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Posts Tagged ‘white-tailed deer’

White-tailed deer are ubiquitous in the Eastern and Midwestern states. They are like pigeons or raccoons or brown rats, suddenly making appearances in the most human-dominated environments, and if you’re from this part of the country, you won’t bat an eyelash. The deer are here, just as the sun shines or the rain falls. 

But the odd thing about white-tailed is the species is unusually old.  Kurten and Anderson claim that oldest remains of the species have been dated to 3.5 million years old.  The deer has done well in all those years, and it is often said that the white-tailed deer is the ancestor of both the black-tailed deer and the mule deer.  The black-tail evolved when an offshoot of the white-tail became isolated along the Pacific Coast some 2 million years ago when the glaciers advanced through to mid-continent.

As those glaciers retreated, the white-tail expanded west once again, and the black-tails that had colonized the arid and montane parts of the interior West apparently crossed with them. Valerius Geist made much hay about the white-tail mitochondrial DNA that is now found in mule deer, as did I. Using Geist’s ideas, I even posited that the mule deer was a species younger than the domestic dog, because it is a true hybrid species that only evolved within the past 10,000 years. 

Since Geist wrote his book on deer biology and taxonomy, most researchers have generally not followed his lead. Most experts consider the black-tail and the mule deer to be the same species, and the best analogy to think of these two forms is they mirror our classification of brown bears on this continent.  If it is a large brown bear from Pacific Coast, it’s called a brown bear. If it is a small brown or “grizzled” bear from the interior West or interior Alaska, it is called a grizzly. The only exception to this rule is all brown bears in California were called grizzlies, even though California did have large coastal brown bears.

This is pretty much the geographic distinction that is applied to black-tailed deer versus mule deer. Black-tails live along the coast, while mule deer live in the interior. 

Most authorities generally don’t pay much attention to the odd similarity between mule deer and white-tail mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother, and it is possible that there really was a female white-tail that bred with a male ancestral mule deer some 10,000 years ago. For whatever reason, virtually all mule deer descend from this female white tail, even though the bulk of their ancestry is that arid-land black-tail stock.

This suggestion has been pooh-poohed because modern white-tail/mule hybrids have a low survival rate in the wild. They inherit a mixture of the mule deer’s  evasive stotting behavior and the white-tail’s evasive bounding behavior, and deer with such mixed behavior more easily fall to predators.

But it is possible that a hopeful monster sort of appeared from this ancient hybridization, a hybrid that had a good enough evasive behavior to avoid predation and pass on her genes.

White-tailed deer are among the most studied of all wildlife, but the literature on their DNA is rather sparse. We know from their recent history that white-tailed deer were very close to extinction by the turn of the twentieth century. Industrial-level slaughter for their much coveted hides, which were in great demand for work clothes, had reduced their numbers throughout their range in the United States. Packs of free-roaming dogs killed fawns and ran down the adults, and market hunters sold the venison to restaurants as exotic fare.

State after state passed conservation laws on white-tailed deer. States began to transport deer into deer sparse regions, and by the middle part of the twentieth century, deer numbers had recovered to allow some hunting. By the time I was born in the 1980s, there were more white-tailed deer in North America than there were in 1492. 

Such a boom and bust history surely has left a legacy in white-tail DNA. As the older species, I would expect white-tails to have greater genetic diversity than the mule and black-tail species.

But maybe not. The white-tail likely underwent a severe genetic bottleneck as a result of all that unregulated hunting and dogging. Maybe they really are really quite inbred after all.

Of course, that diversity could have been somewhat captured if deer from Mexico and Central and South America would be included in the studies. Yes, white-tailed deer, unlike Mule deer and black-tails do range south of Mexico. 

One of my most prized possessions is a shed antler from a Columbian black-tail that was given to me by a friend who came to visit us from Oregon this summer. (Check out her blog here). 

It wasn’t the biggest shed I’d ever seen, but it looked like a sort of hybrid between the mule deer and the white-tail. It was of a creature from a different forest, where the evergreens dominate and the rain falls all through winter. Our white-tails are creatures of the oak woods and the cornfields, where the snow falls in the winter and air gets so cold it cuts you like a knife. 

But they are kin, connected by that common ancestor in that primal white-tail of 3.5 million years ago. Their kind were here long before humans ever stepped foot on this continent, and the thrived through the long days of the fellest predation from bone-crushing dogs, running hyenas, and saber-toothed cats. 

Our humanity can cause their destruction, but at the same time, we’ve created a true deer utopia of sorts, as we’ve killed off all the wolves and cougars and most of us don’t even bother to carry a gun in the woods anymore.

 But just as glaciers advance and retreat and the fortunes of predators wax and wane, so too will this utopia. Climate change and development are already taking a toll on mule deer numbers, as are the growing populations of traditional predators.

Evolution has set these deer on a course with our own kind’s meteoric rise. We have conjured and conjoined and manufactured and manipulated until we now exist as near deities on our own planet. Near deities, maybe, but we are also surely aliens.

So from our deer parks of suburbia we will watch them with benign curiosity, and maybe we’ll take time to know them, to ask about them, to consider them more closely.

And do not for a second consider them or us fixed in our places in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

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red fox at night

Our motor vehicles speed away on ribbons of asphalt. We run along them as they cut along the cities and suburbs but also as they wind their way through the pastures and cornfields and the stands of forest that somewhat resemble wilderness.

Our roads intersect their trails. The wild beasts scurry across them when they cannot hear the whirring of tires and the humming of the internal combustion engines. They race across hoping almost as an act of instinctual faith that that vehicles won’t slam into them and take the great toll of impersonal and unintentional predation that we call roadkill.

And so one night this week, I found myself winding along desolate roads in Western Pennsylvania. The darkness of night enveloped all around me. Only the lights on my vehicle pierced this veil.

And as a rounded a bend in the road, my headlights scanned down upon what I instantly recognized as a deer. But as I motored in closer, the lights revealed a massive buck with a great crown of white rapiers. The rut is nigh, and this is the time of thick necks and grunting and long solitary perambulations through the darkness. Soon, the sensual scents of the does will cast into the wind, and the ancient rites of courtship and copulation will commence.

And the bucks that once wandered around as comrades in the oak woods with velvet headdresses as the deerflies tore at their ears in the July swselter are now turning into the worst rivals.

But by mid-December, the does will stop their sweet waftings, and the testosterone levels will drop in the bodies of the bucks. By January, the antlers will fall, and the rivals will bunch up as comrades again, ready for the long freezing time where the mast of autumn better be bountiful enough to see the deer until first green grass of March.

I shouted with elation from my driver’s seat:

“Look at that buck!”

The buck looked alarmed at my stopping then moseyed into the woods along the road. I motored on.

Jenna asked,  “Would you have shot that one?”

And all I could say is, “Yes.”

That same night, on another desolate road in Western Pennsylvania, I made a turn onto a crooked course that skirted along the edge of a uncut cornfield.

As I approached the edge of the cornfield, a red fox charged out of a hidden covert, and then darted into the tall corn.

He was a beautiful specimen, probably looking at a nice night of mousing where no one could lay eyes upon him, especially not someone with a nice little predator rifle.

We are not long before the days of the foothold traps set in for the red fox and all the other little fur-bearers of the forest and field. Those traps won’t fool many of the old veterans, the ones that have run that gauntlet for a winter or two or five or six,  but the young rangers of the year will surely fall.

But in the next spring, the vixens will whelp in their dens, and the fields will fill with young rangers again.

We watched the fox slink into the corn.

