Meet Bambi. This fawn must’ve been less than 48 hours old yesterday morning, judging by the way it wobbled when it walked, and it displayed no fear of the strange, bipedal creature standing in the middle of the road. Its mother was nowhere in evidence; she must’ve gone off foraging after giving her fawn strict instructions to stay put. But like a lot of young ‘uns, the fawn clearly had other ideas. I happened around the bend just as it trotted down through the woods and teetered on the edge of the bank. I switched my camera to video mode and shot a short clip (I’m new to video editing, so I apologize for the poor quality). Notice how quickly and effectively it hides when a car approaches.
Note, too, the relative openness of the forest floor behind it. This is a look that all of us who have grown up in Pennsylvania and other parts of the eastern United States have grown well accustomed to over the last fifty or sixty years. But it isn’t natural.
Now meet a baby shagbark hickory. Notice the fence behind it: this is inside a 400-square-foot deer exclosure right on the top of one of our dry ridges, the sort of environment where we have become especially accustomed to looking at brown leaf litter and the occasional patch of moss. Shagbark hickories are great trees, but we don’t have too many of them under about the age of sixty, and three of the nicest ones were felled in an ice storm in 2005. The loosely attached shingles of bark that give the tree its name make especially attractive roosts for many species of forest bats, which, as voracious consumers of insects, are thought to play something of a keystone role in eastern forest ecosystems. But like most woody plants, shagbark hickory seedlings are highly palatable to white-tailed deer, especially in winter and early spring when there isn’t much else to eat.
Here’s a corner of the deer exclosure, showing the contrast between inside and out. We have plenty of Solomon’s-seal down in the hollow, and now that the deer numbers are down throughout the property as a result of a decade of good hunting, we’re starting to see spindly, first- and second-year Solomon’s-seal appear in the flatter, more accessible areas on top of the mountain. But nowhere does it look as healthy as in this little exclosure, which is now ten years old. I had never seen Solomon’s-seal with two and three parallel rows of flowers before this spring. This suggests that even the de-facto wildflower refuge areas in the steepest parts of the hollow are still suffering from over-grazing. This is the kind of baseline data that you can’t get from historical records, because 100 years ago, very few people were taking notes on such things.
Bare ground is almost nonexistent inside the exclosure from March onwards — as I think it would be almost everywhere, were it not for our adorable cloven-hoofed friends. Yes, white-tailed deer are a natural part of the eastern forest ecosytem, but their numbers have been greatly inflated by the elimination of the two principal predators on adult deer, cougars and wolves. Nor is it just a numbers game. When deer and elk are actively predated, they change their behavior from what biologists refer to as an energy-maximizing mode to a time-minimizing mode. That is to say, they stop hanging out in the open or along forest edges, browsing and grazing to their hearts’ content and making as many fawns as possible, and instead they take cover — like the fawn in the video — and spend as little time as they can out in the open. That’s why most deer are killed on the opening day of regular rifle season here in Pennsylvania each fall: as soon as they realize they’re in danger, they bed down and hardly move for the next two weeks, except at night. The more ambitious hunters are getting proficient in archery and muzzleloader hunting so they can take advantage of earlier seasons, which begin in October here. Some of us would like to see deer seasons of one kind or another stretch for six months or longer, more effectively imitating year-round natural predation. Of course, the hunting would be much tougher under such a scenario, which is why the slob hunters in our state set up a howl at every attempt to manage white-tailed deer from an ecosystem perspective.
Our original inspiration in creating our deer exclosures was a visit to a fifty-year-old exclosure in northern Pennsylvania — Latham’s acre.
It was like stepping into a lost world, a world filled with wildflowers, shrubs, and saplings only rarely seen in much of Pennsylvania’s wild lands. Thick beds of Canada mayflower, Solomon’s seal, round-leaved violets, partridgeberry, Indian cucumber-root, white baneberry, jack-in-the-pulpit, and red and painted trilliums blanketed the forest floor. Alternate-leaved dogwood and red elderberry shrubs, as well as tree saplings of many species, such as black birch, sugar maple, shadbush, black cherry, and American beech, occupied the understory. The vegetation was so thick that we could barely see from one end of the acre to the other. The middle canopy, which has been eliminated from many of Pennsylvania’s forests by too many deer, was especially impressive. That is the area, researchers have found, where most of our neotropical migrant songbirds, such as wood thrushes, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and black-throated blue warblers, nest and feed.
You may have noticed the wood thrush, scarlet tanager, Acadian flycatcher, and worm-eating warbler songs in the video I posted. We’re fortunate in having at least some mid-level canopy in portions of our woods, and in time, with good hunting, we hope to have much more.