Living with Wildlife: Deer

When thinking of deer in the wild the most famous deer, Bambi, undoubtedly comes to mind. His life in the movie has many parallels with the reality of the lives of deer today – except for that talking part, of course. Deer are native to every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. There are about 100 kinds of deer, all of which have some characteristics in common. The two most common species in the United States are the Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and the White Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

Deer are browsers rather than grazers and feed on a variety of vegetation including green plants, nuts and corn, and trees and twigs. This is where we bump heads with these beautiful animals, for it is common for them to find our landscape and vegetable gardens to be good pickings for dinner. This becomes a particular problem during certain times of the year. For example, in the western U.S. very little rain falls for around six months, from mid-April into October, and the natural areas deer inhabit lose their appeal as foraging areas. They may wander to the greener pastures that our urban yards offer. In contrast, in the mountainous states it may be the winters, when snow covers their natural areas with a deep layer, that the hungry deer seek urban yards for their meals.

One other conflict humans have with deer, and perhaps one of much greater importance, is that deer often harbor ticks that are the vectors of Lyme Disease, and as these deer mingle with humans in and around our properties there is a likelihood that some of these ticks will end up biting some people, and the spread of this disease is very possible. Where deer are in association with livestock there also is some potential for them to transmit Hoof and Mouth Disease – or perhaps to acquire it themselves from infected livestock. Let’s learn about deer.

The Life History of our Deer

Although the deer is a good swimmer and runner (reaching speeds of 35 mph) it falls prey to a number of animals including the cougar, domestic dog, wolf, coyote, lynx, bobcat and bear. Prior to human populations throughout the U.S. these predators may have kept deer populations under control, but in many locations now, with wolves and mountain lions gone or nearly so, the populations of deer have soared to unhealthy levels. Most deer species have antlers, which are a solid bony outgrowth of the skull. The antlers are shed and renewed annually. Antlers are used as weapons during breeding season combats between bucks. For deer that lack antlers (the Musk Deer and the Chinese River Deer), long upper canines are used as weapons.

Deer have played a very important role in the history of our country. They were used extensively by Native Americans for both food and clothing, and also by the early settlers. Deer were an important and available source of protein for these people. Extensive clearing of the land, unregulated hunting, and loss of habitat brought the deer populations of America to a record low by the late 1800s. Changing land uses, strict game laws, and a lack of natural large predators have caused the deer population to rebound dramatically. Around urban areas or campgrounds deer often become so “tame” that they wander calmly in occupied yards or campsites, but we must not mistake this as “friendly”. These are still wild animals that will react instinctively and aggressively when they are startled or feel threatened in any way.

The Mule Deer ranges across the entire western United States, including the four deserts of the American Southwest. They have large ears that move constantly and independently, from whence they get their name, “Mule” or “Burro Deer”. They do not run as other deer do, but have a particular and distinctive bounding leap over distances up to 25 feet, with all 4 feet coming down together and bouncing as if on springs. During the summer, the coat on the Mule Deer’s upper body is yellow or reddish-brown, while in the winter it is grayer. A dark V-shaped mark, extending from a point between the eyes upward and laterally is characteristic of all Mule Deer but is more conspicuous in males. Mule Deer have no canine teeth and, like the cow, have a multi-part stomach, the first two chambers of which act as temporary storage bins. Food stored here can be digested later when the deer chews its cud.

Mule Deer move between various zones from the forest edges at higher elevations to the desert floor, depending on the season. While the Mule Deer occupies almost all types of habitat within its range, it seems to prefer arid, open areas and rocky hillsides. Mule Deer are active primarily in the mornings, evenings and moonlit nights. Their inactivity during the heat of the day is a behavioral adaptation to the desert environment that conserves water and keeps the body temperature within livable limits. Sweating and panting also provide evaporative cooling during hot periods.

The mating season for Mule Deer reaches its peak in November and December, as antlered stags round up females and fight for their possession. Antlers are shed after the breeding season, from mid-January to about mid-April. Most mature bucks in good condition have lost theirs by the end of February; immature bucks generally lose them a little later. Males and females mix freely while traveling together in groups during the winter months, often down to the desert floor. When antlers start growing again in the spring, the groups break up. The females go off by themselves and eventually give birth and nurse their young; the males wander in friendly twosomes or small bands throughout the summer months as antlers grow. Life span in the wild is 10 years, but Mule Deer have lived up to 25 years in captivity.

The white-tailed deer is named for its most distinctive feature, the large white tail or “flag” that is often all you see as the animal bounds away through tall grass. The white-tailed deer is the most abundant and most widely distributed big game animal in North America. It is a large animal that varies quite a bit in size, depending on the particular subspecies (there are 30 recognized) and the region where it is found.

