A Bestiary: Part Two – White-tailed Deer

 The White-tailed Deer Odocoileus virginianus is the second beast featured in Flower Hill Farm’s Bestiary.

These beautiful chestnut, crepuscular creatures are mostly much beloved here at Flower Hill Farm. I know this is not the case for many gardeners and farmers. I do manage the land so that there is always a good supply of young woody saplings of oak, beech, birch and maples for the deer to browse on.

Our farm can be divided up into five parts. The farmhouse and studios sit high up on the hillside surrounded by the gardens that sweep into the north, east and south fields. Blueberry fields meet the open wildflower fields and lead down into the forest. The deer mostly graze on the land below the blueberries and just along the forest edge. This is the area that I must cut every couple of years. I cut saplings out of the blueberries every year. The trick is to have plenty of tender shoots for them to nibble on so as not to be too tempted by my favored plants. Though, like all of us, deer do enjoy a diversity to their diet and I will lose some crisp buds along the garden paths during the growing season mostly.

 Our apple trees are very generous and there is always abundance in free fall for all the beasts living here. The fruit trees offer a great opportunity to observe the White-tailed deer and their speckled young. One can count on seeing these marvelous mammals just beneath the heavily apple laden branches early mornings and at dusk most days during apple time.

I particularly enjoy walking at a distance from these yearling (I believe) siblings as they are not afraid of me. Wary, but not startled enough to run off, the youngsters continue to munch apples and are not sure what to make of the odd person with a big black eye. You must imagine a odd looking human wearing a camera and speaking softly . . . standing about ten feet away from the deer in the images above. I can read their body language and know that if I step another foot closer they will most likely leap away in fear.

Of all my encounters with White-tailed deer . . . the sweetest memories are of these sleeping fawns. Females will often leave their young in a safe place while they venture off in search of more diverse foraging. I feel deeply touched that a wild animal would feel the gardens are a safe haven. People should never move these dear little beings . . . believing them to be orphaned.

As I come closer to photograph the fawns, they lift their sleepy spotted bodies and we all take a walk around the garden. ( I know I should have let them be . . . they need their rest.) I walk behind the twins at a good distance and assure them with quiet words that my intentions are caring . . . so as not to alarm them. Amazingly . . . they are not.

Fawns Walking in Garden and Returning to Nap Site 2008

After about twenty minutes, both fawns return to the exact patch of grass or dirt, and folding their tiny wobbly legs . . . they curl back into their resting.  As I walk  to the balcony, twenty feet away, which allows a wider view of the land . . . I survey carefully for predators . . .  the fawns give way to sleep. Nodding heads fully relax in fawn fashion as seen in the shot below.

I jokingly rename our place Flower Hill Fawn Care that June of 2008. There are other fawns . . . solo and triplets . . . hiding in the shrubberies and running along the paths, throughout the fields and gardens, during the month as well. Their spotted bodies help to camouflage them as they lie perfectly still . . . so as not to be discovered by predators.

Sweetly Sleeping Yet Ears Alert

Siblings Nursing Upper Garden 2008

While standing on the balcony stairs I feel a strong presence to my right . . .  and slowly turning towards the upper garden . . . I see the mother. She is frozen and strikingly beautiful enveloped in lush green. She stands in alert while staring up at me where I stand on the stairs overlooking her helpless young. Before I knew what was happening . . . tiny flashing bodies of fawns were dashing through the green landscape in earnest to reach their mother and begin nursing. What hungry little beasts. It is nearly dusk . . . but I am able to record these precious moments.

Both Fawns Slurping 2008

Where did mom go?

The doe did not feel safe with me watching nearby . . .  so stepping through the shrubberies, she led her precious fawns into the south field and out of my sight.

I sighed deeply with gratitude.

A female may give birth at around eighteen months old.  Young females will most likely have a single fawn, where a more mature doe can have twins or triplets. Mating takes place in late October into November and early December. A doe will carry her young for about six months.

