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  • Ron Davidson

Oh Deer!

In North America, we have several species of deer, but in our area, only two can be found; the Moose and the White-tailed Deer. Yes, believe it or not, Moose are deer!

Now before we explore the lives of these familiar animals, let me remind you, Santa’s Reindeer type deer, are also deer but have morphological differences [which] separate them from ‘typical’ deer. For one thing, both male and female Reindeer (or Caribou) grow antlers annually, while in our deer, only the male generally produces antlers, although a female can do so occasionally. Also, the nasal bones in Reindeer are adapted to allow the animal to safely breathe freezing cold air, like when pulling a sled!

Virtually everyone has seen at least one White-tailed Deer. They are common across Canada and the USA and even as far south as Bolivia, being one of the most widespread deer in the world. They vary in colour and size throughout their range but essentially look similar enough you will recognize one wherever you see it. They are long-legged, robust-bodied, brown animals with powerful, thick necks and attractive faces. The distinguishing feature, when seen well, is the whitetail [which] is most visible when the deer is running away from threats. Most of the time, the tail is held downward, but when danger looms, it is lifted vertically and held in this position until the deer is satisfied it has escaped the threat. Its main purpose is to warn other deer of danger as they see the white flash and instantly react, no questions asked!

Males are bigger than females, weighing between 70-140 kg, while the female is only 2/3 that weight. As excellent runners and jumpers they can leap fences with ease, clearing 2.5-meter structures. Perhaps even more astounding is, the males can leap as far as nine meters horizontally at speeds of up to 58 km/hr! I watched a young buck this week, as it fled an unknown threat, and can attest, the length of the jump is awe-inspiring.

The furry coat of mammals is correctly called its pelage. The deer change their colour, by changes in their pelage, from summer to winter and from newborns to adulthood. Newborns are spotted, and a lovely rusty brown; the summer adult is also rusty coloured but unspotted. In winter, the fur gets thicker and grayer in colour. Regardless of its age or the time of year, the underside of the tail is always immaculate white.

Their diet is variable, but one thing it has in common with cows is, it has a four-compartmented stomach to aid in the digestion of rough forage. Preferring succulent foods when available, deer shift to woody plants in winter [which] are harder to digest but nourishing enough to ensure survival. Fruits and nuts are taken when available as well.

To mark territories and communicate chemically, both males and females have three scent glands (between the toes of each foot, on the outside of the shank and on the inner surface of the heel).

As the males grow their antlers, starting in the spring and throughout the summer, the antlers are covered with a soft velvety material. By autumn, they have reached their full size, and the velvet is rubbed off against trees and shrubs. This is when the males can be aggressive towards each other, waging short but sometimes violent battles. The winner gets to choose its mate, with the mating generally occurring in November. After a gestation period of almost 200 days, the female can have one or two fawns, and rarely three. The calves are often left alone for much of the day, relying on their weak scent and cryptic coloration to protect them from predators. Weaned at about three months of age, the pelage changes from the spotted coat of the youth to the gray winter coat in September.

Although mostly solitary for much of the year, the deer gather in ‘yards” to overwinter, where trails are kept open by many hooves trampling the snow. In case you’re wondering, the biggest rack I could find reference to was a 47 point buck shot in Tennessee – wow!

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at LinkedIn and Facebook.

#geoffcarpentier #columnist #walksoftly #column #conservation

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