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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.

Shed hunting

It’s that time of the year again–‘horn hunting’ season.  People do it for fun and for profit.  These ‘hunters’ are seeking deer, elk, and even moose sheds, which are not really ‘horns’ at all.  Horns are found in the bovine family, are a two-part structure, and are worn for the life of the animal.  The exception being the Pronghorn, which does shed them every year.  Horns are a two-part structure, with an interior of bone and a sheath of a type of hair follicle material, akin to your fingernails. So animals like sheep, bison, or cattle have horns for life.

Bison have horns

Bison have horns

Antlers, on the other hand, are also true bone but are shed each year and then regrown.  As the male adult animal ages, the antler gets bigger and wider.

Deer with emerging antlers--in velvet

Deer with emerging antlers–in velvet

When I first arrived in Wyoming, I knew the difference between antlers and horns and couldn’t figure out why everyone called this amusement ‘horn hunting’.  It was just wrong.  People who know the difference, like scientists, will usually refer to it as ‘shed hunting’.  But I’ve come to accept it and I suppose the h-h sound was adopted because it just slides off your tongue better.

Antlers are becoming big business and that’s why people go after them.  I personally saw a small 6 point elk antler in a California window with a $250 price tag.  Antlers are cut up and sold for dog chews, buttons, door handles,key chains, made into furniture, used as table centerpieces, or whatever art pieces you can think of.  But what’s really driving the market is the Asian desire for aphrodisiacs.  Although I think Viagra is cheaper and actually effective, the myth in the Far East is that antlers, ground up into a powder, will make a man virile.  I suppose people will believe anything as well as pay for it.



This deer has a dropped tine, probably a genetic anomaly


Last year I took all the old, broken, antlers that had been lying around my property when I purchased it.  I’d thrown them into a pile in the yard.  They were white and almost powdery from age, but a small loaded pick-up truck fetched over $250! New, browner, bigger antlers can get up to $10 pound.

So far this season, I’ve found about 10 deer antlers.  I don’t ‘hunt’ them.  I prefer to be gifted–‘shed gifting’.  I’m hiking around and there is a ‘present ‘ on the ground of a nice antler.  It’s a nice surprise.  And sometimes I leave them.  I enjoy making things out of antlers, but most of the people I’ve talked to say they just throw them in their garage, and now have a garage full of them.

Antlers provide calcium for small critters like mice, porcupines, and even coyotes will chew on them.  People ‘hunting’ them in early spring can ‘push’ the elk and deer at a critical time when they are still stressed from the winter and don’t yet have the benefits of a full green-up.  Sometimes I wonder if all this antler collecting isn’t robbing some of the smaller animals of valuable nutrients, as well as what shed antlers put back into the soil.

Just a last note.  If you are out shed hunting, carry your bear spray as grizzlies are out now.  Here is a great article touting the efficacy of bear spray vs. guns.   Bear spray had a 92% efficacy with the other 7% being minor, non-hospitalized injuries and all bears lived.  Guns on the other hand had only a 67% efficacy with a 100% fatality for the bear.

And one last note:  it is highly illegal to pick up and take home sheds from Yellowstone National Park.  You will be fined and probably barred for life from the Park if you attempt to take antlers home.

Sometimes the Buddha is a deer

In the Jataka stories, sometimes the Buddha appears in other forms.  In one story the Buddha appears as the king of the deer who offers his life to save a doe.

I’ve had a few unusual deer experiences since living here, but the most phantasmagorical occurred the day I returned from CA.

I was opening up the cabin after draining it for my 6 week absence.  A friend, G__. and his dog were helping me.  We’d been at it for a few hours, starting around noon, heating the cabin, turning the water and propane on, getting the water heater filled.  The two dogs were outside. It was a nice day, clear and cold, with a recent soft snow pack of around a foot or more.

The dogs began barking at something.  Usually if its just my dog, he barks but sticks around, but with the two dogs they tend to run after things.  My friend and I went outside.  We certainly didn’t want the dogs running after wolves or coyotes.  Sadie, G__’s dog, was really worked up and running into the nearby meadow, barking towards the forest.  We both saw nothing, but, as my friend noted “We’re not dogs.”

He came out of the forest and deliberately walked up to the front door as we watched

We called the dogs under control, and watched the forest for a few moments.  Nothing moved nor stirred.

“Couldn’t be deer because Sadie doesn’t bark at deer.”

I wasn’t so sure of that.

After a few minutes, out of the forest came a 2 1/2 year old buck.  The forest is a few 100 yards from the house and the buck strode slowly, every so slowly and deliberately out of the woods and into the little meadow between my house and the forest.  We were all mesmerized, as if in a trance, watching that buck, who with measured steps and struggling a bit in the deep snow, strode directly towards us.  The dogs were going wild and it took everything to control them.  But as the deer approached closer and closer, the dogs too calmed down, transfixed as the buck walked through my open gate, into the front yard, stopping 10 feet away from us.   We all stood in the front of the house, 2 dogs and 2 humans, looking eye to eye with the buck.  He just stood and stared at us.

Beautiful eye guards

G__ put the dogs in the house while I continued to stare at the buck.  He never took his eyes off me.  I couldn’t figure if he was just curious, saying hello, or displaying a bit of hubris (I suspected the later).  G__ came back out with his cell phone.

“Turn around and get over a bit.  I want to take a photo.”

Something about that broke the magic, because as soon as the photo was taken, that buck walked away as slowly and deliberately as he had come.

G__, who is a great hunter and has lived around here all his life said he’d never seen anything like that before.  “He was welcoming you back from California and wanted to see what you brought him,” he joked.

In India there is a word that describes the sighting of the Master or Teacher–Darshan.  I like to think of this beautiful buck, so fearless and calm, so regal and deliberate, as coming to give me his Darshan, the Buddha of the forest deer.

The Buddha buck, Young Prince of the Forest Deer