Unexpected loving care – a winter gift

One of the delights of my back yard is being able to look outside just about any time to see some sort of wildlife. Often, it is birds that I see but there are insects, mammals, amphibians and reptiles, too. Wooded areas in and near our neighborhood are being clear-cut, pushing the animals out of their long-time homes and they don’t have many places to go. So our yards become a refuge, at least when the residents don’t chase them away. I am fine with non-human species in my yard, so they sometimes rest here, get a drink from the pond and hunt for food. Among the most graceful visitors are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), who have been among my favorite mammals ever since I got to know one in particular, Schatje.

The past couple years, the resident does who most often traversed our streets had fawns, but they were mostly producing male offspring – five bucks to two does by my guesstimate. Since the availability of food is diminishing, as is the available natural territory, it may be that this will keep the local population somewhat limited as there will be fewer does to give birth.

In spring and summer, bucks do not visit my yard as often as does and their fawns but during breeding season, they put in more frequent appearances. One of the two daily visiting does (“Mama”, recognizable by a mark near her eye) fled this year whenever they arrived. At one point, her twins (born this past spring) began coming around with an older brother who was born last year (“Sweetie”; at left). Mama eventually stopped coming at all and I suspect she was perhaps hit by a car.

Sweetie has sometimes been challenged by one of his younger brothers and then he does a little practice “jousting” with him. He never pushes hard, just enough to give the younger button buck something to resist.

At the start of November, I was quite surprised to see a very small fawn that still had some spotting turn up in the yard. The other deer tried to drive it away but it hung around waiting for them to leave and then would lick up whatever remaining bird seed was still on the ground. The little one was never accompanied by a doe and I had to assume that the mother had died and the young one is an orphan. I had read that late-born fawns often do not survive as they haven’t had time to build up body mass and reserves to get through a winter but this little deer seems to be very resilient and persistent.

The persistence seems to have paid off and resulted in a winter gift. Sweetie and one of his younger brothers seem to have “adopted” the fawn! They not only allow the young deer to be around them when they look for bird seed on the ground; they are also grooming the orphan! This seems to me to be unusual behavior for bucks, but I’m happy they are doing it.

This development has just warmed my heart.

In the meantime, the remaining older doe has only come by occasionally, together with what I assume is her daughter from last year. They do not stick around when the larger bucks put in an appearance. The other day, the largest buck entered the yard holding up his left front leg. The injury does not prevent him from walking. When a younger adult buck came by, it turned out that the injury also does not prevent him from engaging in some jousting as well.

The “duel” between the two adult males that I witnessed did not seem very serious, perhaps because no does were in sight or perhaps because the healthy buck was still being careful not to challenge the larger deer even though he had an injury.

They did not really push one another much but spent more time entwining their antlers – which seemed pretty dicey to me as the points came close to their eyes! That didn’t stop their activity, however.

Eventually, the two parted, quite amiably it seemed, and each went his own way. It was a fascinating “performance” and kept me quite entertained. And I remain grateful that these beautiful mammals come by regularly, sometimes resting against the back fence and sometimes displaying behaviors that keep me learning something about their lives.


Do deer like treats? Of course, they do!

deer bird seed IMG_3127© Maria de BruynAnyone who has lived in proximity to white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) know that they have a great appetite for all types of vegetation, including garden flowers that people plant in their yards. This has been a cause of strife between humans and the deer (at least, from the humans’ point of view), even though I and other people have found that deer repellants – both home-made and store-bought – work really well to keep deer from eating plants we wish to keep.

I also have a 5-foot fence around my vegetable garden. In theory, the deer could jump this but the trick is to make the garden long and narrow since the deer calculate how much space they have to land on the other side of the fence. If it looks like the space is too small, they won’t try to jump eveIMG_5431© Maria de Bruynn if they see and smell delicious veggies inside – I know this is true as I’ve watched them figuratively “lick their lips” outside my garden but never attempt to get into it.

The deer’s four-chambered stomach enables it to eat a variety of food. In spring and summer, they prefer green plants, including grasses; in the autumn, they go for corn, acorns and other nuts. In the winter-time, deer eat twigs and buds of trees. They also eat fruit, such as the berries on privet trees, lichens and other fungi.

Stip at apple treeStip and privet IMG_1648© Maria de Bruyn

To get to the privet berries, they need to reach the tree branches and their good sense of balance comes in handy. The does do it often in my back yard and the fawns watch them carefully so they can try it, too. Surprisingly, the fawns can stand on their hind legs pretty well when they are only a few months old.

Nezhoni and apple tree 3©Maria de BruynBuck and privet IMG_5243© Maria de Bruyn

Besides privet berries, they like grape leaves (which can be high when the grapevines climb up the privet) and apples. The big bucks will also have a go at it but I don’t see them lifting their bulky bodies up often.

The deer also enjoy treats, just as we may like sweets and birds have a fondness for suet. Bird seed is one treat they like. If the deer are very hungry, they can lick up all the bird seed put out for the ground feeders, but when they are feeling well fed, they will just have a little and leave seed for the birds (and squirrels). The deer’s fondness for bird seed can be strong; if you don’t hang your feeders high enough, they can clean out a feeder in a short time.

emptying bird feeder at night©Maria de Bruynwhite-tailed deer MdB 3 buck

My biggest surprise concerning a deer treat came from Schatje, my “dear deer” friend of five years. One summer, I noted that the hummingbird feeder was emptying quickly and I just thought the hummers were very thirsty. Then one day, I looked outside to see Schatje enjoying a sweet drink. It turned out she was extremely fond of nectar and eventually I had to hang the feeder higher so she wouldn’t drink all the contents a couple times a day!

white-tailed  deer Schatje 1 ©Maria de Bruyn signedSchatje nectar IMG_1727©Maria de Bruyn

This winter has been especially cold and the local deer family have had to rely on their winter diet of fungi, leaves and twigs a lot. Though they likely are not anticipating spring, I’m sure they will be glad when it gets here, just like me!

Next week: squirrel treats

Deer antlers – a sometimes impressive sight!

After living in apartments for many decades, it was a thrill for me when I was able to live in a house surrounded by a yard on all sides. It was even cooler when I discovered my neighborhood was home to a variety of birds and animals, undoubtedly helped by the fact that there are woods, a creek and a pond nearby. One of my greatest delights has been the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), that visit – even though some neighbors loathe them and chase them from their yards. I’ve found that a home-made deer repellant, as well as a store-bought one, work well to keep these visitors from eating the plants I want to keep. The veggies are in a narrow, fenced garden that they cannot enter so no problems there either.

deer antler IMG_5122©Maria de Bruynsignedres

While does and fawns are the main passersby, a variety of male deer visit, too. Some have been the offspring of local does, while others have come in during mating season.The buck above was kind enough to drop one antler in my yard and I found the other in the woods. Learning about their antlers has been interesting and showing the antlers to kids that I have mentored and visitors is fun, too.  So what process leads to these impressive growths?

Male fawns that are 6-9 months old during their first winter (fawns are born in the spring) are called “button bucks” because they have nobs on their heads that are covered with skin. In their second year, their antlers become longer but are still rather short.

button buck IMG_4770©Maria de Bruynsigned2nd year buck IMG_5975©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The males grow new antlers every year; they are the fastest growing bone in mammals. They start growing in late spring and are at first covered with a fuzzy skin, called velvet, which provides nutrients and oxygen to the growing bone. The velvet has blood vessels and when the deer rub it off, for example, against tree branches, you can see traces of blood. When the velvet has been shed, the antler becomes dead bone and it doesn’t hurt when the antler is shed.

antler velvet shedding IMG_6077©Maria de Bruynsignedresdeer skull IMG_1388©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The way that the antlers grow is influenced by the deer’s nutrition, age and genetic background. Some have simple spikes, which may become branched antlers as the deer grows older. Some “racks” (the pair of antlers) will have many branches.

deer antlers IMG_5414©Maria de Bruynsignedres

The bucks lose their antlers at the end of winter and you can find them on the ground if the squirrels don’t get to them first! I had left some antlers outdoors as garden decorations until one day I found a couple had been gnawed by the squirrels. The squirrels eat them to help wear down their front teeth (which are always growing) and to obtain minerals such as calcium.

gnawed antler IMG_1402©Maria de Bruynsignedres

As long as the does are around, the bucks will come, which makes me happy. They may not be as comfortable staying in the yard as this member of Schatje’s family, but their brief visits will remain a source of pleasure and learning!

Schatje's son Topa IMG_7560©Maria de Bruyn signedres

Thanks to Kevin Hinkle for letting me photograph the skull.

Next blog: birds at salt blocks