Shooting Bambi

Hot off the presses this morning: Festival of the Trees 12 takes a meditative look at trees and forests, while I and the Bird turns 50 (editions, that is).


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.

hickory seedling in deer exclosure

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.

corner of the deer exclosure

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.

red oak seedling in deer exclosure

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.

You can read about how we set up the larger of two deer exclosures here. I’ve also started a new photoset for pictures of the two exclosures, which I plan to take every year for documentary purposes.

34 Replies to “Shooting Bambi”

  1. That’s a good video (I wish I had that option on my camera!). I enjoy these posts about the balance of nature, or imbalances in this case.

    Some years ago, one of my artist friends did an in-depth research and collaboration with another artist and biologists into all the microscopic life under old growth forest floors. They had the images greatly enlarged and then did a fantastic series of prints of them. I think you would have really liked that series, Dave.

  2. Yeah, that does sound very interesting – I wish it were on the web!

    Glad you liked the post. I’m always a little uncertain about inflicting this kind of eco-nerd stuff on my regular readers, but I think it’s important to spread the word beyond those who have a vested interest in the topic (hunters, animal rights activists).

  3. The video is really quite good, dave. Very lucky to get a shot of that fawn shakily walking around on those spindly legs. Interesting info about the energy-maximizing and time minimizing modes. I guess the downside to an extended hunting season would be having the woods filled with gun-toting lunatics more of the time (I’m not saying that all hunters are lunatics, just the ones who are are). A quote from the slobs in your state: The USP believes that being politically correct is counter-productive to the quality of hunting, fishing, shooting, and trapping. Wouldn’t want to be politically correct, whatever that might mean.

  4. Hi, Robin. As forest landowners, believe me, we’re careful about who we allow in our woods. We encourage every landowner we talk to to start a “Hunting by written permision only” program to keep the wackos out, and give the good, careful hunters a reason to spend time on your land. But if deer seasons were ever extended the way I think they should be, it would probably mean a lot fewer people in the woods at any given time.

    This is, of course, the prespective of someone from a state where the majority of woods is in private hands. Out west, I guess, it’s a different picture. But then out west, in a lot of places, y’all still have some cougars, at least.

  5. wow, this is great…I’m happy I was able to copy and paste and reproduce not only this post but the linked piece by Marcia to send to my parents. What precious first moments you caught in the video. thanks Dave!

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  7. great post. we have a few acres of woods and I have often lamented that there is nothing under the trees shorter than four feet. maybe i should try fencing the deer out of part of it and see what comes up.

  8. quiet regular and bill – I’m glad you found this useful. If you’re thinking about erecting exclosures on your own lands, I can supply additional specs via email. Basically, you want an eight-foor high fence: that won’t keep deer out of your vegetable garden, but it will keep most of them out of a patch of woods most of the time, which is the goal here. You want to use woven wire rather than welded, so that it won’t snap when a limb comes down. Be prepared to inspect and repair it regularly (but don’t worry if a day or two goes by before you can patch a hole in the exclosure – deer are creatures of habit, and once the fence has been up for a month or two, they will get used to walking around it).

  9. Hi! Just wanted to say I do live in an area with cougars, and the forest floor here is thick with herby stuff as in your enclosure. This morning there was a deer family just off the porch–mom, two yearlings, a two year old spike and a fawn. My veggie garden has a 10′ fence because of the bionic deer, and in my flower beds I went to using native plants because they eat anything else. You must have a LOT of deer to eat up the forest floor like that, amazing!

  10. Hi celeste – Thanks for this! You’re lucky to be living in cougar country. I know what you mean about bionic deer. The only time gardening was ever easy up here was when we had dogs, when I was a kid. But when my mom started getting serious about nature observation, it became more important to have wildlife around the house. Nowadays we buy fresh veggies from the local Amish. Gardening inside a stockade wasn’t fun.

  11. I love the video. The city is thrumming outside my window at the moment (hey, it’s a Friday night), and this is a rather stark reminder of the relative quietness in which you live.

  12. Teju – Glad you liked it. But your portrait of Chinese erhu players in the park makes me think you have your share of serenity in Brooklyn, too.

  13. The exclosure shows zero deer density. A real shame you got to go to zero deer density. Are the soil conditions that poor that the plants and trees can not grow fast enough to get out of the browse reach of the deer? I guess acid rain has no blame in why these plants and trees grow so slow. Can I ask if the soil in the exclosure was treated with lime or other fertilizer enhancements and the outside lefted untreated?

  14. Interesting, very interesting. One particular item was disturbing to me. A statement was written – ‘slob hunters in our state’. I clicked the link and it led me to the Unified Sportsmen of PA’s website. Surely, this must be an error. I personally know many, many members and leaders of this fine group and I can say with confidence, they are the most ethical hunters I have ever met. To associate the USP with “slob hunters” is an ignorant and arrogant union. Perhaps you should do a considerable amount of research and re-evaluate the intentions behind your efforts.

  15. We enjoyed the video–I love the way the fawn disappears.

    Despite our need for deer-proofing everything we plant, we have quite a bit of understory growth here on the new place. I’m not sure why, because this place has been under cultivation off and on since the turn of the eighteenth century, it was clearcut in the West Virginia logging boom, and burned in the 1930 fire that burned a vast area of log companies’ leavings. It was also selectively logged in the 1970’s.

    We have a large population of coyotes, which have displaced the feral dog population in the last couple of decades. Coyotes have driven most of the sheep farmers out of business here and in close-by southwestern Virginia. One of our neighbors, who is trying to keep his sheep, killed 55 coyotes in 2006, and still averages one a week. They are so fecund this hardly makes a difference.

    While they help control deer, coyotes are a mixed blessing at best. They kill smaller, competing ptredators like foxes and badgers, and wipe out ground-nesting birds like grouse.

    Do you have any thoughts on your apparent lack of coyote packs? In the 1990’s, when I still lived in Our Nation’s Capitol, we had coyotes turning up right downtown.

  16. Dave — maybe this is the beginning of more videos of PH. Great to see the deer exclosure doing so well (of course, without deer I didn’t have much doubt.) Are those grape vines producing buds? Will you pick them and make something tasty?

    Stacy and I loved the little fawn. All we have lurking here are bunnies. I was especially impressed with his knowledge to hide himself when strange sounds approach. But I guess that’s probably innate behavior. Or do you think mamma taught him that earlier that morning?

  17. Mark – No treatments were used, and no exclosure is completely deer-proof. Thanks for commenting, though.

    John J. – The truth hurts, doesn’t it? The Unfried Sportsmen pander to people’s most selfish instincts, and peddle bad science besides. I am intimately familiar with its political machinations and deceptions. By contrast, I have enormous respect for the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportmen’s Clubs: there’s a REAL grassroots conservation organization for you. And of course there are many, many local, unaffiliated groups who do their part for conservation, too.

    Rebecca – I’ve noticed the healthier understoreys in parts of WV, and I’m not sure the reason. Possibly more poaching? As for coyotes, we have them out the wazoo, and in time it’s possible that they will adopt more wolf-like behaviors and begin preying on adult deer. But for now, coyotes are about equal with black bears as opportunistic predators on fawns and injured deer. I see their impact on mesopredators as a good thing — it’s widely acknowledged that medopredator release is a serious consequence of the elimination of top predaors from a system. You know, I guess, about the ecological theory of top-down trophic interactions. But again, whether the eastern coyote can truly assure some of the functions of a top predator remains an open question at this point. I’ve heard arguments similar to what you’re saying, too, that it constitutes just another nuisance mesopredator with a negative impact on nesting neotrops, e.g.

    Hi Gina – I’m glad you liked. I hope to shoot more videos, though I guess it would help if I had an actual video camera and some good editing software!

    I think that hiding behavior can only be innate.

  18. I have many questions concerning management of our deer herd and forests in Pennsylvania. How did our hardwoods survive and regenerate to now cover our northern tier forests in what is now pole timber stage despite high deer densities in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? Is it possible that we have mismanaged our forests as well as our deer herd? Why shouldn’t we strive to bring both resources into a complimentary relationship instead of merely focusing on the deer? To cite an analogy: If there is only one restaurant in a large city, do we solve the problem of running out of food by merely turning away customers, or do we build more restaurants? In regards to our gamelands, shouldn’t the habitat be managed to support wildlife and not the other way around? If so, why are we not regulating the harvest of both deer and timber on these lands?

  19. Dave,what do you think we should do about those neanderthals over at the USP?
    I need to know desperately,as only your opinion is of any real value.
    Yes,I’m a member and i’m highly offended.You don’t know me,yet you label me a “slob”?
    Who exactly are you shilling for?

  20. More questions: How does not wanting 2 weeks of shooting antlerless deer make a person a “slob hunter”? Just the opposite would seem more appropriate. Does conservation apply only to trees and not deer? How do we control predator numbers from growing to the point of being too great a deterrent to our deer herd? Why do we acknowledge that low PH has had a negative effect on our streams, but deny that it is a factor in regeneration of flora? Can anyone answer my questions?

  21. Ed – I think if you follow the other link in my piece, to the Deer Forum Report, you’ll get answers to many of your questions. I’d be the last person to claim that the deer are the only problem facing our woods. But an overpopulation of deer does exacerbate most of the other problems – that’s quite clear.
    In regards to our gamelands, shouldn’t the habitat be managed to support wildlife and not the other way around?
    This sounds clever, but presumes a zero-sum game which does not obtain in nature. And in fact the gamelands are heavily managed for game species.
    How do we control predator numbers from growing to the point of being too great a deterrent to our deer herd?
    Geez, where to start? The likelihood of our ever getting to that point in PA seems slim, but in brief, populations of top carnivores are self-regulating. The main reason why human intervention is so critical now is to try to correct for the severe imbalances created by the elimination of top carnivores.

    I don’t know who this “we” is who doesn’t acknowledge the impact of acid deposition on forest soils, but I’m not among them. However, the floral mix seen inside older deer exclosures, and in natural refugia such as the tops of large boulders or steep slopes of ravines, does strongly suggest that the impact of deer overgrazing is at least as important as changes in soil chemistry from acid rain and the introduction of invasive species (to name yet another important factor). Getting deer numbers down is key, but it is far from the only thing.

    John – I see no need to “do” anything about the USP; it’s basically a marginal and increasingly irrelevant group. By linking to it, I probably gave you all more attention than you deserve. I do see the group as pandering to the laziest and most ignorant members of the hunting fraternity, you bet. I’m sure that doesn’t describe every dues-paying member of the group, though, and if doesn’t doesn’t describe you and Ed, maybe you should start thinking seriously about the company you keep.

  22. I wonder if more or less the same conditions obtain in the Connecticut woods I visited back in the 80’s, when I was in grad school? They gave this Oregon boy the creeps, they were so open — they felt all trampled and overrun, somehow, even where they weren’t dotted with litter. We quit “going to the woods” out there; even when we could find publicly accessible land, it just depressed us.

  23. Dave-Thank you for replying to some of my questions. I know that we are never going to agree with each other, and I know that you don’t care whether or not I agree with your answers. The fact that deer eat to stay alive is pretty basic and no one can deny that. Why must we cut down their numbers without first providing more food for them, and creating a balance? Therein lies the source of the disagreement between you and me. You say that the gamelands are heavily managed for game species, and I say that none of our public land has been managed for deer, for many years. The proof is out there for everyone to see. Why not put an end to all the conjecture and have an INDEPENDENT assessment that would benefit all our resources?

  24. dale – So I’ve heard, yes. The fragmented landscape of suburban and exurban Connecticut is especially attractive to deer. And it’s a good thing you were creeped out: such environments are rife with Lyme disease-carrying ticks, whose alternate hosts are white-footed mice — which flourish in fragmented landscapes — and white-tailed deer. If I had kids, I’d be afraid to let them even play outside in those kinds of places.

    Ed – You’re right, I’m really not interested in trying to change minds that are already made up, but if we ever met in person, I get the feeling I’d enjoy learning more about where you’re coming from. One can always learn from one’s opponents. But blog message strings, like online bulletin boards, aren’t necessarily the best places for these kinds of discussions, I’ve found.

    Giving the deer more food does nothing to change the energy-maximizing behavior pattern I mentioned above; they simply make more fawns. In the absence of predation (or intense hunting pressure), deer eat themselves out of house and home. The scientific literature is really quite clear on this point; consult the extensive bibliography in the deer forum report – which was authored by some of the most independent ecologists in the state, by the way. (Dr. Roger Latham Jr. and Dr. Bryon Shissler, for example, are both independent consultants, beholden to nobody.)

    As for gamelands management, that’s a huge topic on which we very well might find some common ground, but I see no reason to doubt the PGC’s statements that the short timber rotation cycles (not to mention all those food plots) are intended primarily for the benefit of deer, turkeys and grouse, by providing abundant browse and dense cover. Whether they actually have that effect is a different question. To me, a mature oak forest provides far better habitat for all these species (a new study on grouse, for example, shows that they prefer large trees to build their nests against), but management orthodoxies die hard — and are in addition, perhaps, colored by the need for revenues from timber sales. Also, with the PGC, often enough the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, so you frequently have land managers and game wardens working at cross-purposes — and both ignoring the advice of their own ecologists. As I said, a huge topic. I think the only way to make the PGC more independent and more science-based is to change the PA Consitution to support it out of the general fund. It’s just not fair that hunter licenses be virtually the sole support for the agency given stewardship responsibility for all terrestrial wildlife. That creates a situation ripe for abuse. Every citizen of the Commonwealth — not just the 8% who hunt and fish — has a stake in the health of the ecosystem.

  25. Cute fawn… I’m always impressed by how fast grazers get up-and-at-em.

    Do those coyotes also handle rabbit control? Having once owned a rabbit, I was rather impressed by his chomping capability and broad appetites. Two examples: Vorpal undermined my bookcases to the point of collapse, and also chewed right through the base of my Euphorbia pseudocactus. The Euphorbia had spines, which he chewed off first, and (supposedly) caustic sap, which he didn’t seem bothered by. And don’t get me started on the War Of The Wires — I kept expecting to wake up to rabbit fricassee!

    He also killed a barrel cactus, but that one was by throwing the pot over until air got at the roots. (I’d have been really astonished if he’d managed to get past that wall of interleaved needles!)

  26. Dave- Like I said, we’re never going to agree. Your side can suggest the 2 scientists you mentioned and I’m sure my side can also suggest a few. I have hope that the democratic process and common sense will prevail. Funding from the general fund will certainly put more support on your side of the debate, especially from non-hunters, and give hunters even less of a “voice” than they now have. The PGC can then be re-named the Pa. General Commission. You may respond, if you should care to, but I have had quite enough of this topic. I thank you, again, for taking the time to discuss the issues.

  27. David – Coyotes probably have the biggest impact on smaller mammals such as mice and voles – the red fox niche – but I’m sure they put a hurtin’ on rabbits, too (forgive the technical eco-jargon there). As a matter of fact, our cottontail population here on the mountain has dwindled to almost nothing here in the last couple of years, but I have no idea whether that’s related to coyote population trends. I will say that neither the abundant woodchucks nor the resident feral cat seem to be having any trouble.

    Actually, you know what’s really supposed to prey on rabbits? Bobcats. Which we’ve only been seeing here with any regularity in the last three years. Hmmm.

  28. Hmm indeed! I’d assume the feral cat can just climb a tree to escape coyotes. Do woodchucks burrow for escape? Bobcats presumably have a much faster attack strike (and better reach) than coyotes, but can they also dig?

  29. Yes, be an eco-nerd all you like! I put a spirobolid millipede reference in my last post, and it’s all in homage to Bontaland…

    I’m going to have to show that wobbly, seesawing walk to my children.

  30. Do woodchucks burrow for escape? Yeah, but a hungry coyote could always dig them out.

    I don’t remember what I read on bobcat hunting strategy – it’s been a while.

    marly – I should have another millipede photo for you in a little bit…

  31. Great post. It reminds me of the white-tailed deer diorama in the Hall of North American Mammals in the American Museum of Natural History, and how it still says that deer are relatively uncommon in the New York/New Jersey area. Sounds like they need an update…

  32. Boy, I’ll say! That diorama must date back to the early 20th century. Maybe they intend to keep it that way as a kind of historical reminder.

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