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Fall 2010

Urban Jungle

The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark      

White-tailed deer

November 9, 2010

Rut and consequences

Deer breeding frenzy reaches its zenith in mid-November

It's that time of year when white-tailed deer abandon their offspring and their usual cautious habits and think only of mating.

Short days and cool temperatures will trigger a mature doe into a 24-hour period of fertility. Her powerful chemical signals cause other does to shun her and bucks to pursue her. Until she's impregnated, she will have other windows of estrus every month or so.

During the peak of the rut, the wheezing, snorting, grunting bucks are so preoccupied with mating and fighting each other over females that they neglect to eat or rest.

Bucks mark their territories by scraping away leaves from the ground and scenting the area with urine and secretions from glands on their foreheads, legs and feet. Leading up to the rut, bucks rub their racks into the trunks of saplings, stripping the felt from their antlers and shredding bark off the trees.

A hundred years ago, after decades of deforestation and unrestricted hunting, deer were a rare sight in Washington. Conservation efforts, a lack of predators and improved deer habitat have since allowed deer to rebound into an overabundance that now suppresses the ability of local forests to regenerate. Deer consume the tree seedlings that, in a balanced ecosystem, would replace older trees.

By overgrazing native plants, deer also encourage the spread of exotic invasive weeds, which they tend to avoid.

To maintain the health of its forests, Rock Creek Park recommends reducing its deer population. The park released a draft of its plan in 2009, gathered public comment and is now preparing an analysis that will be released by spring 2011. The draft suggests alternatives that include repellents, fenced exclosures, sterilization, birth control by dart, capture with euthanasia -- even sharpshooters.

Sources: Ken Ferebee, Rock Creek Park; University of Michigan; "Draft White-Tailed Deer Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement," Rock Creek Park; USDA; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources