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Deer are among the most familiar animals of Maine, and in many places they are the largest wildlife that people encounter. Their aesthetic beauty is appreciated and admired, although their fondness for crops, garden and landscape plants tries some peoples' patience.
White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus borealis, Fig. 1) occur throughout Maine in mixed woodlands, forest edges, swamps, open brushy meadows, farmland, in low-elevation stream and river corridors, and near populated areas.
They derive their name from their broad, 10 to 11 inch long tail. When alarmed, white-tailed deer raise their flag like tail, displaying the white underside. White-tailed deer are usually reddish tan in summer and brownish gray in winter.
Bucks may attain live weights of up to 300 pounds and adult does tip the scales at up to 150 pounds. White-tails have incredibly keen ears, allowing them to hear humans from a distance. They are also strong swimmers; they have been clocked at 13 miles per hour for a distance of three miles.
Facts about Maine Deer
Food and Feeding Behavior
Shelter and Range Needs
Reproduction and Family Structure
Mortality and Longevity
All about Antlers
Members of the deer family are unique because they shed their antlers every year. Horns, in contrast, remain permanently affixed to the skull. (The American pronghorn antelope sheds its horn sheaths each year, but the bony horn cores remain in place) In the wild in Maine, only deer and moose grow antlers.
Antlers have a covering of living skin called velvet. The velvet has blood vessels, a very sensitive nerve network, and hair. When the antlers have finished growing, the velvet dries, shreds, and peels off, leaving the hard, mineralized antler ready for the breeding season.
Male fawns develop buttons (small bumps on top of the head) at six to eight months of age. These buttons are the rudimentary beginning of the young buck's first antler set. Just before the fawn's first birthday, these velvet-covered buttons begin to elongate, growing from bony extensions of the skull known as pedicels. By September these first antlers are fully grown spikes or small, forked antlers with two points. A yearling's antlers are typically spikes or forked, but can include multiple points. The buck's first set of antlers is fully grown and starts to harden and shed the velvet.
Each succeeding year, the antlers grow larger in mass and diameter. Older bucks tend to have more antler points than younger bucks, but the number of points is not a reliable indicator of actual age. Antler size and conformation also respond to nutrition, and thus serve to advertise the physical condition of the buck. Plentiful food can produce six- and eight-point antlers on yearlings, while a meager food supply can limit even dominant bucks to forks.
Bucks generally attain adult-size antlers when they are four to five years of age, but the size and weight of the antlers may continue to increase each year until age ten.
Antlers serve to establish a dominance hierarchy among bucks. Big antlers, like bright feathers on male songbirds, are an example of fitness evolved through sexual selection. Because large antlers mean a buck has either survived many years, has superior genetics, or uses high-quality areas, bucks with large antlers make good sires for a doe's fawn. Does tend to select dominant bucks with large antlers for their mates, and this selection enhances the success of bucks with large antlers even more.
Bucks carry their antlers through the fall, dropping them between late December and early March. Hormonal changes cause the bone at the tip of the pedicel, where the antler-growing center is located, to weaken. The pedicel/antler connection eventually becomes so thin that the antler separates.
Mice, rats, squirrels, hares and porcupines chew on dropped antlers, which help them sharpen their front teeth and provide calcium, phosphorus and other minerals. Most antlers that have been on the ground for more than a few weeks will show considerable signs of gnawing, and after a year animals will have substantially shortened the points.
Deer are often habitual in their activities. They show up at the same time of day and follow the same trails, taking paths of least resistance. Although deer may be active at any time of day, they are crepuscular, that is, they are most active near dawn and dusk. Typically, deer feed in open habitats such as meadows and clear cuts, retreating to more secure areas, such as thickets and closed canopy forests, to rest and chew their cud.
To observe deer, position yourself at dawn or dusk near cover in an area with forage. Remain absolutely still, because deer are alert for any movement. They also have a good sense of smell, so stay downwind of the feeding area to prevent them from detecting your scent. Deer in areas where hunting is permitted will probably not stay around long if they notice you; deer in areas where hunting is not permitted are more likely to tolerate your presence.
In autumn, leafless trees afford you greater visibility; when it is raining there is less chance that a deer will hear your feet crunching through the woods. Females are also not as concerned about staying hidden in the fall. Fall, however, is hunting season, so check dates. If you go out, wear bright orange clothing for safety.
Winter can be a good time to view deer because they are often concentrated in deer yards. Use binoculars or a spotting scope to scan open, sunny areas, especially those with significant shrub cover. It is important not to harass deer, as they will expend vital energy to flee and winter is a critical time for the herd.
Never approach a deer closely; if threatened, it can cause serious injury. Does especially will go to great lengths to defend their young.
Tracks and Trails
Deer tracks (Fig. 2) are easy to identify. In a normal hoof print, the two roughly teardrop-shaped halves print side by side to form a split heart. When a deer is walking on a slippery surface, such as mud or snow, its hooves are likely to be spread into a V, which helps keep the deer from sliding forward.
Deer have regular routes through their home range; these become well-worn trails that look a little like narrow human footpaths. The trails are clear of low vegetation, but are not bare unless they are shaded or deer and other mammals use them heavily.
Deer tracks are one and a half to three and a quarter inches long.
Deer droppings vary greatly in size and shape, but are easy to identify. Most of the year they are deposited in a group of twenty to thirty dark cylindrical pellets with one flat or concave end and one pointed end. Individual pellets are half an inch to three-quarters of an inch long; individual piles are four to six inches in diameter. When deer are feeding on moist vegetation, the pellets stick together and form clumps. New droppings have a shiny, wet appearance for a few days and then lighten in color as they age.
In areas where many deer live, a noticeable browse line appears on trees where the animals have repeatedly reached up to eat low-hanging twigs and branches. Similarly, the tops of shrubs may be browsed, leaving only a few inside branches extending upward. Browsing seldom occurs more than four feet above the ground, except in areas with deep snow.
When deer browse new growth they leave a clean, blunt stem-end, where the tender shoots break off. The height of the clipped plant will indicate whether a deer or a smaller animal was feeding.
Figure 4: Drawing Credit Land Mammals of Oregon
Otherwise, deer browse can usually be identified because twig ends have a ragged appearance. (Hares, porcupines and other rodents, in contrast, leave a twig with a neat, clipped end) Deer lack upper incisors and canine teeth, and cannot nip off twigs. Instead they must press foods between their hard upper palates and their bottom teeth, and jerk their heads up to tear vegetation free. (Figs. 3 and 4)
When browse and other green foods are no longer available, deer strip bark from young trees.
Rather than biting off vegetation as a horse does, deer grasp the plants between the upper pad and lower incisors, and with a quick upward jerk of the head, snap or tear off a mouthful. Deer browsing produces twig ends with a ragged appearance; plants browsed by rabbits, porcupines, and other rodents appear neatly clipped.
As shown here in a lateral view of a mule deer skull (Fig. 4]), deer lack upper incisors and canine teeth, and must press foods between their hard upper palates and their bottom teeth.
Bucks scrape off the velvet covering their antlers by rubbing them against young trees and shrubs. (Fig. 5) These rubbing sites also communicate their presence and breeding readiness to other deer. This communication has several facets: the visual sign left by the buck's rubbing, chemical signals left from glands on the buck's face, and the sound of the buck thrashing branches of the tree.
Antlers are bone white when the velvet is first removed. As the deer constantly rubs its antlers against brush and trees, they accumulate plant compounds that react with oxygen in the air and the antlers become stained various shades of brown.
Bucks rub their antlers against trees and shrubs, shredding bark and often creating long, frayed strips of bark hanging from the top of the rubbed area. Rubbing is generally restricted to a section from one and a half to three and a half feet above ground.
