An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

White-tailed Deer

The Sniff Test

1-30-19 red fox marking img_7153When your quest is to find out as much as you can about the identity, activity, diet and territory of your four-footed neighbors, it is logical to make the most of all your senses. Tracks can be seen, scrapings and bite marks on a tree can be felt and yes, one’s sense of smell can enhance any tracking expedition. Just as the tracks and scat of different species of animals have distinctive characteristics, so does the urine of different animals. Scent marking, including urination, is a behaviour used by animals to identify their territory, and therefore a highly visible sign in winter.

At this time of year, foxes are breeding, and without even putting your nose near where a fox has marked his territory with urine, you can detect its skunk-like odor as you pass by. If you’re so inclined (and I realize many readers may not be) you can heighten your sensory experience as well as your identification prowess by sampling the smell of other animals’ liquid waste. White-tailed deer urine has a pungent, piney smell, quite pleasing to this naturalist’s olfactory receptors. You can detect a porcupine den from a considerable distance by the pungent, very distinctive but hard to describe odor of its urine (which spills out onto and coats the bark of a tree den, thereby advertising the porcupine’s presence). Coyote urine smells very much like a domestic dog’s, and members of the weasel family often have musky-smelling urine, though a recently-sniffed fisher marking had very little scent.

Needless to say, it’s a lot easier to discover and sample urine when there’s snow on the ground and it is more evident. Virginia opossums, snowshoe hares, red and gray squirrels, eastern coyotes, red and gray foxes, raccoons, fishers, mink and striped skunks are all in or entering their breeding seasons, when scent marking is more frequent. Snow is currently on the ground, at least in northern New England. It’s prime time for olfactory activity, if you’re game. (Photo: stump marked by a red fox)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Coyotes Scavenge More Deer Than They Kill

1-4-19 deer skull eaten by coyotes IMG_2423Coyotes are considered opportunisitic omnivores and will eat just about anything. As the seasons and the availability of foods change, so does the coyote’s diet. During the summer, coyotes feed upon berries and insects. Small mammals are an important prey of choice during the fall and into the winter. As winter becomes harder and small mammal populations decline, coyotes turn toward their largest prey – white-tailed deer.

It is not uncommon to come upon deer carcasses in the winter which have been cleaned within an inch of their life by coyotes, illustrating their preference for this ungulate. However, the majority of deer carcasses consumed by coyotes are not killed by them, but are discovered as carrion or road kills. Coyotes infrequently kill healthy adult deer. Occasionally, working in packs, they will chase them down. Scat dissection shows that in late spring, coyotes prey on fawns.

A study of coyote predatory behavior in New York state several years ago found that during the winter, only 8% of adult deer carcasses visited by coyotes had been killed conclusively by coyotes. The remaining 92% were scavenged by coyotes after being killed by vehicles and other injuries. The adult deer that were killed by coyotes had severe pre-existing injuries and were likely to die from other causes in the absence of coyote predation.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Eat And Run Strategy

12-10-18 grouse IMG_2368

Ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer and moose, all prey species and all plant eaters, share certain characteristics that have to do with food consumption and digestion.  They all tend to eat large quantities rather quickly in one spot, and then move to another, safer, spot to digest their food.  This technique minimizes the amount of time that they are likely to be out in the open and focused more on eating than on predators.  Eating quickly and storing the consumed food in a chamber and digesting it later at their leisure, under cover, makes a lot of sense.

All three animals have a multi-chambered stomach and microorganisms efficient at breaking down cellulose and extracting nutrients from plants.  After browsing on branches and buds, deer and moose seek shelter where they then regurgitate and chew their cud. Grouse do not linger over their meals – 20 minutes of foraging will sustain them all day. Leaves, buds and twigs are stored in their crop (a wide portion of the esophagus) until the grouse seeks shelter, where the food eventually reaches their gizzard.  Here, with the aid of gravel, it is ground up.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Red and White Baneberry Fruits Maturing

8-16-18 red and white baneberry-1While the flowers of Red (Actaea rubra) and White Baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) are quite similar (the flower head of Red Baneberry is more globular than the elongated head of White Baneberry), their respective fruits, the color of which gave them their common names, quickly distinguish these two species from each other.

White Baneberry produces white fruits commonly called “Doll’s eyes” due to the persistent remains of the flower’s stigma, which leaves a black dot on each fruit.  Red Baneberry’s shiny red berries also have these black dots, though they are not as apparent. All parts of both species are poisonous, with the berries being the most toxic part of the plant.

Seed dispersal is carried out by animals that have enough tolerance to feed on the berries. These animals include various mice, squirrels, chipmunks and voles, as well as a wide variety of birds and White-tailed Deer.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


White-tailed Deer Giving Birth

deer and fawn alert _H6A8525 copy (002)White-tailed does give birth at the end of May and the beginning of June. A doe giving birth for the first time usually has one fawn; in subsequent years, two or three fawns are common. For the first three or four days after it is born, a fawn is odorless and is well camouflaged thanks to its spotted coat.

During this time the mother leaves her offspring (who remain motionless during her absence) and goes off to feed. (It can be three weeks or so before the fawns follow their mother when she feeds.) The doe stays away as much as possible from her fawns during these first days and weeks to prevent her own body scent from giving away their location. She returns to nurse her young eight to ten times in a twenty-four-hour period.

People discovering what looks to them like an abandoned fawn should know that although the doe may not be in sight, she most likely is within hearing distance and is probably watching them. The fawn has not been abandoned and should not be disturbed. (Thanks to Erin Donahue, who took this photograph.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


White-tailed Deer Browsing

1-10-18 white-tailed deer eating hemlock 049A1922Microorganisms inside a deer’s four-chambered stomach enable cellulose in the plant material consumed to be digested. In winter, the microorganisms within the deer stomach are different from the microorganisms in spring, summer, and fall. This change allows deer to digest a diet of woody browse during winter months and turn the high-fiber diet into proteins through intricate physiological processes. Among their preferred browse are White Cedar, Yew, American Basswood, Alternate-leaved and Flowering Dogwood, Maples, Staghorn Sumac and Witch Hobble.

Offering food items during this period other than woody browse (such as hay) is detrimental to deer, as it requires different microorganisms in the stomach in order to be digested. Thus, even though a deer’s stomach might be full (of hay, for instance), it may starve due to the inability to digest it.   (Photo: White-tailed Deer browsing on Eastern Hemlock)


White-tailed Deer Scent-Marking

11-20-17 buck rub049A7932

Scent-marking plays an important communication role in the animal world. A variety of species use glandular secretions to convey (for some distance) messages. From beavers spreading castoreum on scent mounds to fishers leaving their scent every time their hind feet touch the ground, the woods are alive with messages often undetected by most humans. Some of these are left by White-tailed Deer, which have two primary scent-marking behaviors: antler rubbing and scrapes.

One used to associate an antler rub with the act of a buck removing drying velvet from its antlers. However, it turns out that very few rubs are made by deer removing antler velvet, a process that’s normally completed within 24 hours. Instead, most rubs are made by relatively few dominant bucks to signal their readiness to breed and to mark their territory.

All White-tailed Deer possess specialized forehead glands that become increasingly active in autumn, particularly in adult males. All bucks spread their scent by rubbing their foreheads (which contain specialized scent glands) against trees and shrubs that have smooth bark, few, if any, lower limbs and are ½” to 4” in diameter. (Older bucks also will rub trees six or more inches in diameter.) In the Northeast, Trembling Aspen, Staghorn Sumac, Red Maple, and willows are often used for this purpose.

Mature, socially high-ranking bucks exude greater amounts of the glandular secretion than do younger males or females. They begin marking their territory soon after losing velvet and continue marking until they cast their antlers in December or January. The chemical signals left at a rub site tend to suppress the aggressiveness and sex drive of young males. However, those same signals stimulate females. The amount of rubbing an individual buck does depends on the level of testosterone in his blood, which in turn is largely determined by the animal’s age and dominance status.

We may not be able to detect the chemicals on a rub, but it’s hard to miss the sight of the light-colored blazes that magically appear in the woods at this time of year. (Photo: White-tailed Deer rub on Staghorn Sumac. Thanks to Chiho Kaneko and Jeffrey Hamelman for photo op.)