White-tailed Deer In The Wild At Lynde Shores
In mid-March of 2014, Bob and I took a drive out to Thickson’s Woods in Oshawa to look for the Great Horned Owls reported to have been seen in the tall pines there. On our way home, we took a slow drive along Hall’s Road South, which borders the Cranberry West Tract of Lynde Shores Conservation Area in Whitby. There, we espied a small herd of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) lingering in the warm sunshine.
It was getting late in the afternoon so we were not inclined to spend more time birdwatching but just thought we would take a spin to the bottom of the road and scout for animals in the adjacent fields. When we spotted a photographer with his lens trained on a wide expanse of deep, dry grass, Bob and I took a harder look, and there we spotted a small herd of deer.
The photographer was on the opposite side of the meadow from ourselves, and as he moved in on the deer, they quickly became spooked and took off towards the north into a narrow stretch of forest. We poked along the roadway in our car knowing that the deer would eventually, in all likelihood, exit onto the wide trail on the other side of the trees.
We pulled off onto the shoulder of the road at the head of the trail, and while we waited for the deer to reappear, Bob and I were taken by surprise by a little Raccoon (Procyon lotor) perched atop a fence post with its nose buried in a pie pan. It was taking advantage of bird food left by generous nature lovers for the wild birds in the area and was so intent on stuffing itself that the raccoon barely took time to cast us a glance.
Moments later, the herd of deer sauntered out onto the trail next to a clump of Red Osier Dogwood. Joining them in the sunshine were a couple of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). It seemed that all of the creatures were drawn to the “free” food. Deer are comfortable in a variety of habitats so long as there is a good mix of food, water and cover. There at Lynde Shores, a broad stretch of mixed forest bordered by the Cranberry Marsh, farmers’ fields, open meadows and Lake Ontario shoreline provides a perfect habitat.
During the winter months, White-tailed Deer prefer forests of young coniferous trees, cedar and hemlock especially, because they provide the best shelter from harsh winds and falling snow. Dense stands of these trees also help to moderate the severe temperatures.
In total, there were seven deer in the small herd, but only five of them were sufficiently tempted to remain in the wide open, exposed to our watchful eyes. The deer appeared to be young members of the herd based on their size, but White-tailed Deer are the smallest members of the deer family found in North America. Males can achieve a weight of 150-300 pounds (68-136 kg), females weighing about two-thirds of that.
When Bob and I have spotted White-tailed Deer during the summer months, their reddish-brown coats really stand out against the green vegetation of the growing season. Perhaps to help them elude predators, their coats fade to a dull greyish-brown in winter. They have white on their throats and bellies, around their eyes and noses and on the underside of their tails. We could not tell if any of these deer are males, bucks, because by this late in the winter, their antlers would have fallen off. We did spot a buck with, probably, this same herd about a month earlier, and he still carried his rack at that time.
As Bob and I looked on, they bickered with one another, fighting over the seeds on the ground. First one, and then another, would lash out by kicking with their front feet. If there are too many deer competing for food on one area, or if the depth of snow makes food hard to come by, a herd may have difficulty surviving the winter. Their diet during the winter months is primarily the buds and twigs of woody plants.
A Deer’s diet does change with the seasons, but they are herbivores and will graze on most any available plant matter. The summer diet is made up of leaves, fruits, grass, and lichens, to name a few, and when autumn comes, acorns, nuts, and corn fill the need. Being ruminants, a Deer’s special 4-chambered stomach enables it to feed quickly and digest the plant matter later when under cover. White-tailed Deer will then regurgitate and chew their cud.
A single Deer usually ranges over an area that is less than a square mile (1.5 km), and for most of the year, does and bucks stay in separate groups; any fawns will be found with the does. During the winter, however, White-tailed Deer will congregate in larger groups wherever there is adequate food and shelter. Such an area is referred to as a “winter deer yard”, and what is does is help the deer conserve energy because trails become well tamped down and make movement easier, and there is safety in numbers.
As I photographed the White-tailed Deer, they were acutely aware of our presence, but the availability of more birdseed further along the trail made a couple of the deer daring enough to come in our direction. The next thing we knew, one deer caught our scent, being downwind of us, and immediately started to sprint towards the safety of the forest.
When a White-tailed Deer becomes alarmed, it uses different methods to warn other Deer of perceived danger. It may stomp its feet, snort, or raise its tail and, in so doing, reveal the stark white underside as well as its white buttocks. For a White-tailed Deer, this is a sure sign of danger, a white “flag”. A Deer’s tail is broad at the base and almost one foot long (30.5 cms) so it really stands out as a warning signal when flourished over a Deer’s back. So, the deer lagging behind, seeing the white “flag”, quickly bounded into the bush following the rest of the herd. Bob and I had watched all of this action unfold over the course of 15 minutes. It is amazing what you can see if you are on the lookout for wildlife. Of course, luck plays an important part, too.
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