When a deer beds down, it leaves an area of flattened vegetation three to four feet long and two to three feet wide. Deer sleep in dense cover or tall grasses and may return to the same spot over many days. Since deer often travel in small groups, there may be several of these flattened spots in the same vicinity. During winter, similarly sized depressions in the snow, often littered with old hairs, characterize bed sites.
The best-known vocalization is an alarm whistle, snort, or blow, made when deer exhale forcefully through their nostrils. The sound resembles a sudden release of high-pressure air. The snort is a danger call that alerts all deer in the area to the presence of a potential predator.
Older fawns commonly bleat when frightened, and older deer sometimes do as well. Does call to their hidden fawns with a soft, gentle mewing sound, and fawns respond quickly to this call by seeking the side of their mother. Bucks make a grunt during the rut.
Tips for Attracting Deer
Although property owners with a lot of land can provide significant deer habitat, those with small acreage can also contribute. Keep in mind that deer may damage ornamental plants and gardens, and might also attract animals that prey on deer. The best way to attract deer to your property is to protect and maintain deer habitat:
Note: A game warden may kill a dog outside the enclosure or immediate care of its owner or keeper when the warden finds that dog chasing, killing, wounding or pursuing a moose or deer at any time; chasing, killing, wounding or pursuing any other wild animal in closed season; or worrying, wounding or killing a domestic animal, livestock or poultry.
What to Do If You Find a Fawn
To reduce the risk that a predator will locate her fawn, a doe tries to be less conspicuous by avoiding other deer and seeking seclusion just prior to birth. For the first few weeks of its life, she keeps it hidden; she may feed and bed a considerable distance away, approaching only for suckling bouts. That way, even if a predator locates the doe, the fawn may still have a chance of avoiding detection.
In addition, the doe consumes the fawn's urine and droppings to keep the fawn as scent-free as possible. The droppings provide the mother with extra nutrition at a time when it is much needed.
When not nursing, the fawn curls up in a bed site and remains motionless, its white spots blending in well with the sun-flecked ground. Fawns lose their spots at 90 to 120 days of age, when they begin growing their winter coats.
Every spring, MDIFW and wildlife rehabilitators receive calls about "orphaned" fawns. It is perfectly natural for a fawn to be by itself in the woods. Its mother is probably nearby, aware and attentive. If you encounter a fawn lying quietly by itself in the woods, leave it alone. The mother will be take care of it once you move away.
If you have handled a fawn, rub an old towel in the grass and wipe the fawn to remove human scent. Using gloves, take the fawn back to where you found it. Does will often take back their fawn if they are returned to the original site within eight hours. If a fawn appears cold, weak, thin, or injured, and its mother does not return in eight hours or so, it may truly be orphaned. In this case, call a local rehabilitator (look under "Animal" or "Wildlife" in your phone directory) or your local MDIFW for further information.
In most places deer are valued as watchable wildlife or as game animals. Where hunting is limited or no longer permitted and natural predators are few, the deer population can increase to a point where human/deer conflicts become a concern. Deer can damage crops and ornamental plants, interfere with restoration and reforestation projects, and cause vehicle accidents.
If deer damage is occurring on commercial property, contact a MDIFW game wardens or regional wildlife biologist, who can assist you in evaluating damage-control options. Your local wildlife office may also have cost-share or other programs available to help you manage deer on your property.
When deer browsing is moderate to severe, or you aren't willing to tolerate even a limited amount of damage, fencing may be the only option. Before installing a deer fence, ask yourself these questions:
Figure 6: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees
If you decide to build or have a fence built, make sure it is constructed properly. A poorly constructed deer fence is dangerous to the deer, and will not protect your valuable plants. If a deer fence exists nearby, ask the property owner about its effectiveness, its construction, and who built it. To locate a fence builder, look under "Fence Contractors" in your phone directory. Request references and follow up on them before hiring any contractor.
