A Good Eye, Deer

October 1, 2020

Though an occasional nuisance to gardeners, deer are generally admired for their beauty and grace. The current deer population in the United States, estimated at over 12 million, is much larger than when this land was first settled by Europeans. The primary reason for the increase is land clearing.

Through habitat development, even on a small scale, rural landowners can provide for deer population. Deer love the edge between woods and open land. Even a small opening in the woods or a thinning from logging will encourage deer. Deer will enjoy the shelter of evergreens and will also eat the lower branches of black cherry, red and striped maple, red oak, yellow birch, sumac, and their favorite—white cedar. They also will eat the bark of hemlock, fir, apple, cherry, and striped maple in March or April, when other food sources have been depleted. Selective thinning of the woods offers the advantage of letting in more sunlight to promote undergrowth and sucker growth from stumps, which the deer will enjoy. This also encourages top growth of the remaining trees. Clearing around old apple trees “lost” in the woods will enhance their fruit bearing — it may not be fruit you’d ever put in a pie, but the deer will love it.

Although deer are adaptable in their eating habits, abrupt changes in diet can cause digestive problems. In the fall deer eat a lot of nuts and fruit to get the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates to gain strength not just for winter but also for mating. During the mating season, which peaks in November, bucks may expend so much of their caloric reserves that they risk starvation during the winter. Antlers, used to battle competing bucks, start dropping in December. They will grow anew in the spring. The number of tines on antlers are determined by genetic factors combined with health and diet. If a deer has been injured, the antlers on the side opposite the injury are often stunted or deformed.

Deer are most active at dawn and dusk. And yes, deer have good eyesight. They are conditioned to detect the slightest movement, but will sometimes overlook stationary objects. Fortunately (for them) they have excellent hearing and smelling senses as well.

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