Oh deer!

- FRED SEITZ -

– FRED SEITZ –

The white-tailed deer, the largest native mammal in the metropolitan area, has been a prominent area resident for decades. The big browsers, which stand 3 to 4 feet tall and can weigh up to 300 pounds as adults, continue to make their rounds in the parks, bike paths and backyards in Hyattsville and seem less fearful than ever.

Bucks and does usually form separate small groups with a dominant male or female in each group.  Behaviorally, they often manage their group status with a variety of ear lowering, aggressive looks and an occasional kick to a challenging deer. To designate territory, males will engage in tree rubbing and ground scraping; rarely will there be the head butting shown in nature films, even during mating season.

Although they enjoy native plants in Magruder Park, the deer do not limit their browsing to the park, but have frequently leapt  tall fences in a single bound and invaded backyards to nibble and defoliate shrubs, lawns and vegetables.  In winter, deer often chew branches off small trees.

In Maryland’s colonial past, the local hoofer was a popular source for food and clothing among early settlers and Native Americans, and a popular food among the state’s other  predators of that period, wolves and cougars.  While the furry predators have moved West, the former colonists, for a time, threatened the deer with forest harvests and development.  Maryland’s White- tailed Deer Management plan indicates that in 1729, Maryland began to prohibit hunting of deer between January and July.

In early 20th-century Maryland, deer could be found only in Allegany and Garrett counties. Deer hunts were prohibited statewide in 1902, and deer refuges were created in 1920. Hunting was again permitted in 1927 in Allegany County; today, it’s allowed throughout the state during hunting season.

The number of deer have fluctuated over the years, estimates ranging from 246,000 in 1998 to 233,000 today. Managed hunts and contraceptives are among the tools used to help control the state’s deer population.

The movie Bambi endeared deer to most of the population. Does often give birth to one or two young in June, and to this day, when people see a fawn by itself, they may believe it is abandoned and needs help. (I experienced this phenomenon when hiking  in Catoctin Park some years back.) But typically, Mom has gone off to graze so she can produce enough milk to keep the fawn nourished, and will return after her snack.

Many recent human interactions with deer have convinced some that Bambi has turned to the dark side.  While deer do seem to devour native plants in the woods and may compromise the woodlands by browsing shrubs, they also enjoy both well-groomed and  weedy backyard gardens. State official George Timko, assistant director for the Department of Natural Resource’s deer project, indicates that these yards offer welcome habitat with food and without hunters.

The DNR page lists native plants and trees which deer supposedly will not eat.  Some of their suggestions include foam flowers (the local deer have never touched mine), jack-in-the-pulpit, purple coneflower, wood fern, Christmas fern, serviceberry and spicebush.  The site also suggests that some repellants, fences and dogs may help protect yards. (One of my dogs is an effective “cop” for the deer who can easily jump my fence.)

Deer also damage crops, adding costs to farmers and grocery shoppers, and often contribute to vehicle damage and collisions. They have also been cited as vectors for lyme disease due to their tendency to carry ticks – but this is something of a bad rap, as many more ubiquitous critters, such as mice, squirrels, cats, raccoons and dogs, also provide free tick transport.

Deer elicit varied responses from Marylanders, ranging from “So cute!” to “More hunting should be allowed!” with corresponding expenditures. In 2006, all wildlife-viewing expenditures (such as binoculars and guided tours) were over $600 million, while and hunting gear and license expenditures totaled $113 million. So deer are still an economic resource for the state, though few of us wear buckskin on a regular basis.

While our locals may occasionally smash a tail light, steal our veggies and bring us a tick or two, they do offer a picturesque view in morning, evening and overcast day. We most often see groups of 3 or 4 deer in our neighborhood, but groups (dare we say herds) of 10 or more deer are sometimes seen along the Northwest Branch and in Magruder Park.