If you build the fence yourself, carefully measure the area to insure the efficient use of fence rolls. (You don't want to end up having to cut a small length of fence from a new and potentially expensive roll). In addition, make sure you know where your property line is, as existing fences may not be on your property. Never fence across an easement without notifying the necessary authority.
Figure 7: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees
When properly constructed and maintained, a six- to eight-foot woven-wire fence presents a formidable barrier. The 20-year life span of a well-built fence can justify its cost. Major materials include sturdy, rot-resistant wooden corner posts set in concrete (optional), wooden or studded steel T-line posts, woven-wire fencing and gates. If needed, extensions can be attached to the top of the fence to prevent deer from jumping over. A two-foot high band of chicken wire can be added to the bottom to exclude rabbits and hares.
If two widths of woven-wire field fencing are combined, link them with hog rings at approximately 18-inch intervals. To allow small mammals access through the fence, invert the lower fence run so the larger openings are at the bottom.
A properly designed and maintained electric fence can effectively prevent deer from entering an enclosed area as small as a vegetable garden or an area as large as a commercial orchard. One or two hot wires can also be strategically placed to keep other animals out of chicken coops, ponds and other areas.
Electric fences work by delivering a high-voltage but low amperage jolt that will not inflict a lasting injury (to either animals or humans) or set fire to plants.
Figure 8: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees
Some fences are built with alternating positive and negative wires so an animal receives a shock when it touches both wires simultaneously. More commonly, the animal completes the circuit when it touches a hot wire while standing on the ground. The advantage of the second design is that the animal only has to touch one wire to receive a shock. One disadvantage is that plants must be kept from contacting the wire or the fence will short circuit. (Newer low-impedance chargers reduce this problem)
A fence with eight wires evenly spaced to 80 inches is believed to be adequate to keep deer out of an enclosed area. (Fig. 8) Due to the variables affecting your selection of a power source, and fence design and operation, it is best to consult a reputable dealer for the specifics regarding its use (look under "Fence Contractors" in your phone directory). Information is also available from farm supply centers. Most home improvement centers carry units suitable for protecting gardens. Consult your local zoning office and neighborhood covenants to determine if electric fences are permitted where you live.
Twisting aluminum foil dipped in peanut oil onto electric fence wires helps "initiate" animals to the shocking properties of the fence. The animals lick the treated foil and receive a full-charge shock.
Facts about Electric Fences
Figure 9: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees
Fencing: You can purchase or make barriers to protect small areas, individual plants, or vulnerable parts of plants. These barriers can be less expensive and obtrusive than full fences, and they allow deer access to surrounding plants. The barriers can also prevent deer from rubbing their antlers against vegetation, which breaks branches and strips bark off trunks.
To prevent deer from pushing over or moving a mini-fence surrounding a tree or shrub, make the fence five feet high and stake it to the ground.
Before installing a mini-fence, remove all grass and weeds from the area; add mulch to reduce maintenance. Make the fence at least five feet high, place it far enough away that deer cannot access the protected plant, and stake it firmly to the ground. To exclude hares or rabbits, add a two-foot high band of chicken wire to the bottom before installation.
Netting: Lightweight netting, which is sold to protect berries and fruit from birds, can be draped over individual plants or used as a temporary fence, but deer can easily break it with their hooves to get to desirable plants and songbirds can get entangled if too much is used. Instead, use stronger netting material that is available from bird-control outlets and companies selling polypropylene deer fencing. When draped over plants, any netting will need continual rearranging to protect new growth.
Monofilament: You can make an inexpensive and visually unobtrusive deer barrier from 100-pound test monofilament fishing line set up at 12-inch spacing and tied to sturdy, five-foot tall stakes or to a structure. The line works best to protect small enclosures, such as several rose bushes.
Figure 10: Drawing Credit - Jenifer Rees
Tree guards: Commercially available tree guards protect trees from damage done to the bark from deer antlers and gnawing from other wildlife (Fig. 10). These guards can be wrapped around nearly any size tree, cut to different heights, and expand as the tree grows.
Loosely wrapping vulnerable areas with commercially available tree guards or chicken wire can protect tree bark. (Fig. 9)
Other options: Plastic or nylon tubes, netting, and bud caps have all been used successfully to protect small transplants and growing tree tips. For small plants, use tubes that match the plant's height and allow room for growth. Be sure to hold the tube upright with a wood or metal stake.
Cattle guards: Some people consider cattle guards eyesores, but these ground-level installations provide the most effective protection for ungated driveways on properties that are otherwise fenced to keep deer out. Before installing a cattle guard, it's important to determine how many deer use the driveway. If deer are heavily concentrated, they will test the cattle guard; they can jump over one that is undersized. Most cattle guards are about seven feet wide and 10 to 14 feet long. A backhoe is needed to excavate the hole and to lower sections into place, as each section weighs over a thousand pounds.
Deer repellents use a disagreeable odor or taste, or a combination of both, to dissuade deer from eating the treated plant. Most repellents function by reducing the palatability of the treated plant to a level below other available plants; a repellent's effectiveness therefore depends upon the availability of wild deer food. Numerous odor and taste repellents have been developed to reduce deer damage, and new products are continually becoming available. There have been many studies to test the effectiveness of these repellents, often producing conflicting results. No repellent eliminates deer damage entirely, but repellents are easy to apply and homemade solutions are inexpensive.
Repellents are more appropriate for short-term rather than long-term problems and are the most practical for non-commercial users experiencing low to moderate deer damage. They work best if applied before the deer develop a routine feeding pattern. This means applying repellents before leaves or flower buds emerge and as new growth appears. It's easier and more effective to prevent a feeding habit from forming than to try to break an established one.
An All-in-One Homemade Deer Repellent
Mix the following in a one-gallon tank sprayer:
Note: Top off the tank with water and pump it up. Shake the sprayer occasionally and mist onto dry foliage. One application will last for two to four weeks in dry weather.
Facts about repellents
Like most animals, deer are neophobic (fearful of novel objects), and many scare tactics take advantage of this behavior. However, deer soon get accustomed to new things and damage resumes after they realize no actual harm will come to them. As with repellents, a given tactic will work on some deer, but no single one seems to work on all of them. If animals are already used to feeding in an area, scare tactics will last an even shorter length of time.
Scare tactics can be visual (scarecrows, bright lights, spare blankets), auditory (noise-making devices such as exploders, whistles, etc.), or olfactory (predator urine or droppings).
One recent innovation is a motion sensor combined with a sprinkler that attaches to a hose. When a deer comes into its adjustable, motion-detecting range, a sharp burst of water is sprayed at the animal. This device appears to be effective by combining a physical sensation with a startling stimulus. Similar in approach but less effective are radios and lights hooked up to a motion detector.
A dog can help keep deer away, especially a large, wakeful dog. To keep the dog at home while simultaneously repelling deer from your property, use a "dog trolley" or an invisible (buried electric) fence, where practical. Avoid tethering a dog near stairways and fences, and provide at least 15 feet of cleared space in which it can move around. Do not use a choke chain, and remove all debris that could tangle or injure your dog. Provide shade, water and shelter at all times.
Landscaping with Deer-Resistant Plants
Although a deer fence or other barrier is the best insurance against damage, landscaping with deer-resistant plants is a more aesthetic alternative. In addition, there may be areas where a deer fence isn't practical. A walk or drive through the neighborhood or a visit to the neighbors can give you an idea of what plants are less palatable to deer.
For information about deer-resistant plants, go to the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension blog site.
Whether or not a particular plant will be eaten depends upon several factors: the deer's nutritional needs, its previous feeding experience, plant palatability, time of year, and availability of wild foods. When preferred foods are scarce, there are few plants that deer will not eat. A large deer population can create competition for food, causing deer to eat many plants that they normally would avoid.
