Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What About Those Deer?

Nothing seems to elicit ooh’s and aah’s from hikers as much as a chance encounter with a Whitetail Deer.  I used to react that way 30 years ago.  Now, when I can’t seem to walk anywhere without seeing deer, they tend to lose their allure. 

I’ve begun to think of deer in the same way that urban dwellers often view rats.  If you see one during the day, there are a dozen hidden away that you won’t see until the sun goes down.  Wait for that period between sunset and dark and you’re likely to find deer coming out from everywhere.

This photo, taken near dark through my dining room window, shows 22 deer browsing in the field behind the house.  I’m still debating how the increasing deer population will factor into my management decisions.  I manage Blue Jay Barrens in an attempt to create healthy native plant and animal communities with an emphasis on developing populations of rare and unusual species.  A major component of management is the identification of variables that affect achievement of the desired goals.  Deer are a variable that will definitely influence the nature of the plant populations.  Will their actions work against my achieving the desired management goals and what can be done about it if they do?

Signs of deer activity are easy to spot.  Deer trails are showing up everywhere.

The trails through the tall grasses are so numerous that it’s almost like following a maze.

With the trails comes soil disturbance.  Disturbed soil is necessary for the colonization of many plant species.  This is good when those species are natives.  Unfortunately, aggressive non-native invasives thrive in these situations and can use these trails to infiltrate native stands.

Deer seem to feed on just about any plant.  Their constant browsing often shapes the growth pattern of woody shrubs.  Patches of Late Low Blueberry, Vaccinium pallidum, all display a flat top appearance due to constant browsing.

The pruning causes an increase in stem development like that found in a well groomed hedge. 

Due to a profusion of buds along the stem, deer browsing does not typically kill woody plants.  Buds just below the browse point are ready to take over as leaders and regrow what was lost.

Deer tend to favor certain plant species.  As the deer population increases, less desirable plant species begin to show signs of deer browsing.

Yucca, a non-native plant in this area, has leaves tougher than anything else in the landscape.  This is the first year I’ve noticed them being eaten by deer.  If the deer would concentrate their efforts on non-native species, I wouldn’t be questioning their desirability at Blue Jay Barrens.

Deer are certainly doing their part to recycle plant material back through the soil ecosystem.  The question is whether those droppings come from plants adapted to surviving continual browsing or rarities such as the orchids that suffer greatly from an annual pruning.  It will certainly be interesting to see what changes the deer bring to the landscape during the next decade.


  1. Excellent post. We have more and more deer here in the city, too. Some neighbors first thought their gardens were ravaged by vandals, then discovered by viewing their security cameras that the vandals were deer, not human.

  2. Hi Steve... Oh my goodness you have your own herd there!!
    They can be very destructive for sure even on a small scale!!
    I just can't imagine seeing that many at a time!!
    I have half a dozen at my place and they ate the tops of many of my flowers in the garden and tree tips!! grrr!!

    Maine has had a deer population drop this winter because of the extreme cold,snowy winter and there vulnerability to Coyotes!!

    Interesting post!

  3. Hi Lois. It doesn't take a few deer very long to tear up a yard. Those landscaped properties must be like a huge smorgasbord.

    Hi Grace. If Maine is running out of deer, maybe Ohio can come to the rescue.