Whitetail deer, a common sight among the paths and roads of Umstead, are the epitome of grace, alertness and beauty. As a boy, growing up in the sandhills of South Carolina, deer were scarce. I can still remember the year when me and a friend were canoeing down Congaree Creek and came upon what we thought was Deer Shangri-La. We based this on the immense volume of deer tracks we saw all over the bank. We got out to explore and followed tracks out of the woods into a meadow where about 30 goats, some with wicked looking horns, were looking at us. They started coming toward us as one, slowly at first, then picking up speed. If you have seen the start of the ride of the Rohirrim on the hill above Gondor, it was much like that. We decided to retreat, running toward the safety of the creek, fully knowing they would catch us before we got there. They caught us in short order and fanned out around us, slowing to match our top speed. We started laughing and slowed to a walk, feeling foolish but enjoying the experience of being part of the herd. This led me on a quest in the field and in the library to find out more about deer in general and specifically how to distinguish between deer and goat tracks.
If you see the deer here at Umstead, you might wonder about their life history, so here are some basics. A deer’s primary task during the day (24 hour period) is eating. A feeding deer will bite and tear off leaves, twigs or grasses, chew them briefly and swallow them. It can take a deer approximately an hour to fill their ruminating stomach, (imagine a multi-chambered stomach) if there is a lot of food available. The practical beauty of the ruminating stomach is that it can be filled up quickly and then the deer can go to a safe location to process (regurgitate and chew thoroughly) its contents called “cud.”
The best time to see deer at the park is at sunrise and sunset with some bursts of activity around midnight and midday. During the day, deer stay mostly in thicker cover, dividing their time with short excursions to gather food and back to the bedding area for resting, ruminating and grooming.
From my tracking deer in the snow, their bedding areas seem to always to have a good view of the surrounding area like on ridges or slopes. As night approaches, deer will move into more exposed areas to do some heavy feeding interspersed with more bedding and chewing their cud breaks.
Deer in general move between one and four miles a day, but as my Uncle Joe would say, they have rubber band knees, which means of course that they are flexible. Strong weather patterns such as heavy rain, gusty or strong winds, snow and intense cold can limit their movements and have them bed in protected areas for longer periods. I have also seen loose/wild dogs chase deer for miles outside their home range or through neighborhoods.
Besides automobiles, deer have some predators that prey upon them in our park. Coyotes are the main predator, but they mainly prey on the young. Some research from North and South Carolina have coyotes accounting for up to 50% of the fawn population but this could be habitat specific. Attempts to control coyote populations through yearlong open seasons with no bag limits have been ineffectual. Bobcats prey on fawns and foxes have been known to take a deer fawn as well, however infrequently.
If you are lucky, quiet and still you may see fawns together like I did playing a game best described by my father as “Grab Butt”. It was a hilarious game of chase filled with tight circles, crashes into bushes interspersed with spirited jumps and kicks. I watched them for about 15 minutes till I laughed out loud and ruined it. (Check out fawns playing here). Another time, I watched my son of six at the time and a doe at Mt. Mitchell State Park having some sort of bonding moment as she walked closer and closer to him and when she got within a foot of my son, he panicked and gave out a loud “Yahhhhhhhh!”, scaring the doe, me and effectively ruining the picturesque moment.
Good luck with making your own memories with the Gentle Ghost of the Forest!
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