Deer develop predictable travel patterns, and prior damage is often a good indicator of potential future problems. Any new plantings added to an existing landscape or garden already suffering from severe deer damage will likely also be browsed.
[This material is from: Russell Link's Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest]
Driving in Deer Country
Estimating conservatively, vehicles kill 3,000 to 4,000 deer each year in Maine. Deer will cross roads at any time of the day or night, creating a hazard for the vehicles, passengers and themselves. More than half of all deer/vehicle collisions occur in October and November. The rut (mating season) and peak days for hunting may account for this timing.
If a collision with a deer seems imminent, take your foot off the accelerator and brake lightly. But – and this is critical – hold the steering wheel firmly and keep the vehicle straight. Do not swerve in an attempt to miss the deer. Insurance adjusters claim that more car damage and personal injury is caused when drivers attempt to avoid collision with a deer and instead collide with guardrails or roll down grades.
If you accidentally hit and kill a deer, try to move the animal off the road, providing you can do so in complete safety. Otherwise, report the location to the city, county or state highway department with jurisdiction for the road. If no action is taken, contact the non-emergency number of the local police department, and the agency will arrange for the body to be removed. This action will prevent scavengers from being attracted onto the road and eliminate a potential traffic hazard.
If the deer is wounded, call the non-emergency number of the local police department and describe the animal's location. Emphasize that the injured deer is a traffic hazard to help ensure that someone will come quickly.
Tips for driving
Understand deer behavior:
Watch for signs there may be deer ahead:
Make adjustments when driving at night:
Public Health Concerns
Chronic Wasting Disease
CWD is a fatal disease of the nervous system of deer, elk and moose. CWD belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). Other TSEs include scrapie in sheep, BSE ("mad cow disease") in cattle, TME in captive mink, TFE in cats and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
There is no known causal relationship between CWD in deer and any other TSE of animals or humans. There is no evidence that CWD is present in Maine in wild white-tailed deer or moose, or in captive/farmed deer (red, sika, fallow) or elk. Each year, MDIFW biologists test 700 to 800 deer for CWD; currently, CWD has not been detected. For more information, click here.
A deer tick infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi can transmit it through a bite to humans. Eighty percent of patients develop an expanding rash at the site within three to 30 days. Flu-like symptoms such as fatigue, fever, muscle and joint pain, and headache are common in the first weeks. Later, arthritis, various palsies, meningitis and heart problems may develop.
For a fact sheet about Lyme disease and information about identifying ticks, the distribution of deer ticks in Maine, and how to protect yourself, refer to "Resources for Maine Residents:" Lyme Disease.
For information about the white-tail deer hunting season, go to: Hunting
For information about damage to orchards or crops by nuisance deer, or damage to vehicles in a collision with a deer, consult Maine's laws on this subject: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/12/title12sec12404.html
New England Wildlife, Habitat, Natural History, and Distribution
Written by: Richard DeGraff, and Mariko Yamasaki
University Press of New England, 2001.
(Available from: www.upne.com)
Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts: The Science of Wildlife Damage Management
Written by: Michael Conover
Lewis Publishers, 2002.
White-tailed Deer: Ecology and Management
Written by: Halls, Lowell, ed..
Stackpole Books, 1984.
Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage
Written by: Scott E. Hygnstrom, et al.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1994.
(Available from: University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, 202 Natural Resources Hall, Lincoln, NE 68583-0819; phone: 402-472-2188; also see Internet Sites below.)
Preventing Deer Damage. 3rd edition.
Written by: Robert G. Juhre
(Available from: Robert G. Juhre, 1723 Mountain Garden Way, Kettle Falls, WA 99141-9771.)
Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest
Written by: Russell Link
University of Washington Press and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, 1999.
Adapted from: "Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest"
(see Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)
Written by: Russell Link, Wildlife Biologist, Email Russell Link, with assistance from WDFW Biologists Rich Beausoleil and Rocky Spencer
Design and layout: Peggy Ushakoff, ITT2
Illustrations: As credited
Copyright 2005 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife