Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Slow Down Stupid Deer Ahead

--- A buck holds court on October 4th under a strategic oak grove with plentiful acorns on the the ground. Throughout the morning, several does visited him. Fawns and smaller bucks browsed on the periphery of the grove; the large buck ignored them. ---

The bucks are back. I barely saw them in the past few months. Just a tall shoulder slipping into the trees. I suppose they summer in the dense lower canyons, leaving the high ground and developed water sources to the does and fawns. Now, black-tailed bucks with their swollen necks will stand in the middle of the road and not yield. And the does have become reckless, springing out of the roadside brush or down a steep roadcut without stopping to look and listen for danger. Their half-grown fawns, confused by all the changes in the herd, follow the rushing does without pause.

--- Buck and doe with tails raised. Courtship has begun. ---

The herd has started the rut - mating season - and the bucks are claiming territory, bunching the does together, ignoring the tag-along fawns, and towering over the younger bucks. The process of deciding whether a doe is ready to mate involves a lot of tail wagging and urinating on her part and sniffing on his part. The bucks will even pull back their lips to get a better whiff.

--- A young buck with velvety pedicels emerging from his skull.
This is Button on May 26th at the beginning of his second summer. ---

Throughout the summer, the bucks' antlers were developing, at first covered with soft, blood-filled velvet to feed the rapid growth which can be as much as 1 centimeter a day (Feldhamer). As the antler stops growing at the end of the summer, the bucks rubs the dried velvet and scent from their facial glands on springy young saplings. What happens to the spent velvet? Although I have seen plenty of signs of rubbing - branches with ripped bark and exposed wood on one side at about 10 to 45" above ground - I have never seen the actual velvet dangling on the branch or dropped below it. Deer have been observed eating the loosened velvet (Taylor) and perhaps other animals do too to recover nutrients.

--- A young buck with velvet-covered spikes or 'pencil antlers' in mid-September. This is probably Button later in his second summer. He would sneak out of the nearby willow thicket in the morning and evening for a quick drink before returning to cover. ---

The acorns are dropping, and as a choice food item, the deer are venturing out even in the daylight to scoop up these carbohydrate packages. The hunting seasons in our coastal region closed September 20th. Somehow, the deer, especially the larger and older bucks, know when the hunting pressure is off, and venture into the open more frequently. On the other hand, this behavior might be more of a result of game managers purposely setting the hunting season to precede the annual rut. With the approach of the rut, testosterone levels increase in the blood levels of bucks and they become hyperactive, increase roaming, exhibit aggressive behavior and eat more (Feldhamer).

--- By September 5th, a buck sneaks up to the farmyard to snack on buckeye leaves and check on the breeding status of the does. Most of his velvet is rubbed off with bits of moss or shrubbery sticking to the base of his antlers. This buck has 3 left points and 2 right points. ---

The combination of the deer breeding season, acorn drop, end of hunting season and earlier nightfall increase the possibility of hitting a deer while driving country roads this time of year. Mostly, it's the distracted state of the deer during the rut that raises the risk. Slow down when driving the country roads this time of year, especially at night. Be observant and you will notice particular locations where deer tend to congregate, often under an oak tree or at favorite crossings of a road, slope or creek.

Slow down, stupid deer ahead.

Most fall evenings, I see up to a half dozen deer when I pass the acorn-laden coast live and valley oaks at Moody and Old Snakey Roads. If a buck charges into the does and fawns, the whole bunch is likely to explode down the slope and onto the road. There is one curve on Page Mill Road where I often see a buck on the top of the bank tossing his rack against the starlit sky. I slow down before entering the curve because a few times he and the doe he was pursuing have stotted down the bank and landed on the road near my car. During the day, I can see a well-worn deer path at that location interrupted by the asphalt road.

--- The Dot doe's pelage is rough on September 26th as she sheds her summer coat. ---

Deer hit by cars are not a pretty sight. Last fall on two separate occasions, I saw a hit deer on its side, kicking helplessly along a steep roadbank. Both deer had injured hindquarters and could not get up or even drag themselves away. Their eyes were bugging out in fright as they tore at the earth with their forelegs, but they could not budge their heavy hips and paralyzed rear legs. Many of the country roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains are narrow and winding which increases the risk of vehicles hitting deer, and the frantic roadside flailing of an injured deer creates an additional road hazard for subsequent cars cruising around blind curves. The damage to the cars that hit deer can be substantial. At one location, I saw broken bits of plastic fender surrounding the struggling deer.

Slow down stupid, deer ahead.

There are other causes of deer death: malnutrition, disease/parasites and predation. Deer are the primary prey item for mountain lion. A coyote or feral dog can take down a fawn or sick, injured or aging adult deer. By their first autumn, 25 to 30% of that year's fawns have died (Feldhamer).

--- Skull of a deer carcass found in the apple meadow of Pasture 1 in January 2008. Antler stumps at top of photo. Two widely spaced canine puncture holes on the top of the skull and two on the bottom indicate this was probably a mountain lion kill.---

--- Skull of fawn found at Plum Pond in October 2007. ---

The Dot deer family, started the summer as a doe and two fawns, and was frequently seen around the farmyard. The last time I saw all three together was the end of August and one of the fawns had a small open sore at the base of its tail. For the last 3 weeks, I have seen the Dot doe with only one fawn, so it is likely that the other fawn has succumbed to predation, disease or vehicle collision.

--- The Dot family with two fawns on August 30. The doe still has her red summer coat. ---

Be smart. Slow down while driving this time of year, especially at night. Be especially observant at those locations you repeatedly see deer mingling during the rut. Avoid damage to your vehicle and mangling of local wildlife.

--- By October 13th, the Dot family is down to one fawn.
Notice the doe is wearing her gray winter robe and the fawn has no spots. ---

One more time (I'll let you decide where the comma should be inserted):

Slow down stupid deer ahead.

See also:

Columbian black-tailed deer - Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

George A. Feldhamer, Joseph A. Chapman, Bruce C. Thompson, editors, Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation, John Hopkins University, 2003.

Mark Elbroch, Mammal Tracks & Sign, Stackpole Books, 2003.

Walter Taylor, editor, The Deer of North America, Stackpole Books and the Wildlife Management Institute, 1956 (with "Aldo Leopold (deceased)" listed as one member of the Editorial Committee).

1 comment:

  1. LOL - classic about the comma! Very "eats shoots and leaves" (you've heard the joke, yes?)


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