Updated: Master Wildlife Conservationist Paul Colburn’s knowledge of and appreciation for the majestic White-Tailed Deer who share our neighborhoods was evident throughout this incredibly informative webinar. Acknowledging the frustration many feel as deer devour our plants and decimate our vegetable gardens, Paul began by asking, “What we can do to coexist?” But before answering, he taught us about our neighbors:Read More ...
White-Tailed Deer are native to Connecticut and today can be found across southern Canada and the United States (except California, Nevada, and Utah). They also have colonized throughout Mexico and down into South America. Yet the population was decimated by unregulated harvesting by Europeans in the 1700-1800’s and the forest cover decreasing to about 20% by the 1850’s. Laws to protect the remaining herds enabled the population to rebound in the 1900’s.
In 1975 Connecticut held its first firearm deer hunting season to help prevent crop damage, and today’s hunting license fees support wildlife restoration and outreach. The population has continued to increase as they adapt to open spaces of urban and suburban environments. So hunting helps keep the population under control, prevents crop damage, provides meat, and draws people into the outdoors. (More information on allowable deer hunting is available on the State’s website.)
They get their name from the white tail that shows like a white “flag” warning as they bound off when alarmed. The deer have distinct footprints that are narrow-heart shaped. They typically move in single file creating deer runs and then split up to browse. Creatures of habit, they can be seen coming around at the same time of the day and year. You may see signs of bedding areas where they rest for a couple of hours or scat that resembles raisins or pellets.
Deer are non-monogamous, social animals, with the family unit comprised of does with fawns and/or yearlings. Males stay together with little contact with females until mating or rutting season from late October to early January. Each Spring males grow spreading, branching, bone-like antlers for sparring that drop off after mating season.
Deer can birth up to four fawns each year in June, and twins are common. Fawns nurse very rich milk 3-4 times a day to grow rapidly from 4-5 pounds at birth to 60-70 pounds by fall (they’ll reach 110-150 pounds as adults). Females born in Spring can produce in their first Fall. They disperse just before next year’s young are born and will be forced out if they don’t leave voluntarily! Their average lifespan is approximately 8 years.
Fawns are left on their own for significant time and will sit motionless if approached. They are well camouflaged with spots on reddish brown fur and have no scent. They do not need your help, and it is illegal to remove a healthy fawn from the wild. To assist an injured fawn, call the DEEP Wildlife Division for the name of a licensed rehabilitator.
White-tailed deer spend more time feeding than any other activity. They browse grasses and flowers in Summer and fatty nuts such as acorns and fruits in Fall. In Winter they switch to hardwood twigs and conifer leaves and can lose 20-25% of their fat reserves, risking starvation. Deep snow also is an enemy, especially if it has a soft crust, as walking in it will wear them out.
While white-tailed deer elsewhere must contend with mountain lions and wolves, locally the primary predators of fawns and vulnerable adults are coyotes, bobcats, and black bears. Deer are masters of not being seen when they don’t want to be, can rear up to use their sharp hooves, and are good swimmers. Other causes of deer mortality are cutaneous fibromas, chronic wasting disease, hemorrhagic disease spread by biting insects like midges, mange, other infections, and of course humans. For example people trying to be helpful in Winter by feeding them corn are more likely to cause starvation because they cannot digest corn properly.
So back to Paul’s question: What can we do to coexist? As beautiful as they are to watch, deer can be a problem if they are too prolific. In addition to eating our prized landscaping, they are a significant vector of Lyme disease and other tick borne diseases, can destroy forests and crops by over-browsing, and are involved in 9,000 deer-auto accidents in Connecticut. The State has a wildlife plan with hunting limits and managing habitat so we and future generations can enjoy them, but these can be difficult to implement in densely populated areas.
Paul recommended several approaches for vexed homeowners. Ornamentals (preferably native) that are unpalatable to deer should be planted in areas subject to deer damage, e.g. persimmon, lilac, boxwood, jasmine, holly, pepper tree, wax myrtle, century plant, and narcissus. Home remedies such as coyote or bobcat urine or hanging soap in orchards are used with limited success, but Bobbex works if resprayed after each rain. High-value crops should be planted away from woods, shrub rows, or other deer cover. Stake and wrap plants with fishing line as a first step to control unwanted munching. Fencing is most effective, but a woven fence needs to be 8-10 feet high with a barrier such as PVC pipe along the top to prevent climbing.
Visit the DEEP Wildlife Division website for more information on all types of wildlife, including how to subscribe to the Connecticut Wildlife Magazine and opportunities to assist with research projects. Paul Colburn’s website provides additional resources as well. And to view deer in action, visit WLT’s YouTube Channel for a recommended video, Time Shadow: Encounters with the Whitetail.