bucks make a show of their size, scent, and antlers. This time of year, during deer mating season, it’s important to be especially wary while driving; deer just aren’t thinking about safety. Fun fact: after breeding, bucks shed their antlers, which rodents gnaw for minerals.

Females give birth in late spring, usually June, often to twins. If you discover a tiny helpless fawn alone in the weeds, leave it be. The mother is nearby, but she only comes to the baby to nurse. The fawn has no scent and, if it stays absolutely still, is nearly invisible to the animal kingdom (whereas the mother’s scent might attract a predator).

Our storybooks are full of deer—they are lovely, graceful creatures. For some, they are also popular, managed game animals; for others, they are pests. How can we allow these adaptable creatures to live alongside?

The buck that I saw had a big set of antlers, at least a few years old. Somehow he had managed to survive, by sticking close, in the shadows. After a few seconds, he turned his gaze away from me and walked back through the trees. I watched for a few moments and then headed home.

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White-tailed deer links

  • Take a 2-min. break for this lil fawn in a bean field [via YouTube]

  • In the New Yorker last week, a great long article by Brooke Jarvis about white-tailed deer on Staten Island, “Deer Wars and Death ThreatsA small subset of wild animals thrive alongside humans. An unusual—and polarizing—set of conservation projects have sprung up in response.

  • Yes, they’re aware: “How Whitetail Deer Respond and React to Hunting Pressure” [Deer and Deer Hunting]; and here’s a 2015 study on behavioral changes in European red deer [via ScienceDirect]

Animal encounters in recent comments

Wild Life #35 / this newsletter is a place to learn about the life around us, one big-eared deer at a time. I do this because I’m not sure what to do about the millions of species in danger of extinction. It means something to see and enjoy the life around us. Thanks for reading and see you in a couple of weeks.