Saturday, June 18, 2005

Close Encounters

I’m in Prince Edward County this week, and on the first evening, the last night of the heat wave, I was wandering down the laneway from the house, dressed in heat-wave garb, not hiking gear,when I heard some movement in the leaf litter in the woods that the top of the lane runs through. I walked over to investigate, but my view was obscured by the flurry of young maples coming up in the edges of the understory. As I stood there, peering this way and that, listening for the sound again (I was thinking that it was probably a grey squirrel, very common in this wood), I heard a terrible laboured breathing, as if of a very large animal. Just a few breaths. Shocked, I froze,looked at the ground at my feet, saw I was heading into a patch of poison ivy and started to back away. I heard the breathing a couple more times, a little more movement, then nothing. Nothing emerged, nothing ran away....nothing that is except me....

Well, I didn’t really run, I was wearing sandals after all.....and I know never to run from a bear, or poison ivy. But I was a little shaken up. The next morning I posted the story on the Eastern Ontario Nature List to see if anyone thought that what I heard might have been a porcupine. I was hoping porcupine because I’ve had the experience before of encountering one of these guys and having it pay no attention to me, just go about its business. It was the fact of me being so close,and not being quiet, and the thing, whatever it was, not moving away that I found alarming. Others on the list posted stories of beavers, otters and porcupines all making breathing noises much louder than one would that was reassuring. But one contributor did post the suggestion that it might have been a sick animal, perhaps even rabid, and this also struck me as plausible.

The spot was just down from the house, and I was going to be here for days, and really I wasn’t going to have any fun at all if I was afraid to walk by there, so that day, a little after noon, I set out to check out the situation. I was walking down the lane looking for a good spot beyond the poison ivy patch to get into the wood when I noticed that just a little further down the lane, standing staring at me, was a whitetail doe accompanied by a very young fawn. We stared at each other for a while until she decided to go–fawn gamely trying to keep up. A pleasant interlude for me (I don’t think I’d seen a fawn that young before), but I had work to do. I went into the wood and searched for clues.

Of course there were no clues–nothing I could relate to what I’d heard anyway. I hadn’t really expected that there would be, but I needed to get back on the horse here so that I could walk up and down the lane without worrying that there was a heavy-breathing monster lurking in there.

Later that day I was telling someone the whole story, deer and fawn and all, and she said, “Maybe what you heard was the deer giving birth.”

Seemed too amazing somehow, but events kept unfolding, and I am now coming around to this point of view. I checked with the nature listers, and since then with some Web sites about the whitetail deer, and we are still in the time of birthing for deer.

Nothing happened for a couple of days.

Today, I got a late start, then walked down the lane to the water (shore of Lake Ontario) watching the warblers, sparrows, orioles, flycatchers, grackles, and on down to the pair of loons, and the gulls. The wind was high coming off the water and the waves crashing on the beach were deafening, so I didn’t hang around down there too long. On the way back I stopped at the point where the fields end and the little wood begins and watched two or more male indigo buntings chasing each other around, as well as a multitude of other field and woodland birds all in one place. The light was
perfect (a little overcast) for seeing the blue of the buntings and I could have stood there all day.

After about ten minutes I noticed a deer climb out of the tall grass (and over a fence) and walk into the wood. I had just been thinking about the deer and her fawn, and the tall grass along the laneway, and wondering if they were still around. Apparently so. There was no panic to her movements so I figured she hadn’t noticed me. I went back to admiring the buntings and watching all the other birds. Then I heard the deer bawling from the wood, further up, and on the other side of the lane from where I’d seen her go in.

Well this was too much. I know that deer don’t know this, but I do know that unarmed I’m no match for her. I stood there thinking about my options–make a home for myself right where I was; walk the long way around (two+ kilometres) to get to the house through the neighbour’s fields (or wade through chest-high wet grass and climb several fences to cut it short);or just walk on by. I even started back down to go around the long way until I realized the real reason I was so nervous about passing her was that I couldn’t see her. So I walked past and up to the house. I didn’t hear the deer again, and didn’t see her at all. But I did remember the screaming deer I met last year on my walk.

It was just about this same time–June–I met a deer in the fields (sometimes the first field, sometimes the far field) who didn’t run away, who screamed or called a very hoarse bawling call, something like what I heard today. She would move away from me, make this sound, stop, start, stop, until I either got too close, or had moved far
enough away from the area of concern. I met the screaming deer several times over a period of about a week or ten days. I figured at the time that she had a fawn hidden somewhere nearby, but it didn’t occur to me until today what she was doing. Check out the University of Michigan Web site on the whitetail, where they say that an injured deer will make a surprisingly loud sound.

Injured, my Aunt Fanny! And a killdeer will make a surprisingly loud call when it has a broken wing–right up until the moment it flies away laughing at you. This was a distraction display pure and simple. The deer today left her fawn in the tall grass, saw me, stayed cool (who knew a deer could do that?) made her way up into the wood and away from the fawn (other side of the lane) and pretended to be injured in the hope that I would follow her.

It just never occurred to me last year that what I was seeing was a distraction display–I thought the deer was honestly upset, not trying to fool me. I thought the deer was stupidly revealing to me that there was a fawn somewhere around, not cleverly trying to tempt me into chasing her so she could lead me away.

I haven’t found anything yet on the Internet about distraction displays and whitetails–it’s either too obvious to talk about, or the species is too common for this to have been studied. I’ll be here for a few more days–and if what I’ve read about the first few weeks of the life of a whitetail fawn is correct, so will the little family.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I haven’t found anything yet on the Internet about distraction displays and whitetails–it’s either too obvious to talk about, or the species is too common for this to have been studied"

I was intrigued by your post, and luckily live in an office with plenty of hunters. Many of whom own property in Northern Michigan. They report that during the foaling season distraction displays do occur.

The mother apparently will stamp a foot or cough while looking at the intruder, then move away several feet. She will then stop and watch to see if the intruder follows. Repeating the display if necessary.

Newborn and young fawns apparently stay hidden while the mother is doing this, but it's hard to tell if the behavior is innate, learned, or a combination.

None of them reported any screams as if the mother was wounded.

I suspect that this phenomena has not been studied. A quick search on the Michigan DNR site found several links to behavoral information, but none indicated a doe uses a distraction display.

This is a typical quote: "Whitetail does are painstakingly careful to keep their offspring hidden from predators. When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn."
from http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.

Interesting observation.