“That was the first red fox I ever saw!” Jenna shouted at me. I guess Florida is pretty depauperate of wild canids, for she told me that there are no red foxes in the lower parts of the peninsula. They are so common here outside of the subtropics. They appear as eternal as the hills and the rocks and the streams, but the truth is they were absent in this part of the continent until the Europeans came. Then, they wandered down out Canada and New England into the newly cleared lands. The legend goes that they were stocked here from England or Germany, a legend that goes in nicely with the repeopling of this land with people mostly of that ancestry after having driven off and subjugated the descendants of that first colonization from Siberia.

As we motored along back into Ohio, the deer stood along the road, almost daring themselves to jump in front of our vehicle. One stupid little button buck staggered out in front of us. He stared up at the headlights in the cliched expression and then turned his head to stagger around to the opposite side of the road.

And we motored on in the darkness. My mind was on the road, but I thought of the paradox of the blacktop. The road and the motor car have given us what appears to be unlimited freedom.  We can cross the continent in a matter of days, if we just get in our vehicle and go on the road.

But in that freedom, we are limited. We must follow that road, as does everyone else who travels.

But the deer and the foxes and all the wild beasts of the fields roam their trails. These paths might be ancient, but they are made through the inertia of instinct, always seeking the path of least resistance to get from the bedding areas to the grazing or hunting grounds.

The beast that thrive here now thrive mostly because of us. We have killed off the wolves and the cougars, and then modern agriculture has made Appalachian hill farming mostly unprofitable.  Farm families are rarer and rarer upon the land, and the thickets and coverts grow to hide the wild creatures more completely.

And so we’ve let these parallel worlds grow up in our wastegrounds.  Most of us never pay much attention to these worlds, but when we go upon our ribbons of blacktop at night, our paths meet. Sometimes, we slam into deer and crush foxes and raccoons. But more often, we just meet. Our headlights illuminate the denizens of that other world.

Perhaps we allow ourselves the chance to marvel at them, and maybe we can consider their plight as beings more deeply tied to the ecosystem. We can maybe consider them a bit, and then realize that we are also tied to it. We’ve built walls around us to insulate ourselves from the realities of the cold, heat, parasites, and hunger.

But these walls are but edifices of delusion. Nature’s laws still abide with us, and that our dominance is only temporary and maybe only illusory.

And when we consider their plight, their existence, we must ultimately fully consider our own.

At least, that is what I’d hope we’d do as the night draws in darker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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buck white antler

The second Thursday in November has just passed. In most of the country, thoughts will be about the big feast that comes exactly seven days later, but not in my part of the world.

This coming week does include American Thanksgiving. Big family meals will be held that day, and swarms of people will go charging out to shopping malls on Friday.

But in West Virginia, another holiday takes precedence: “buck gun season.”  This coming Monday, the woods be filled with more loud booms than the Fourth of July.  Organic protein and “horns” will be the prize, and a few more forest destroying cervids will be removed from the population before the coming winter turns them into twig chomping fiends.

When I was a child, all sort of people came into the rural districts, often people who had grown up in the area but had gone into the industrial parts of Ohio for work. Ohio’s deer season, “shotgun only,” came later in the year, but West Virginia’s came the week of Thanksgiving. If one wanted to visit the family for the holiday, why not come a few days early and drop a buck for the freezer?

It was such a big event that the school was out all week, not just Thursday and Friday. We received a truncated Christmas vacation, but school attendance during that week would have been terrible. So the district let us all out.

And the tradition continues. I don’t know of a single school district in West Virginia that stays open the week of Thanksgiving.

In fact, virtually every college or university in West Virginia has a week-long holiday this coming week. It is that big a deal.

And it’s not like the deer are massive trophies. The state has antler restrictions in only a few public hunting lands, and in most of the state, there will be many young bucks taken. Because the “antlerless” firearms season occurs at the same time, button bucks will be taken as well. When that many younger bucks are removed from the population, the number of mature deer with nice racks becomes much lower.

But this is a state that allows the hunter to take six deer a year.  If you have a family who owns land and have two hunters who have resident rights to it, you’re talking potentially twelve deer killed a year, which could feed a family of four fairly well.

I come from a family of deer hunters, but they were not venison eaters. When I was a kid, every deer that got shot was given to a relative or someone who couldn’t hunt. My grandpa, who loved to hunt everything and would have us eat cooked squirrel brains, wouldn’t even field dress a deer. That was my dad’s job, and for whatever reason, if my dad or my grandpa even smelled venison cooking, it would make their stomachs weak.

I never had this problem, and in the last few years, I’ve learned how to cook venison properly. I much prefer the meat to beef, especially when we’re talking leaving certain steak cuts rare.  These deer have been living well on acorns, and their flesh has that oaky, rich taste, which some call gamey. I call it delicious.

I’ll be in the woods early Monday morning. I don’t know if I’ll get anything.  The odds are usually against my killing anything that first week.  I don’t have access to the best deer bedding grounds, and the hunting pressure means they won’t be moving into the area where I hunt.

My favorite time to go is Thursday evening, when more than half the local hunters are at home watching football games and digesting turkey. I would rather go through waterboarding than watch a football game, so it’s not big loss for me.

I am a naturalist hunter on the quest for meat. My ancestors in Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain hunted the red deer and the roe thousands of years. They got their meat from the forest.

I am doing the same.

And if you really wanted to know what I think of deer, I’d have to say that I love them. They are fascinating animals.  This particular species has been roaming North America virtually unchanged for 3 million years. This animal watched the mammoths rise and fall. It was coursed by Armbruster’s wolf and the American cheetahs.  It saw the elk come down from Beringia– and the bison too. It ran the back country with primitive horses and several species of pronghorn. It quivered and blew out at jaguars and American lions that stalked in the bush, and it dodged the Clovis points of the Siberian hunters who first colonized this land.

The white-tailed deer thrives so well, but this coming week is the beginning of the great cull. Fewer deer mean less pressure on the limited winter forage, which means healthier deer in the early spring. Better winter and spring condition means that does have had a chance to carry fawns to term, and mature does usually have twins if the conditions are good.  Healthier bucks get a better chance to grow nice antlers for the coming year.

A public resource is being managed. Organic meat raised without hormones or antibiotics is easily procured, and stories and yarns are being compiled for exposition that rivals any trophy mount on the wall.

I know deer stories, including ones about the people I barely knew and are no longer with us.

For example:

My Grandpa Westfall once went on a deer drive for my great grandpa, who was getting older.  He valued his clean shot placement, as many of those old time hunters did, and he would not shoot a deer on the run.

But as he grew older, deer hunting became harder for him, so my grandpa decided to jump one out to him.

My grandpa went rustling through the brush to drive one into my great grandpa’s ran, and he happened to bump a nice little buck and a few does that went running in his direction.

Expecting to hear rifle shots, my grandpa was a bit surprised to hear nothing. So when he approached the deer stand, he saw my great grandpa sitting there.

“Did you see those deer?”

“What deer?”

“I ran three out to you. A buck and two does. Why didn’t you shoot?”

“I didn’t see or hear any deer.”

“Well, you should have at least heard them.”

“Well, if there were that many deer coming my way, they must’ve had their sneakers on.”

He didn’t want to tell my grandpa that he appreciated the effort, but that deer drives were against his ethics. He shot deer cleanly, or he didn’t shoot them at all.

These old men will be with me when I’m out on Monday.  I go in their memory, participating in the Great West Virginia Deer Cull.

 

 

 

 

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Bucks are starting to spar. Luckily, right in front of the game camera!

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nice buck

At low light and nearly 100 yards away, but his antlers are in velvet and soon will be hard “horn.”

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Licky licky

This doe just walked up to have me take her photo.

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She almost looks like some kind of antelope in the tall grass of Africa.

You can also see her long whiskers, which aren’t very obvious unless you’re very close up.

 

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White-tailed deer are pretty photogenic.

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Early season apples are a good treat for summertime deer:

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