Doe Licking in South Field 2011

When encountering these graceful beauties in the garden, fields and along the forest edge, I am always struck by their elegance and stateliness. Throughout the thirty years of my farming and gardening this land the White-tailed deer have caused very little damage to my trees, shrubs or plants. They will nibble here and there . . . but never mow plants down or damage tree trunks as rabbits or voles so often do. Come fall and the first hard frost deer will eat my kale and any greens in the garden, but they allow me all the greens I care to eat . . .  all summer long . . . unlike rabbits! Just this past year they discovered they enjoyed hosta . . . so I will have to have a stern chat about that this year. Then again, if I have to lose a few hosta plants in order to continue having these enchanting encounters . . . so be it. I will learn of other plants they do not like and replace them . . . hopefully native too.

Leaping and Calling Out for Fawn In South Field 2011

Running with deer . . . yes . . . when I was stronger . . .  I would once in a while . . . wildly run down into the garden . . .  when sighting deer and run with them . . . of course they were running from me and far ahead. I felt such a sense of freedom and let the deer know they shared the garden.

There are times when I will clap my hands loudly and tell them in a firm voice not to over indulge in the verdant life that I care for. We seem to have an understanding. I like to think that some of the mature females may remember me from when they were fawns. I know that sounds silly but we cannot know for sure how wildlife perceive us.

Fawn Calling Out for Mom Middle Meadow 2011

Often during June I will come across a doe and she will call out to her fawn . . . here we see a fawn calling back to her mother.

Wearing Winter Coat Leaping into the North Field

The White-tailed deer molt in the fall and their lovely chestnut coat becomes brown for the winter months.

Donning Winter Coat in Crabapple Orchard

When a wild animal looks at you this way . . . it stirs wonderment deep within.

Sue Sweeney a team member of this site wrote a wonderful piece on White-tailed Deer and what we might do to manage the overpopulation of deer in some areas. You can find it here. I highly recommend it. I live in an area that is not overpopulated and know that I am lucky to be able to enjoy White-tailed Deer and not worry that they may destroy my gardens or the wild plants around me.

We do need to think of a better way to manage wildlife such as bears and deer. After all, we have moved into their territory and are overpopulating the  land ourselves. Taking responsibility and truly trying to solve the problems of our contribution to an imbalance may just save both the ‘beasts’ and our way of life.

© 2012, Carol Duke. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Wonderful story and photos, Carol. These animals get a lot of bad press. I’m glad to be reminded of their beauty and grace and it’s good to know you welcome them to your land and heart. Thanks much for sharing.
    Betty Hall recently posted..Beautiful sunrise

  2. says

    This post is so endearing Carol. I didn’t know deer eats apple, and there’s a lot of waste there on the ground. I envy the deer as apples are expensive here and i can only eat a few in a year! This deer reminds me of our goats, that love to eat our mangoes. When in season and there’s a lot of Indian mangoes on the ground just rotting, we give them to the goats. However, goats don’t normally eat food on the ground so we pick and offered to them. This post just told me something, your deer are very safe with you, but you are not very safe with them! I know you know what i mean. Take care Carol.
    Andrea recently posted..An Early Morning Walk

    • says

      Thank you dear Andrea. I do not consider the fallen apples as wasted . . . I had more stored away than I could manage and had neighbors come to pick too. My apples are not good enough to sell right now, for I do not use any chemicals here . . . must learn the best organic methods. So the ones that tumble to the ground are for the wild animals and even some insects and birds indulge. Not one apple will be left lying on the ground by the end of fall. I love the image of you offering goats mangoes! I do not blame the deer for my lyme disease. I do think the rabbits, voles, field mice and other rodents carry them closer to where I spend time. I know that deer do carry the ticks . . . of course that is where the name ‘deer tick’ comes. Lyme Connecticut is very different from Western Ma. . . . where there are now many cases of Lyme. I feel certain it is not the deer that are bringing the ticks into my world. Certainly not only the deer. Our warmer climate is sure not going to help with those buggers.
      Carol Duke recently posted..A Bestiary – At Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens PART TWO

  3. Denise Gibbs says

    I think you are very fortunate to have a large enough piece of land that it can support both your needs and the needs of the deer population. Unfortunately, most of us living in urban areas do not have this luxury. The forest understory and herbaceous layer are non-existent on both private and park lands in many areas due to deer over-browse. Other species are suffering the consequences, including other herbivores, ground-nesting warblers and other neotropical migrants, and box turtles.
    While it’s good to know that some people welcome white-tailed deer on their property, others must resort to deer management methods like deer fencing or managed hunts.

    • says

      Thank you for sharing Denise! I know I am lucky and do hope that we can come up with better management of deer in areas such as you mention. I do support hunting in some cases . . . not as a sport but for food. I have a good deal of respect for those who respectfully harvest their own food be it plant or animal base. The problem with managing wildlife is so large and I am no expert . . . it seems to me we are a large part of the problem and do not leave enough open wild spaces for wildlife to freely roam. When we are fencing out wildlife . . . what are we leaving them? I do not know the answers . . . only wanted to share some happy encounters with these beautiful creatures. Deer do not know they are over browsing . . . What to do? I cannot see this problem getting better unless there are very creative and knowledgeable minds working on it. I hope there are.
      Carol Duke recently posted..A Bestiary – At Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens PART TWO

  4. Bill Shannon says

    Carol, that was so beautifuly written it was a privilage to read. It made me smile inside and was a wonderful start to my day.

  5. says

    Carol we have many deer in our wild area behind the house. They have lots of food there and in the woods across the street, but there are a few brave ones who leap my picket fence to graze on their favorite tulips, hosta and phlox…this winter they are mowing down new growth coming up during this mild winter. I agree the rabbits and voles are more destructive but I have had to have several stern talks with the deer. We do love them though and want them to come close enough so we can see them and the fawns…
    Donna@ Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simplify

  6. says

    Beautiful photos Carol! and a great story to go with them. I only occasionally see deer down the street is a wooded area they use as a corridor to get where they are going. I’m not far from the boundary of a Wildlife Management Area where they can safely roam. It’s always fun to see them, especially with their young. The Florida white-tail deer seem much smaller to me than those I remember from up north, but they are beauties just the same!
    Loret recently posted..Happy Holidays

  7. Sue Sweeney says

    I read your article with envy. Deer are beautiful. Meeting a huge antlered buck in the woods is awesome; getting into a discussion with a doe about whether she or I have right of way, amusing; the fawns, adorable.

    I would enjoy living in peace with them. However, due to gross over population (6 to 10 times sustainable), as a responsible land steward, I have to see them as forest killers and killers of every other species that lives in the forest.

    I’m having a hard time imaging having all these deer and an intact forest understory. You really have lots of unbrowsed shrubs that reach full height and come into flower? A wide range of herbaceous plants including the same spring wildflowers as were there a few decades ago? Many young undamaged sapling hardwoods that are growing straight and tall to be the next generation of the forest? Do you know your local deer-per square mile population estimate?

    • says

      Sue thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experience. The deer sure cannot know they are killers . . . how did they end up with so little land to browse? I feel that people are largely at fault here for poor management of wildlife and the land. We do far more harm that the wild creatures. I hear you though and hope that someone can solve this problem and soon.I do not know the answers to all of your great questions but yes to intact forest understory and shrubs that have reached full height and young ones surviving and blooming. Many many wildflowers filling the fields and forest with flowers. I will have to check on the sapling hardwoods . . . I must get down into the forest and will have to call Mass Wildlife to give the deer-per square mile pop. I cannot believe it is a problem here though, as I do not see that many deer. Will get back to you on this soon. I know it will sound really strange but I do plead with the deer . . . I am not a deer whisperer or anything like that but they are generous to me in allowing me my gardens when they have other food to eat. When their food is scarce they still do not do so much damage here. Rabbits and voles are a major problem . . . I guess I see them much as you see the deer. Though they too have no idea what they are doing. We need more predators to keep a balance. I was thrill the other day to see a Red-tailed hawk dining on a vole!!
      Carol Duke recently posted..A Bestiary – At Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens PART TWO

      • Sue Sweeney says

        Carol – the problem is a lack of predators, humans and otherwise, plus too much meadow (a/k/a McMansions); then ignore for 2 or 3 decades….

        This is not about humans squeezing the animals out of habitat but us making the habitat too deer friendly – we have many more deer now than 50 or 100 year ago. Same problem as the non-migratory Canada geese.

        • says

          Sue, You are completely right about predators, “human and otherwise.” I do believe we could have done a better job in how we cut up the land. Hunting deer for food in urban areas would be easier if we had . . . perhaps . . .
          I am curious if there is a higher rate of Lyme disease in your area due to the overpopulation of deer? Thanks so much for sharing!
          Carol Duke recently posted..A Bestiary – At Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens PART TWO

          • Sue Sweeney says

            We have a high rate of Lymes disease in CT (take it from one who knows only too well!). However, I think that Lymes disease is more a function of the fragmentation of the forest that once covered the entire Atlantic coast.

            While the overpopulated deer do spread ticks, so do many other critters. This wasn’t so much of a problem when colder winters were killing off most of the ticks (and the West Nile-carrying mosquitoes, the hemlock-killing woolly adelgids, the invasive Bradford pears, and some of the deer).

            Forest fragmentation itself leads to higher levels of released CO2 when the forest is cut down (e.g. to build McMansions). The forest also helped moderate temperate in many other ways. Then the McMansion add to the problem by using an awful lot of energy and by being so far off the main highways that they are accessible only by private car (often SUV’s) — no walking to the corner store, a friend’s house or the bus stop.

            Meanwhile, the breaking of the forest into residential lots prevents the ecology from re-balancing itself. For example, studies confirm that possums, raccoons, and the like act as tick mops, collecting thousands a day in their long coats and then swallowing them during grooming. Likewise many small birds and ground fowl eat ticks. No room for these guys in the thin pieces of woods left around McMansions to screen them from the next property (cleared of unsightly understory brush of course!); no food or habitat for the helpful critters either since the lawn-fed deer ate the remains of understory.

            If this weren’t enough, the presence of residences in the woods greatly restricts the activities of humans hunters, and leads to the “control” (killing) of other deer predators such as bears, and coyotes for human safety.

            Me? I live downtown, in a highrise, and walk to Scalzi Riverwalk or take the bus to visit the forest.

  8. says

    Carol, the deer are a wonderful part of habitat gardening. Like so many I love to see them about but am concerned about the problems caused to everyone including the deer themslves (wasting disease,etc) caused by over large populations. What Sue says ( For example, studies confirm that possums, raccoons, and the like act as tick mops, collecting thousands a day in their long coats and then swallowing them during grooming.) is more good reason for continuing to advocate for wildlife gardens.
    Gloria recently posted..Save Starved Rock

  9. says

    Dear Carol,

    Thank you for sharing your beautiful gift of the English language, your artistic and expressive pictures, and most of all, for your sensitive and heart-warming love of these majestic creatures who have over-populated because of OUR overpopulation.

    I will share your post on my http://www.east33.org blog.

    I’ll also be writing a piece about the hardship fencing creates for these creatures I too love.

    I still get goosebumps when I view them from my house in the woods. Your comment resonated with me: “When a wild animal looks at you this way . . . it stirs wonderment deep within.”

    If only everyone had this compassion for the deer…..

    Love, Christina Kobland

    • Sue Sweeney says

      Christina – FYI: while human overpopulation is the problem faced by many species, this is not the case with white-tailed deer in the Northeast. Here, they are what is known as an “enhanced species” – a native species that does better due to human interference with the ecology. Other local examples are raccoons, ragweed, poison ivy and Canada geese.

      • says

        Sue —

        It all depends how big a picture you are viewing.If our own poulation levels hadn’t advanced to their present levels, we wouldn’t have “enhanced species” like deer, because we’d still have our top line predators and we wouldn’t have created all this habitat they could exploit. So in the big picture, we are still the cause of their overpopulation.

        Rather than debate this issue, however, my point was to let Carol know how refreshing her post was, because so often the deer are maligned through no fault of their own.

    • says

      Dear Christina,

      I was out all day and night experiencing some of the true marvels that humans have created – Opera- Live from the Met HD, Dining and then Borromeo String Quartet. I was treated to this most amazing day and night and could not imagine anything else might happen to add to my joy . . . then I opened my email. Thank you for this most generous comment . . . your very kind words, and I would be honored for you to share this piece on your blog. I am assuming here that this is OK with the team . . . ?

      I do whole-heartedly believe that humankind has created the imbalance we find throughout our mother earth. Though I do understand the frustration that many feel when seeing and knowing of unfortunate destruction by deer, for I feel the same way with regard to rabbits and voles. We are the stewards and are failing in our practices of managing wildlife. I have to agree with you . . . We are the problem . . . no other animal on this planet has ever done as much harm to the earth . . . and to the very survival of all life as we know it.

      I am sharing all the critters that visit and live in my gardens in this series and my experiences with them . . . in the thirty years I have been working with the land here the deer have never been greedy and have even shared their fawns with me. The encounters I have enjoyed with them have been enchanting.
      Carol Duke recently posted..Flower Hill Farm BUTTERFLIES Of 2011 ~ Favorite Monarchs

      • says

        So sweet of you to write back…later last night, I saw movement out my window on the steps alongside my pond. A beautiful large doe silently walked past me on the other side of the window. As always, I got goosebumps. As always, I am startled by their size when they’re so close. Aren’t we lucky to feel this awe? It will never leave me. Sadly, they come here when shot with an arrow. I believe it is because they know they are safe. I feel this wonder for all the creatures I share my property with.

  10. Deb says

    I am so glad to see this post. To know that others feel as I do in wanting to protect the wildlife is encouraging.

    I’ve long wanted to plant a ‘living fence’ of food for the ‘natives’ as a protective barrier to my orchard and garden. The trouble is; they don’t let it grow long enough to sustain itself, or them. I keep trying to explain if they’d leave the young plants alone this year, there would be plenty for years to come. The deer are rather like one of the children that grew up in my house; sometimes they just don’t listen. ;<

    Any advice for getting the flora big enough to make a difference would be welcomed.

  11. says

    Some mornings during July we have fawns racing around our house in Northern Wisconsin-Quite a fun site. I find planting deer resistant plants makes me happier: Menardia, hyssop, wild geranium, prairie
    groundsel, pearly everlasting are a few that have been very successful!

  12. Gil Martin says

    Deer are nothing but rodents with hooves. They are ok for rural areas, but not for suburban areas. Had a good friend who suffered serious injuries when a buck ran and out and caused him to swerve and hit a tree, and this was driving through a forested area. They also carry lyme disease. Why blame people all the time for the actions of deer?

  13. Cora Howlett says

    Carol and Christina, never did I think I would hear that anyone else would have the same thoughts that people (the overpopulation of) are to blame for the loss of wildlife and the problems that we have today and will continue to have. Monarch butterflies are just one example…I am happy and sad at the same time. Can’t people see what is happening and try to educate themselves and try to do better. I do not want any animal,insect, any critter to become extinct as a result of my actions. I am removing grass and invasives as fast as I can and planting NATIVES. I am not a young person but I know I still can learn and have much to learn and do. I am trying and want others to do the same. A little fawn ran by the edge of our woods yesterday and that was the highlight of my day…can’t imagine life without seeing such beautiful “beasts”.


  1. […] PS wonderful article by teammate Carole Duke on what it’s like to have a sustainable number of deer.  I hope they are taking steps to keep the herd in balance.  I hope some day we can look at the deer in my area with equal fondness. […]

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