The graceful white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), the most abundant of Massachusetts' large game animals has become controversial because of its burgeoning population.
Before European settlement, the deer population was checked by native predators such as timber wolves and mountain lions, both of which were soon extirpated by the colonists. Settlers as well as native Americans also hunted deer, and much deer habitat was eliminated as forests were converted to farm land. It is estimated that by the early 1900's, there were fewer than 1000 deer in Massachusetts. In 1910 the first deer hunting statute was passed in the Commonwealth, establishing a restricted season and setting limits on the number of deer that can be taken.
In recent decades our deer population has increased steadily largely for two reasons:
(1) The reforested but suburbanized Massachusetts landscape is ideal deer habitat, providing shelter and breeding areas in fragmented woodlands that are interspersed with open areas in which deer prefer to feed. An added bonus is the tasty ornamental shrubbery thoughtfully provided by suburbanites. (2) Predation continues to decline with recreational hunting losing popularity in rapidly growing developed areas. As of 1999, MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife) estimates the deer population to be approximately 85,000 head. John McDonald, Jr. a biologist with the state Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, estimates that the ideal the number in the state would be 15 to 20 per square mile.
The white-tailed deer belongs to an order of ungulate (hoofed) mammals called the Artiodactyla (even-toed), which also includes the pigs, cows, antelopes, sheep, goats, camels and hippos. They are members of the family Cervidae, which also contains the moose and caribou. All are descended from small slender mammals with four flexible toes that emerged 40-50 million years ago; the toes gradually evolved into a cloven hoof with two functional toes.
The white-tail and its western congener, the mule deer, are restricted to the New World. The former ranges from Canada to northern South America.
White-tailed deer have long legs and narrow hooves which make them swift runners and good jumpers. They have excellent hearing due to their large, sensitive ears, and a short tail which stands erect when alarmed, to display white fur on the underside.
The typical weight of an adult buck (male) is 100 to 250 pounds with a shoulder height of 3½ to 4 feet. The doe is smaller and weighs in much lighter at 70 to 150 pounds. Mature males' antlers have a main branch thirty inches long with tines growing upward every few inches. The antlers are shed each year after the breeding season.
During the summer males and females are a reddish brown above and white underneath, but their coat changes to a grayish-brown in the winter with longer, hollow hairs that provide insulation against the cold. At birth fawns are chestnut brown with white spots on their back and sides. These spots disappear during the first molt when the fawns are three or four months old.
Deer prefer forest-edges close to both fields, where they forage for food, and woodlands, where they find shelter and breed. They regularly visit ponds, lakes, and streams. Much of Massachusetts is now ideal deer habitat.
Deer have a keen sense of smell and hearing. Their large ears are always in motion to receive the slightest sound from a possible predator in the vicinity.They are crepuscular, that is, their feeding takes place mostly at dawn and dusk, and the rest of the day is spent resting and chewing their cud. (See DIGESTIVE SYSTEM )
The home range of a deer is usually 2 to 3 square miles, but they will move beyond this range if food supplies become scarce.
DEER YARDS AND BEDDING AREAS
In winter, bucks, does, and fawns gather together in "deer yards:" sheltered locations frequently under stands of coniferous trees. It is believed that this behavior helps them survive severe weather conditions by conserving body heat and discouraging predation. They reduce their food intake during the winter by 30 percent and activity by 50 percent. Therefore they usually browse within close proximity to the deer yard.
Protected locations frequented by deer during their daily inactive periods which provide cover and protection are called "bedding areas." Those used during the day may be secluded areas on high ridges where they can watch for predators. At night they will use dense thickets and groves of evergreen trees which offer protection as well as shelter from the wind.
The network of trails connecting the bedding areas or deer yards to feeding areas are called feeding trails or deer runs. If food sources remain good, these trails can be used for many years.
Deer belong to a suborder of hoofed animals called ruminants, i.e. cud-chewing animals. which refers to their digestive system. The stomach of ruminants is divided into four chambers; which digest food in stages. The food enters the first two chambers where it is partially digested. When these stomachs are full the deer settles down and regurgitates the partially digested food called "cud" into it's mouth. There it is chewed again, and enters stomachs three and four where it is digested completely. This system allows the deer to take in large amounts of food and return to cover quickly, thus avoiding predators.
Deer are herbivores, and they consume an amazing variety of plant material. They browse on the buds, leaves and tender shoots of woody plants, as well as berries, fruit, and grains. The also eat acorns and other available nuts, bark, lichens and mushrooms.
In winter, when food is more limited, they commonly browse on American yew, eastern hemlock, apple, black cherry, maples, red oak, and a variety of other trees and shrubs. It is during this lean season that they often leave the protection of the woodlands to browse on ornamental shrubs in suburban yards.
The mating, or "rutting" season takes place in the fall and during the rest of the year the males and females live in separate groups. In August and September male groups disband to search for females coming into estrus. In New England mating usually takes place in November or early December, after which the does return to their maternal groups.
Most fawns are born in May or June after a 200 day gestation period. A doe giving birth for the first time will usually produce one offspring, but in subsequent years she gives birth to two, and occasionally three young. Although some does may be as young as six months when they reach sexual maturity, the average age is 18 months.
During the first week of life fawns are left alone except when the mother returns to nurse. When lying motionless in the leaves, they are well camouflaged with their reddish brown coat and white spots, blending with dappled sunlight the forest floor. By the following spring the fawn is a yearling. While its mother is raising her new offspring the yearling goes off and feeds, but stays in the area and returns to the mother for the fall and winter. The following spring the fawns leave the mother for good, the males joining buck groups and the females joining does.
SITUATIONS AND SOLUTIONS
Citizens concerned about deer populations in their community need to develop a consensus on the nature and severity of any perceived problems and then work with local officials and the MassWildlife to reach a solution.
DAMAGE CAUSED BY DEER
When deer feed on shrubs or saplings their damage can be identified by the torn or ragged appearance at the end of branches. Their droppings and hoof prints are usually visible in feeding areas.
Fencing is the best long-term solution for coping with deer on property where they are not welcome. One option is to fence the whole property to keep the deer from entering, another is to place fencing around individual plantings.
Fencing must be at least 8 feet high and angled outward from the property to prevent the deer from jumping over. It should be constructed of heavy netting, fox wire, chicken wire, or rows of wire spaced 12 inches apart.
FENCING SELECTED PLANTS
When only a few plants need protecting, place 6 foot high stakes around the plants and wrap with chicken wire, bird netting (found at nurseries or farm supply stores), or burlap to discourage the deer.
Repellents can be sprayed on plants and shrubs to protect them from browsing deer, but the expense of these products makes them practical only to protect valuable shrubs and not a whole property. Two repellents which work well to discourage deer are Big Game Repellent (BGR), made with egg solids and Hinder which is made with ammonium soaps. Remember that repellents must be reapplied periodically to be effective and that deer are capable of browsing on plants at a height of six feet.
One solution to stop deer from nibbling on shrubs is to hang bars of soap on the branches. Studies indicate that Dial and Irish Spring seem to be the most successful in repelling deer.Cut the bars of soap in halves or thirds and, using string or mesh bags, hang on branches three feet apart.
DO NOT FEED DEER
People often believe that providing an alternative food, such as hay, the deer will be discouraged from eating shrubs. This is rarely the case. They will eat what is offered and move on to the shrubs to add variety to their diet.
It is dangerous to the deer, as well as humans, to encourage deer to visit yards, especially in suburban areas where the deer often have to cross busy roads - putting themselves and drivers at risk.
Deer stomachs contain bacteria which are perfectly suited to digest the woody plants they favor. Because the bacteria is not able to digest the corn and pellets often fed to them by people, they receive few nutrients, but feel full causing them to stop eating more beneficial foods.
The food supply available in the wild is one of nature's ways of balancing animal populations. By supplementing the supply well-meaning people can artificially increase the number of deer that survive. This can prove harmful to the ecosystem, to people and to the deer themselves.
DEER AND PUBLIC HEALTH
Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by the northern deer tick (Ixodes dammini) which feeds on deer, mice, birds, dogs and sometimes humans. The coiled bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi, is carried through all stages of tick development: egg, larva, nymph and adult. The tick has favorite hosts during each stage, including white-footed mice, white-tailed deer and humans. Humans are usually infected when the tick is in the nymph stage (the size of a poppyseed) or when it is an adult (the size of a common pin head).
Most cases of Lyme disease occur between April and October when the ticks are most active. The first symptoms often develop three to thirty days after being bitten. A circular red rash may form around the site of the bite growing larger as time goes on, but 50 percent of individuals do not develop a rash making diagnoses more difficult. The symptoms - headaches, fever, sore muscles, fatigue, and swollen glands - are similar to those of other diseases. However, if an individual has been in a location known to support deer ticks, the possibility of Lyme disease should be considered.
High Risk Periods
The months of May, June, July and August are the months that present the highest risk because it is during these months that the nymphs are most active. April, September and October present a moderate risk and there is little risk the rest of the year while the nymphs are overwintering.
Lyme disease responds well to treatment if caught in the early stages. When left untreated the initial symptoms will disappear and after weeks or months, secondary symptoms, frequently resembling rheumatoid arthritis may surface.
FAWNS MISTAKEN FOR ORPHANS
People encountering fawns during the first weeks after birth often assume the fawn is orphaned, remove it from the area (and its mother) and take it to a wildlife rehabilitation center to be cared for. The result is that thousand of fawns across the country are needlessly orphaned each spring and have to be euthanized.
SALVAGE DEER PERMIT
The number of deer/car collisions in Massachusetts is estimated to at between two and three thousand a year. Of those, four to six hundred are claimed by the driver or passenger.
A permit to salvage a road-killed deer can be issued only to the driver or a passenger of the responsible vehicle, provided they are residents of Massachusetts. Before a salvage permit is issued an eligible person must comply with the following procedures: (1) notify local police of the accident to verify the animal's cause of death, (2) within 24 hours of the accident notify the Environmental Police at 1-800-632-8075 of the intent to salvage the carcass and provide name and address and the time and place that the deer was killed.
The deer carcass then must be transported, within 48 hours, to a field office of the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the Division of Law Enforcement, or to and Environmental Police Officer (EPO) at time and place agreed upon. The EPO or field office director will then tag the deer and issue a salvage permit.The tag must remain on the deer until all edible parts are consumed.
A salvage deer permit does not allow the deer carcass, or parts thereof, to be sold, traded, or exchanged.
DEER AND THE LAW
Relocating wildlife is illegal in Massachusetts. It is detrimental to the well-being of wildlife as well as the public. Unknowingly, sick animals may be transported and released in other locations, causing the spread of disease. Animals released in unfamiliar territory have a hard time surviving. They must compete with resident animals, and they have difficulty finding food and shelter.
It is also against state law to possess wild birds and mammals. Wildlife rehabilitators are trained and licensed by the state to care for injured and orphaned wildlife. If you need the services of a rehabilitator contact MassWildlife at 508-366-4470, or Massachusetts Audubon's Wildlife Information line at 781-259-2150.