Woody cover provides the best White-tail habitat, though it is not essential for their survival. Grasslands are suitable where the topography provides concealment, especially when it is associated with marsh vegetation. Croplands are a reliable year-round food source, and provide a sea of cover from July through October or November. Deer may use croplands for extended periods, but they must retreat to permanent cover for protection from weather and predators after harvest is completed.

Deer have developed keen senses to help them avoid predation. They depend on scent, particularly in thick cover, but also have excellent hearing and sight. While deer have excellent sight and can see moving objects very, very well, they have a much more difficult time seeing a person or another animal that remains motionless. The Mule Deer is slower and less colorful than the White-tailed Deer, but its pastel, gray-buff color provides a physical adaptation to its arid environments that disguises it from predators like the cougar, the coyote and the eagle who will swoop down on a fawn. The Mule Deer is an excellent swimmer, but this is not its preferred method for escaping harm. It would much rather run.

In addition to the problems these lovely animals can cause us in our gardens and landscape, there is another serious problem. They tend to cross busy roads, and quite often this will be done without warning and very suddenly. In Nebraska alone, nearly 3000 deer/car collisions occur annually. In the thickly forested states such as Wisconsin deer commonly bound out of the trees that line the roadway, often because they hear a vehicle approaching, and simply choose the wrong direction to flee. Landowner losses of growing or stored agricultural crops can be substantial, although protective measures such as haystack location, fencing, sirens, whistles, dogs, or deer repellents often reduce these to tolerable levels. However, the most effective control is through harvest by hunters.

There is some competition between the deer and livestock on the range, especially in spring and early summer. Also, Hoof and Mouth Disease and other diseases can be transmitted from the deer to the livestock and vice versa.

Controlling deer and preventing their damage

There are no poisons available for killing nuisance deer, and hunting, where legal and appropriate, will be the only method by which deer can be killed unless some unusual circumstance exists. If you have problems with deer munching on your rhododendrons or roses you have several options. One of these may be the use of repellents, and most of these seem to revolve around the use of eggs, especially rotting eggs.

One commercial repellent uses what they call “putrescent” eggs in their formulation, and a university recommendation calls for blending one whole egg in four parts of water, and then applying this concoction to your susceptible plants. The egg solution will not harm the plants, but it could create an undesirable appearance to foliage, so good judgment is needed. Since deer prefer new foliage the upper and outer branch areas should be treated, or if it is young trees the entire tree. This will be good for around a month.

No other chemical-type repellents seem to be in much use, and deer likely will get used even to the egg concoctions, so be prepared to try other methods. The best one, of course, would be to simply create a barrier they cannot pass over or through, protecting your plants without having to use repellents.

Even thin wire mesh will be effective, but the clever deer may still find a way past it. If the fence is vertical is should be at least eight feet high, to prevent the deer from leaping over it. If the fence is built at a slant it can be lower, but still needs to be at least 6 feet above the ground, and leaning AWAY from the garden you are protecting. Offering the deer this overhanging fence may also be a psychological barrier, and be more effective.

If you need only to protect very small sections of a garden, or individual plants, you can reduce the height of the fence to only about four feet. Deer are unlikely to attempt to leap into a very small enclosure, and they are not comfortable with tight, penned-in areas. If the deer are chewing on the bark of plants these can be protected with some form of tubing that encloses the bark. These may be of metal flashing or large PVC piping, whatever is appropriate for the need. You can also help to reduce the attractiveness of your property by removing other kinds of foods that may bring the deer in. Fallen nuts and acorns are great examples of foods that may be sought by deer and which can be eliminated easily.

Other repelling devices exist as well, but the problem with many of these is that the deer eventually become accustomed to them, recognizing that they really have not suffered any harm from the noise, taste, or smell, and their hunger overcomes their apprehension. Sprays that taste bitter are used on plants, water spraying devices squirt at them, and various noise-making devices attempt to startle them. Manufacturers of ultrasonic repelling boxes tout their effectiveness on deer and other unwanted animals, and these have been proven many times to be ineffective.

There are a few electrical devices on the market too, that may provide some relief, including a “wireless” deer fence and a standing electrified probe. This probe is a short pole that is placed in the ground where deer have been browsing and causing damage, and it has a tip that is charged with a mild jolt from batteries. It then is baited with peanut butter or some other tasty attractant, and when the deer licks at it a light but frightening shock is felt, and the hope is that it will “train” the deer to avoid the area.