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In The Country

I’m Dreaming of a White-tailed Christmas

Tim Iverson

Twas a month long of Christmas, and all through the land,
One creature was stirring, a beast called man.
He was preoccupied with gifts all covered in bows
and a large furry cervidae with a strange red nose.

In the fairest of lands, donned after Queen Mary
Herein a species airing white on it’s derry.
Nigh draws the season for Santa and sleigh,
but here you won’t find reindeer, much to your dismay.

We hunt them in droves, no predators are near.
No wolves or lions on the mountains ‘round here.
They’ll eat fruits, and acorns, and shoots, and all berries.
When young their antlers grow quite hairy.

Oft guilty of spreading lyme via a tick,
A wasting disease can make them quite sick.
What should you do if you see fawns alone?
Simply nothing is what most biologists condone.

When grown bucks and does will go into rut,
In November they’ll mate to excess and glut.
Throughout the year wandering near and far,
Their main predator is most probably your car.

They can’t fly, or can they? They must!
Through the field, to the forest! As quick as a gust!
It’s at this point the author will leave you with prose.
He’s no more to say on deer with a red nose.

(12/2015) December conjures imagery of a winter wonderland and provides some of the warmest memories during one of the coldest times of the year. Santa and his reindeer are as deeply embedded into the modern tradition as trees and nativity scenes are. Maryland doesn’t feature reindeer as part of our wildlife. We do have two types of deer that call Maryland home, the White-tailed Deer and the Sika Deer. The White-tailed Deer is native to North America, while Sika Deer hail from Japan. In Maryland SIka Deer can be found almost exclusively on the eastern shore, whereas White-tailed Deer can be found abundantly throughout the entire state.

The White-tailed deer is a highly adaptable generalist. Usually preferring dense woodland, which provides ample food and shelter, these deer have increasingly carved out a niche within urban areas. During the early part of the 20th century White-tailed Deer were heavily exploited and their populations fell to critical levels. Through the lobbying efforts of hunting and environmental groups strict regulations were put into place to encourage the success of the species. By 1930 the total U.S. population was estimated at approximately 250,000 - 300,000. Deer were hunted so aggressively in the previous two centuries that they were brought to the brink of extinction, which seems unfathomable when considering their present conservation status. Today some estimates put the national population between 30 - 45 million. The National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, MD has such an overcrowding problem they recently began a sterilization program to curb population growth on their campus.

Without natural predators helping to thin the herd a number or ecological side effects have emerged. Car impacts and collisions are the most immediate and direct ways high populations affect people. Both West Virginia and Pennsylvania rank within the national top 5 deer collisions per capita, according to State Farm Insurance. They also have more subtle effects on the world at large though. Regionally high populations have caused documented change to forest ecologies. Biodiversity has in some cases been altered by the ripple effect of decades of rising populations and their browsing, or eating, habits. By eating popular foods for some bird species, these species will relocate to where there is an available food source. Understory growth has also been under transformation. Their eating habits help shape tree, bush, grass, fern, and other plant species found in the forest. In addition to eating shoots and berries White-tails eat acorns and seeds. By eating these seeds and excreting them in other locations they have assisted in the relocation and expansion of territory of both native and invasive species of plants and trees. With more deer this process covers more ground at a faster rate.

White-tail Deer have long been known as a vector-borne transmitter of lymes disease. Deer Ticks or Black Legged Ticks transmit Lymes disease through a bite, and will often hitch rides with deer and other mammals. While deer are not guilty of direct transmission they are guilty by association. Deer have also been confronted with another more serious illness in recent years called Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The Maryland Department of Natural Resources states, "CWD is classified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) and attacks the brain of cervids [deer, moose, elk], producing small lesions that eventually result in death." Basically, this type of disease attacks the brain by creating lesions or holes in the brain which gradually turn the brain into swiss cheese and is progressively degenerative. CWD functions the same way Mad Cow Disease does, with the exception that there has never been a documented case that CWD has been transmissible to humans. MD DNR has randomly tested over 8,000 deer since 2002, and since then only 6 have ever tested positive for CWD. While not transmissible to humans certain precautions are recommended when handling, dressing, and processing venison. Legal measures have also been put into effect to help prevent the spread of CWD outside known affected areas, which to date is exclusively Alleghany County located in western Maryland.

People often wonder if they find a deer alone in the wild if something is wrong or if it has been abandoned. Generally, this is not the case. Early in a fawn’s life the mother actually leaves newborns completely alone. Her presence can attract predators. This is a biological adaptation, and the fawn is well camouflaged from potential threats. If you do happen to find one, while not recommended, touching it will not cause the mother to abandon her fawn due to human odors. Feeding it or touching it can be dangerous for both parties though. Fawns have specific diets and feeding it something outside of that menu can cause larger health problems and cause them to become accustomed to humans, which can be problematic for survival. The best thing to do is just admire the fawn from a distance, and if several days go by without any notice of an attending doe a wildlife rehabilitator may need to be called.

The rut, or mating season, occurs from October to December. Fawns are born in May, and will hide in seclusion for the first few weeks of its life. The doe will attend to her fawn a few times a day to nurse, and only once the fawn is strong enough to stand and run will they follow her. After approximately two to three months fawns can take care of themselves and may separate from their mothers. Bucks lead solitary lives, except during mating season when several may join together to form bachelor bands to attract mates. Does will typically join or remain parts of small packs. Together they can forage for berries, plant stems, leaves, grasses, and planted crops. Their white tails will raise to signal danger to others, and white-tailed deer have been recorded at speeds as fast as 45 mph. Only bucks will grow antlers, which they’ll use to defend themselves and establish dominance over other males. Antlers fall off and regrow every year. Growth begins in late spring, and are at first covered in soft tissues called velvet.

Whether a hunter or an animal admirer these cousins of Christmas celebrities are here in full force. They’ve battled back from the edge and found ways to adapt and survive in the modern world. Remember to watch the roads for twitterpated Bambi’s during this White-tailed Christmas.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson