Getting to Know (a) Deer

I remember getting off the plane as a 17 year old exchange student to Japan in the mid-1970s. I looked out onto a sea of people all wearing white shirts or blouses, black or navy trousers or skirts, all with black hair and dark eyes… If the person I was supposed to meet had not been holding a sign with my name on it, I would never have found him. There were no individuals… just a sea of sameness.

It took me several months of attendance in a college preparatory high school where everyone wore the same school uniform and carried the same book bag to train myself to see individuals. I had to learn to describe people not by hair color, but by the shape of the face… not by what they wore, but by the nature of a smile or personality or the sound of laughter. Learning to “see” people in this way was transforming for me.

Fast forward to 2010 when a note appeared on Audubon’s front door: “Wounded doe (left front leg) on Maple West Trail.”

I appreciated the visitor’s concern, and still I chuckled when I read the note which I realized had to refer to one particular white-tailed deer. Plenty of deer visit our bird feeders in winter at dusk to lick up the seed left uneaten by the birds and squirrels. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between one individual and another. There is one, however, that we all know and love.

Three-Legged Deer

We first became aware of this doe in late 2006. We don’t know how old she was then – but she was certainly not a youngster. She was at least two, making her at least six now, but she could be older. White-tailed deer can live as long as fifteen years, though the average is two years for males and three years for females. We suspect “our” doe broke her left front leg attempting to get around in the unusually deep snow we had that winter. The leg dangled, useless and she hobbled around on her three remaining good legs. We were sure she would succumb to the elements or a pack of hungry coyotes.

Such was not the case.

Over time, the leg atrophied and now it looks as if she holds it folded up close to her body. She does not seem the least bit hampered by her “disability.” She gets around like any four-legged doe. A staff member saw her jump over the split-rail fence one morning when he drove in and startled her. And she doesn’t JUST get around. She GETS AROUND, if you know what I mean: She manages to give birth to twin fawns every spring.

Gretchen with one of her fawns - June 2010 - Photo by Terry LeBaron

Audubon volunteer and photographer Terry LeBaron has been observing “Gretchen” since 2007 when he gave her the name. Terry notes that she frequents the same spots and that he can find her in just about the same location each time he visits Audubon. That location? Maple West Trail – the same location noted by our concerned visitor. Deer tend to stay within territories of two to three square miles and use the same system of trails from feeding areas to bedding areas. As long as food and shelter remain constant, they will use the same territories or “deeryards” for years at a time.

We’ve grown rather fond of “Gretchen” and watch for her each winter. We delight in seeing her fawns each spring. She’s still around, and while she was injured at one time, rest assured, she is not wounded. A deer, made unique by injury, has become an individual to us and not just another face in a sea of faces. We are all better for knowing this particular deer.

When you walk the woods in winter, keep your eyes open for the many signs of white-tailed deer activity. Two-toed heart-shaped prints, sometimes punctuated with a couple of dots from the dew claws in the back. Torn twigs – the result of browsing when you have only bottom and no top incisors. Melted indentations in the snow where a deer slept. Buck-rubs – trees with bark removed by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers.

Animal Signs 1 December (13 of 74)
Left: Deer Browse; Right: Deer Bed

Audubon’s trails are open from dawn until dusk daily free of charge to the public, though donations are gratefully accepted. The nature center building is generally open Mondays and Saturdays from 10 until 4:30 when members and children are admitted free of charge and non-member adults pay only $5. Everyone is admitted free of charge on Sundays from 1 until 4:30.

Gretchen with her Fawn - September 2010 - photo by Terry Lebaron

We will observe special holiday hours Monday through Thursday, December 27th through the 30th from 10am until 4:30pm. Join us Wednesday from 10 until noon at Christmas for the Critters – a chance to meet our education animals up close and personal. Admission is $5 per person or an item from the animals’ wish list which you can find at our website http://jamestownaudubon.org.

Audubon is located at 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, NY and Warren PA. For more information call 716-569-2345.

Jennifer Schlick is program director at Audubon and never tires of looking for animal signs while out tramping in the woods.


Cross posted at Audubon’s Website.

Also: I used the same two opening paragraphs a while back to introduce another species. Did you read that post? Brownie points to the first person to list it in a comment below!

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9 thoughts on “Getting to Know (a) Deer

  1. Jennifer-thanks for a great post which encouraged me to get out and make some deer discoveries of my own. Our recent snowfall provided me with a roadmap of deer tracks right into their sleeping area. I was thrilled to find a deer bed in a very protected area of brambles just yards from my house. Very cool…

  2. Oops, perhaps I should pay more attention when I am reading

    Species – one of my favorite to photograph – Wildflowers

    I also take pictures of the same types of flowers over and over as each one has it’s own unique charm.

  3. i love the phrase, ‘sea of sameness’…may i use it sometime? i am close with many deer on my farm. i am currently worrying about bossy’s boy who has survived an arrow stuck in his right front shouler and at christmas came home with severe injury to his hips probably from a car. those who watch deer know their different features but due to seasonal changes it remains a challenge when the coloring differs and the antlers are shed. if you are interested in seeing any of them, find farm tails which is my personal blog. so glad i found you and look forward in following you!

  4. Pingback: Gretchen Update « A Passion for Nature

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