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The ‘Common’ Deer

I recently watched a Nature show on Whitetail Deer.  Deer are probably the most studied wildlife in the United States.  This show revealed some new ‘secrets’.

We all know deer.  Whether Mule or White-tail, they frequent our yards and many places are considered ‘pests’ because they eat our vegetation.  But, do we really know deer?Mule deer bucks

Since I no longer care if the local deer eat my flowers, I enjoy watching them and learning from them.  They start to come down now from the high country and stay through the winter.  First the does appear, then around November [the day after hunting season ends!] the bucks appear and come into the rut. You see them following does everywhere.  As winter comes upon us harsher and harsher, they look for food wherever they can find it.

The Nature show says scientists were shocked to learn that does do a lot of in-house fighting.  Yet watching deer in my front yard in winters, I’ve frequently observed does displace not just other does for food, but their own offspring.  A pecking order is obvious.  If a deer block is set out in the snow, the hierarchy is readily observed.  Subordinate does and fawns will sneak up to the block when the dominant doe is distracted, many times only to be kicked by the leader.http://youtu.be/QRPSV998Ma0

The film noted how intelligent deer are. They can evaluate with time which dogs in a neighborhood, for instance, don’t pose a threat.  And they even will run off some dogs.  My own dog, Koda, has been taught not to run after deer or elk.  He sits on the front porch while the deer feed beside him.  One time a truck drove up and observed the deer and dog together; but as soon as the men got out of their truck, the deer scattered.  They said they’d never seen anything like that before. My neighbor, who feeds their horses hay in the winter and sometimes has over 50 deer come to feed at the same time, says the deer almost run her dogs off.  Interestingly, even though the deer know me as well, if the dog goes outside alone, they stick around.  But when I come outside, they scatter.  Humans are just too unpredictable I guess.

Koda observes elk feeding

Koda observes elk feeding

The Nature film spoke a lot about deer social structures and communication. I’ve watched bucks groom one another extensively in the winter, obviously as a form of bonding and communication.

A buck mule deer spends time grooming his friend

A buck mule deer spends time grooming his friend

Although the film was about white-tailed [whom I am not familiar with], mule deer, although they don’t have the tail-waving alerts of white-tail, have their own alert systems.  And those seem too subtle for me to understand.  Deer have incredible hearing and smell.  They rustle up and leave the woods before you even knew they were there.

Since moving to my cabin and simply observing deer, instead of trying to manage them off my landscape plants, I’ve had some very interesting encounters.  Below is a short excerpt from my new book The Wild Excellence:

I was living full time in Wyoming, but continued for several years to do winter design work, November through January, in California to make ends meet. Upon my return one winter, I was beginning to open up the cabin. It’s always a big process. I have to turn on the water, electricity, pump, and get the house heated up when it’s below freezing outside. My friend Gary had come to help with the process. I’d met Gary when he built a fence for my neighbor. He lived in town but watched over their property. I needed help with cutting and hauling firewood, and Gary, a retired forest ranger, was the man for the job. Over time, he had helped me burn slash piles, installed new bathroom cabinets, and built an outhouse for the upper cabin.   Working together, we’d become good friends and today he brought along his dog, so we had two dogs.

We were inside, tending to the business of the cabin, when the dogs outside started barking. It was the kind of bark that means there’s wildlife around. Koda knows not to run after deer, but when he’s in a pack (and two dogs constitute a pack mentality), I have to watch him. Gary and I walked outside. The dogs were barking towards the woods. At first we saw nothing and couldn’t understand what was causing the dogs’ agitation. Then, after we’d quieted the dogs, a large buck came out of the trees and started making his way across the meadow. The snow was soft and deep. We assumed the buck was heading east, away from the cabin. The four of us—two humans and two dogs—watched in silence as the buck walked slowly, deliberately, and regally through the deep snow. The depth of the snow almost made him look wounded as he walked. We stared in amazement as this large buck walked across the meadow, through my gate and into my front yard. He stopped about ten feet directly in front of us. The dogs were quiet. I think, like us, they were mesmerized. Here was the Deer King. He stood before us with his full beautiful rack. His large eyes stared directly into ours for a long time, at least a full two minutes. I wasn’t sure if I should bow or run. Then just as he had come, he turned and slowly walked away. He was done with us.

The Buddha buck, King of the Forest Deer

The Buddha buck, King of the Forest Deer

If you watch wildlife long enough, you see they are separate ‘nations’ unto themselves.  The ‘Deer Nation’ has a lot to teach us humans.

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