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White-tailed Deer

Squirrels Digging For False Truffles

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Such creative and informed answers to yesterday’s Mystery Photo, and many that were right on the mark!  To set the stage, several 2” to 4”-deep holes riddled the ground under a stand of Eastern Hemlocks. Something had obviously been digging for something, but who and what? Close inspection of the holes revealed two things. The animal that had dug the holes had run into some thick hemlock roots, and with a clean 45° angle cut, had snipped them in order to have access to the soil beneath them. Secondly, some of the holes had pea- to marble-size, spherical tan objects that resembled puffballs both lying at the bottom and wedged into the sides of the holes.

Only because I had read Paul Rezendes’s Tracking & the Art of Seeing years ago did I recognize these holes and spherical structures within as the work of an animal looking for false truffles (a genus of fungi) to eat. By putting the various clues together – a hemlock stand, 3” to 6”-wide holes, clean incisor-snipped roots, and a few remnant truffles – the mystery at to what was being sought was solved.

As to who had done the digging, white-tailed deer, squirrels and porcupines all fancy false truffles. Both porcupines and squirrels have incisors that would make a clean cut through the roots. If porcupines had been digging here, there would likely be scat and/or quills lying about, which there were not. Thus, most likely it was a squirrel that had smelled, unearthed and eaten the false truffles.

Rezendes found that the truffles he discovered had dried spores inside them, and assumed that this made them undesirable to the animal that unearthed them and therefore they were not eaten. The spores of the truffles I found were not dried out, so I have no idea why they weren’t eaten, but I’m very glad they weren’t, as their presence allowed me to solve this mystery and see this phenomenon which I’ve been looking for for decades.

It may interest some to know that false truffles and Eastern Hemlocks have a symbiotic relationship. The fungi are attached to hemlock roots, so the minerals and water they absorb are available to the hemlocks. The hemlocks provide the fungi with sugars that they (hemlocks) produce through photosynthesis. Squirrels (and porcupines and white-tailed deer) and eastern hemlocks have a similar mutually beneficial relationship in that hemlocks provide the truffle-eaters with food, and the squirrels, porcupines and white-tailed deer disperse the spores of the truffles they’ve eaten. (Caution: Do not eat false truffles – they are considered toxic to humans.)

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Coyotes and White-tailed Deer

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Coyotes will eat just about anything they come across – rodents, rabbits and hares, beavers, muskrats, birds, even garbage. Whatever is available and whatever they can catch they will consume. Very often you find white-tailed deer hair in their scat (see photo), and while a majority of the time it comes from deer carcasses that they have come across, there are two times of year when they are known to hunt deer. One is in the spring, when fawns are vulnerable, and the other is during the winter, when one of two conditions are present that favor coyotes: when the snow is deep and deer have to struggle to move faster than coyotes, and when there are crusty conditions, when coyotes are held up on top of the crust, but deer break through, often cutting and exhausting themselves.

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Using All Your Senses

1-26-17-deer-urine-049a2725Many wild animals are nocturnal or crepuscular, limiting our chances of firsthand observation of them. Those of us curious to learn more about their lives take advantage of whatever signs these elusive animals leave. In winter, evidence of their presence in the form of tracks and scat can tell us not only their identity, but their diet, direction of travel, size, etc. Beds, kill sites and signs of feeding also provide crucial information. There is one more sign that is often overlooked and under-utilized for identification purposes, and that is the scent of an animal’s urine.

Not everyone will necessarily wish to add this identification tool to their arsenal of naturally curious skills, but for those willing, scent-detection can be extremely useful, especially if conditions for tracking are poor, or if scat is not found. Not only is the scent of a species’ urine distinctive, it can often be detected at a distance. At this time of year (breeding season) red fox urine can easily be mistaken for striped skunk spray. Porcupine urine is strong and distinctive, but hard to describe. Once you’re familiar with it, it can guide you to the location of a den. Coyote urine is very dog-like; bobcat very cat-like. Surprisingly agreeable is the pine-like scent of White-tailed Deer urine (pictured).

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White-tailed Bucks Shedding Antlers

1-2-16-antler-049a2440Antlers, the fastest growing mammal tissue on earth, are grown by male White-tailed Deer (and very occasionally females) every year and shed every year. They begin growing in the spring, usually April, and complete their growth in August or September. During this period they are covered with “velvet,” a soft skin containing blood vessels and nervous tissue that supply oxygen and nutrients to the antler. Once growth ceases, the velvet dries up and falls off or is inadvertently rubbed off. The mating season of White-tailed Deer, or rut, during which time their antlers are instrumental in establishing hierarchy and securing a mate, peaks in mid-November. Once mating is over, the disadvantages of antlers (cumbersome shape for traveling through woods, and the energy required to carry them) promote the shedding of these bony structures. Specialized cells (osteoclasts) destroy the bone tissue between the antlers and the skull and antlers are shed sometime between the end of December and the beginning of February.

Most sources state that antlers just fall off or that the buck knocks them off by striking them against a tree. My personal observation of a buck in captivity clarified the way antlers are dropped, at least in this one instance. The buck put his head down, quickly jerked it up and to one side, and the antler went flying.

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White-tailed Deer Winter Diet

1-4-16-fungus-eaten-by-deerimg_0948The diet of White-tailed Deer varies with the seasons, but in general deer require a high-quality diet and tend to choose the most nutritious options available. In addition to mast (fruit, acorns, beechnuts) and browse, herbaceous plants and fungi make up the greatest portion of their food. However, their foraging choices are extensive. White-tailed Deer have been known to consume the washed-up carcasses of alewives after they (the alewives) have spawned as well as insects, mice and the nestlings of ground-nesting songbirds.

Microorganisms 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. 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: shelf fungus eaten by White-tailed Deer, showing lower jaw incisor grooves)

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White-tailed Deer Diet In Transition

10-25-16-deer-scat-20161017_5319Even if you didn’t know that a white-tailed deer’s diet changes in the fall, their scat would be a dead giveaway. Its texture and formation are excellent indicators of what a deer has been eating. During the summer, individual pellets are often lumped together due to the moisture content of their summer diet (grasses, clover, alfalfa, apples and other herbaceous food). As winter approaches, deer transition to a diet of twigs, leaves and acorns which results in the formation of individual, dry pellets. At this time of year, it is possible to find both forms of deer scat.

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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