Mammal merriment, misery and markings

Lately, many of my blogs have been about birds, mostly because they have been the easiest wildlife to photograph during the colder months. The mammals – and insects, reptiles and amphibians – have not been around much and likely have often visited when I’m not watching. I’m fairly certain that raccoons (Procyon lotor) and opossums (Didelphis virginiana) come to my yard after dark; perhaps the odd fox or coyote does as well. Nevertheless, after she stopped weaning her young and since summer ended, I haven’t seen Raquel raccoon all winter.

raccoon DK7A4351© Maria de Bruyn   raccoon DK7A4248© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern chipmunk I77A8790© Maria de Bruyn resThere a couple mammals, however, that I can count on to see every day because they have grown accustomed to having a food source at my house. Fallen bird seed (and seed and apples put out deliberately for ground feeders) does not get entirely gobbled up by the avian visitors, leaving pickings for the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).

The squirrels keep a watch from the trees and underbrush and appear very quickly after the bird seed is replenished. My combined squirrel and raccoon baffles – and placing the feeder poles at least 10 feet away from any structures from which they launch themselves onto the poles – have proved successful in keeping them from the feeders. But they continue to look for vantage points from which they can attempt a jump to the feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A5504© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern gray squirrel I77A5494© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3643 mdb


Before I learned how to thwart them, they made off with plenty of seed and suet – one squirrel even carrying off the entire suet feeder when s/he couldn’t get it open. I saw it happening and chased that squirrel, but they were faster than me!

They will share space happily with birds but don’t always want to share with other squirrels or chipmunks.



Eastern gray squirrel I77A8350© Maria de Bruyn Eastern gray squirrel I77A0711© Maria de Bruyn res

The chipmunks don’t let that selfish attitude deter them; they just keep a sharp eye out for when a squirrel might turn on them. They wolf down seed after seed, giving themselves a very fat-cheeked countenance!

Eastern chipmunk I77A3326© Maria de Bruyn  Eastern chipmunk I77A3335© Maria de Bruyn

The past few days, the squirrels have continued their chasing, but now it is not always in rivalry or play. Instead, their romantic side is showing and the merriment goes on for a good length of time. They appear to have designated a particular tree stump/snag in my back yard as their trysting spot.

Eastern gray squirrel I77A1104© Maria de Bruyn res              Eastern gray squirrel I77A0980© Maria de Bruyn

white-tailed deer I77A0963© Maria de Bruyn resThe white-tailed deer carry on their mating elsewhere but I know it’s happening as the males are evidence. Usually, one small family group comes to my home – mom, her one-year-old daughter and one-year-old son (a button buck, so-called for his tiny little antler nubs). They were occasionally accompanied by a couple second-year bucks with little antlers – I suspect mama’s sons from the previous year.

white-tailed deer I77A1367© Maria de Bruyn res    white-tailed deer I77A2025© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1366© Maria de Bruyn res


One of them lost one of his antlers early, but whether this was the result of a fight or accident is unknown to me. It seems that mama has allowed an orphaned button buck to join their group occasionally, too.

A couple weeks ago, two of the older males came down from the woods in search of does and food in the cold weather. This pair was traveling together but that didn’t stop some rivalry where first-access to the available food was concerned.


white-tailed deer I77A1061© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1005© Maria de Bruyn res


white-tailed deer I77A1127© Maria de Bruyn res  white-tailed deer I77A1150© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1893© Maria de Bruyn res


Then one day about a week ago when we had some very icy weather, I was surprised by a new and unfamiliar family group for a day. I didn’t mind them eating some seed and the resident family wasn’t around to chase them away. But then I felt immensely sad as I saw that one of them had been injured. Her tongue was lolling out but it was only when she came into the yard that I saw she must have been in an accident.


I felt miserable for her, seeing her face had been smashed in but after watching for a while, I realized the accident must have happened some time ago as she had no open wounds.

white-tailed deer I77A1917© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer I77A1869© Maria de Bruyn

It must have been terribly painful though. I decided to call her Camelia as her profile reminded me of a camel.

white-tailed deer I77A1932© Maria de Bruyn res   white-tailed deer I77A1906© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer I77A1887© Maria de Bruyn res

I put out some soft bread for her because I don’t know how easily she can eat. She does seem well-fed, however, so perhaps her disability is not hampering her nutritional intake. I haven’t seen her or her family again and don’t know if they will ever return, but it reminded me of how many deer are hurt and killed in accidents. I continue to think it would be worthwhile for research to continue on reducing deer populations through contraceptive use.


Beaver DK7A4173©Maria de Bruyn resOutside my yard, I’ve been seeing many signs of beavers (Castor canadensis) in the parks and reserves I visit. Their teeth are strong and I recently learned why their teeth are reddish brown – the enamel contains iron!


They have left tree stumps, half-gnawed trees and detached trees that they have apparently not yet been able to drag over to their dams and dens.

beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0313© Maria de Bruyn res

beaver I77A0125© Maria de Bruyn res  beaver I77A0098© Maria de Bruyn res

One downed tree in particular looked to me like they had been working on a bird sculpture!

beaver I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn res


Eastern chipmunk I77A6221© Maria de Bruyn resI’m guessing that some of the other animals will be coming out in the daytime soon around my home – at the very least, the frogs and rabbits, whom I have seen only very occasionally. Spring is coming and while I enjoy seasonal variety, I will welcome it with open arms!

Backyard citizen science – take 2

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, as part of an eMammal citizen science project, a motion trap camera was placed in my yard for three weeks. I am used to a variety of wildlife passing through and living here, including: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Eastern chipmunks, Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus), opossums, raccoons, Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), field and house mice and the occasional vole. My hope was that the camera would capture the gray fox that has been wandering our neighborhood lately or maybe even a coyote visiting at night.

The project started with the placement of a camera at knee level on a crepe myrtle tree facing a path through which animals enter and leave my back yard. The objective was to record all the mammal species that visit (or at least those passing in front of the camera) for three weeks.

Jonahay eMammal camera IMG_2971© Maria de Bruyn resAs neighborhood cats come to the yard, I was sure to get some photos of them, if nothing else. My senior deaf cat, who is now suffering from some dementia, only goes out when I accompany him (the other two family cats must stay inside). He checked out the camera right away and I wondered if he was going to pee on it to mark it as a new part of his territory. Instead, he went off to mark another part of the yard.

It was with great anticipation that I looked at the photos on the card after it was taken down, only to discover that the camera may have been aimed too high.

Eastern gray squirrel EK000016© Maria de Bruyn It seems that a squirrel may have been captured one evening, and in another case, it seems an opossum was entering the yard. However, the main captures (and there were not that many) were glimpses of deer.

A rabbit had decided to have a lie-down in front of the camera one day, perhaps 1½ feet away. It was not photographed and the project coordinator told me that the camera has a large blind spot right in front of it extending out roughly 3 feet.

Eastern cottontail DK7A2749© Maria de Bruyn res

unknown EK000547© NCSU


Staring at the night shots made me think in a few instances that some creature had been photographed but I wasn’t really sure if that was it or just my imagination running amok.


white-tailed deer EK000425© Maria de Bruyn res


A few times a deer stopped and the camera got a portrait shot, occasionally with a gesture that in humans might equate to thumbing their noses at something.



white-tailed deer DK7A1403© Maria de Bruyn reswhite-tailed deer EK000212© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer EK000514© Maria de Bruyn res


A few shots were close-ups.

Other times, we see an ear or the deer’s behind as she moves out of range.


white-tailed deer EK000548© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer EK000073© Maria de Bruyn res

One day, I caught a doe giving the camera a good look; this led to a few blank photos as her face or tongue covered the lens area.

white-tailed deer DK7A3136© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer DK7A3120© Maria de Bruyn resdoe EK000010© NCSUwhite-tailed deer EK000472© Maria de Bruyn res

Despite the paucity of cool camera captures, I enjoyed participating in the project and will consider taking their 30-minute course so I can have a camera placed here for a longer period. And if it is aimed lower, who knows what we may see then!

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 and their curiosity

Don-tso and Schatje were both very sweet animals who enriched my life, but they were very different personalities. Don-tso, whose Native American name represented a spirit who sits by your shoulder and warns you of danger, lived up to that name. She was a delicate small cat, rescued as a feral kitten from the streets of Amsterdam, who remained anxious and extremely cautious throughout her life. Even after a decade, I could not approach and pick her up; time spent on my lap was always on her terms and at times of her choosing. She was nevertheless very loving and brave.

Schatje (Dutch word for “dear”) was a wild deer who chose to befriend me and one other neighbor, approaching us as a young doe. We are usually warned not to let urban deer grow accustomed to us as this can endanger them – when they trust people, it makes them vulnerable to those who want to hurt or eradicate them. Schatje was so persistent, however, that I broke that rule and got to know her very well over a five-year period.

Jonahay and Schatje IMG_1752 ©Maria de BruynBoth Don-tso and Schatje were very curious. This came home to me one summer day when a strange incident occurred. My other cat, Jonahay, had become agitated when Schatje came near and when I tried to move him away, he displaced his aggression and attacked Don-tso who was nearest to him. As I tried to intervene between Jonahay and Don-tso, I felt a nudge behind me – Schatje had marched up and was trying to get a good look at what was happening! As she approached, little Don-tso gathered up her courage and stood her ground – she was actually ready to spring at Schatje, who was considerably larger! I finally got Don-tso and Jonahay into the house and things calmed down.

Don-tso says not too close M de BruynOver the years, as I’ve watched Schatje’s family and other deer visit my yard, it’s become apparent how observant and curious they are. Undoubtedly, their curiosity plays a role in their survival skills – it pays for them to notice changes in the environment that could pose a danger or threat to their well-being. Sudden changes – movement and sound – will evoke the well-known white-tailed deer response where they raise their tails like warning flags and stamp their feet.

Ne-zhoni alarm©Maria de Bruyn

In other cases, however, when something in the environment has changed during their absence, they will investigate. Scientists believe that this curiosity provides them with information that can be helpful in knowing, for example, where they might find new sources of food or possible obstacles in their way when they want to make a quick escape. When I have made new additions to my yard, some of the deer – most noticeably Schatje and her offspring – have taken quite some time to examine them through sight, smell and touch.

Schatje looks at bird photo ©Maria de Bruyn

If new yard art moves, it may take a while before they approach and some individuals will never get close. Others are braver, however, like these young ones; the doe exploring the whirling bird did so after about four days of cautious investigation, coming a bit closer each day.

deer with whirling bird IMG_5574© Maria de Bruyn resattracted to toys ©Maria de Bruyn

 The deer can also be curious about other animals, like this fawn who wanted to get close to a squirrel – who definitely was not interested in any togetherness.

Deer with squirrel IMG_2151©Maria de BruynWhile I may not meet another deer who is as trustingly curious as Schatje, her descendants will most likely continue to explore my yard and satisfy their curiosity about any changes happening here. And in doing so, they will help satisfy some of my curiosity about deer behavior!

Animals that carry ticks

Thanks for visiting my blog! So, this edition is about a part of my beautiful world that is actually not so appealing to me, but it does represent some of my learning about nature over the past few years. The photos aren’t beautiful, but they do show something interesting (at least to me). Be forewarned! (And next week, back to some nice bird photos.)

Many proponents of getting rid of deer in our town argue that this will help eradicate the ticks that carry Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other tick-borne diseases. It is true that ticks get on the deer, but what many people don’t know is that other animals transport these nasty little bloodsuckers as well.

According to the NC State University Department of Entomology, ticks go through four stages in their development – egg, larva, nymph, adult. The developing ticks need blood meals, with most species taking it from a different type of host at each stage. As seen in the photo of the poor white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) below, the ticks start out tiny but swell up tremendously when they have had a meal.

deer with several ticks IMG_6000 ©Maria de Bruynres

The larvae of the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), which can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever, take blood from white-footed field mice and pine or meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus), like the one pictured here. The nymphs go for somewhat bigger mammals such as opossums or raccoons, while the adults prefer meals from humans and dogs. Black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) larvae and nymphs feed on small mammals and lizards, while the nymphs and adults also seek out larger mammals, including dogs and deer. Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are another tick host.

meadow vole IMG_4712©Maria de BruynRabbit with tick  IMG_8196©Maria de Bruynres

In the past couple years, the first wildlife that I have seen carrying ticks in the spring are birds – common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) seem to be a favorite host, although I’ve seen them on other birds as well. The ticks can sense body heat and will even drop down from a tree onto another living species. This undoubtedly accounts for the first tick that gave me a bite requiring antibiotics to prevent Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It was during a visit to an exotic wildlife sanctuary that has been surrounded by an electric fence for more than 30 years so that no deer have been there for decades.

Common grackle 4 ©Maria de BruynCommon grackle 1 ©Maria de Bruyn

Ticks also wait in the grass to latch onto animals – and people – walking by. Fortunately, I’ve never found ticks on my indoor-outdoor cat, but I have found them on me after being in the yard and out on nature walks. Different techniques for loosening their grip have worked well – a new skill that I had never anticipated learning. There are few animal species that I really dislike, but I must admit that ticks are definitely one of them. But I also know now that eradicating deer is not the solution to getting rid of the ticks.

Next blog: Big Blue – my avian nemesis!