Deer Season

White-tailed deer (credit: Joe Kosack/PGC photo)
White-tailed deer (credit: Joe Kosack/PGC photo)

Yesterday was the start of Pennsylvania’s two week firearms deer season.  It’s the time of year when blaze orange is “in” and the crack of the rifle is heard throughout the land.

There are probably as many opinions about deer hunting as there are white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania.   (That would be about 1.5 million.)  As a birder, I appreciate hunting season because it protects songbirds.

How can this be?

Persistent deer overpopulation results in a browse line, an area where nothing grows from the forest floor to the height of a deer.  This buck is standing in such an area.  You can tell because you can see straight through the forest behind him.  It makes for a nice clear picture, but not for biodiversity.

Deer eat plants.  When deer are too plentiful they reduce forest habitat and that in turn reduces songbird populations.  I first learned this back in 1999 from the results of a decade-long study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC).

The CRC maintained 12 study plots near Front Royal, Virginia:  six surrounded by deer exclosures to keep deer off the land, and six unfenced.  By comparing the presence and absence of deer, the study found that high deer density resulted in two impacts on birds: direct competition for food (affecting wild turkeys) and destroyed understory (affecting songbirds).

For songbirds to survive they need cover.  When the understory is destroyed, their populations decline and nest survival falls to zero.   In the CRC study, understory birds such as hooded warblers, eastern towhees, and wood thrushes increased dramatically when deer were excluded.   The veery population doubled!  Even birds who nest in trees – rose-breasted grosbeaks, cerulean warblers and scarlet tanagers – benefited from a reduced deer population.

Sadly many of these songbirds are in decline.  Deer, on the other hand, are prolific and can double their population every two to three years.  Even with hunting and car accidents southwestern Pennsylvania’s deer population is growing in some locations.

It’s possible to have both deer and songbirds, but only if the deer herd is kept in check.


For further reading and videos about Pennsylvania deer management see the PA Game Commission website on white-tailed deer.   If you want to read about a huge deer problem see the Fairfield County (Connecticut) Municipal Deer Management Alliance and their section on bird impacts.

(photo by Joe Kosack/PGC photo, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Game Commission public photo gallery)

p.s.  If you’re going out hiking or birding, wear blaze orange!

13 thoughts on “Deer Season

  1. People who are interested in what they can do for songbirds might enjoy a book called Silence of the Songbirds

    According to Bridget Stutchbury, a professor of biology at York University in Toronto, one basic thing we can all do is to drink shade grown coffee because it preserves bird habitat, unlike most full sun coffee.

    I buy mine online at Cafe Campesino at very reasonable prices and also give it out as gifts.

    Many other suggestions are included in the book.

  2. The reference in this article to some “huge” deer problem, purportedly in Fairfield County CT is completely absurd. First of all, there was a lot of misinformation spread by the DEP after one of their biologists “accidentally” goofed while interpreting the results of his aerial deer survey. Then rumors began to fly that there was some ridiculous number, like 120 deer per square mile. The Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance was completely irresponsible, using this misinformation to promote their mono-maniacal killing agenda. Their committee should be re-named the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Murder Alliance, because they are a bunch of total amateurs with no knowledge about the actual facts of deer biology.

  3. It would appear that Kate St. John knows little about forests. I wonder if she has ever been in the woods.

    I’ve never been in a forest with a mature tree canopy that has bushes growing to the height of a deer. The tree canopy prevents grasses and bushes from growing.

    I also can’t understand these so called “bird lovers”, who promote the killing of other sentient animals, so that they can enjoy seeing specific birds. I just don’t get it. Especially, when a women, who I expect has some motherly instincts, wants to see deer families killed, moms and fawns. I wonder if Kate St. John has ever watched a doe killed, and her fawns stand in shock and grief next to her waiting for her to get up. Or if she has ever heard a fawn cry out in pain and fear.

    These “bird lovers” also want non-native bird species killed. I’s sure none of them enjoy watching pigeons. BTW, I don’t consider these people, “bird lovers”. I love birds, and have noting in common with these people.

  4. I agree with Kate that the deer population is a problem in some areas, including my own town. When driving through the local cemetery to look for birds, I can see the deer browse line is quite obvious, and deer will come right up to me when I stop to look at a bird, because people visit the cemetery to feed bread to the deer every day. We have to have a fence around our yard to keep the deer out or else they would eat all of our flower and vegetable gardens.

    I don’t hate the deer, and I even feel sorry for them because they are losing habitat to houses and shopping malls, just like other wildlife. But, I enjoy seeing towhees and wood thrushes and hooded warblers in my neighborhood, so I have no problem with deer hunters. Too many deer in one area isn’t good for the deer, either.

    And, I love watching pigeons.

  5. Anyone who is blaming deer for the disappearance of birds should stop and do a little research. It’s too convenient targeting deer when groups such as the Fairfield County Municipal Deer Management Alliance, made up of town residents who have no special wildlife management knowledge or skills seem to have a one-track mind by recommending only one thing: Killing! They have never researched non-lethal means of deer population control, although it seems to be part of their mission statement on their website.

    Many of the disappearing bird species migrate from South America where coffee plantations diplace them, 50% die during migration, and acid rain, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and Global Warming contribute considerably.

    I agree with Ms. St. John that there are many opinions on deer hunting, but that is not the issue. The issue is wrongfully blaming only deer for just about everything including hangnails because deer plolicies are set by wildlife agencies that work for hunters and hunting proponents; they refuse to accept peer-reviewed scientific studies that propose any non-lethal solutions and proof that killing deer is not the answer to everything..

    Deer are a problem only when people hear nothing but scare tactics from the likes of the FCMDMA and state wildlife agencies whose livelihood relies on promoting hunting in order to collect hunting license fees; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

  6. This is not to be considered a comment for posting; however, since it is obvious that “someone”, perhaps even the lovely Ms. St. John, may be deciding on whose comment is included or not, “someone” will be reviewing this one as well, to see that it is not meant to be posted.

    I posted a comment on Wednesday, Dec. 3, at 6:16 PM
    It is after 8 AM on Thursday, and my comment is still awaiting moderation….I have written neither heresy, pornography, slander, obscenity. anything incendiary – is my comment receiving undue consideration and/or censorship of some sort?
    Why is my comment still not posted? I would like to know.

  7. Greer Ashton, Yes, this blog is moderated. Your comment was not posted until now because I was not logged in to see it. Not logged in between 5:00pm Wednesday and 8:45am Thursday.

  8. Everyone has a point of view on the topic of “deer season” and it truly depends on if you are a hunter, wildlife/game agency or farmer. Now, there’s the urbanite that has a point of view on deer season too. The hunter may have the point of view that there are not enough deer because of unsuccessful hunts. The wildlife/game agency point of view maybe that there is a balance in the deer population and the farmer may feel there are too many deer based on deer eating his crops. Unfortunately, urban areas are being affected by out of control deer population. The concern for urban communities is the destruction of their plant landscape and Lyme disease.
    Until recently, I had no opinion either way on the subject of “deer season” but that has changed. One Sunday morning, my mother, who lives in the city, was on her way walking to church. My mother is a healthy but frail woman in her 70’s weighing about 100 pounds if that. Unfortunately, this particular Sunday morning she encountered a deer walking towards her. Frightened and not knowing what to do she started to climb a nearby fence and at that very moment a car was coming and saw what was going on and continuously blew his horn and pulled over to come to my mother’s rescue. Fortunately for my mother, the deer turned and went in another direction. Since then my opinion is hunters “get ‘er done” so urban areas can be free of deer and drivers can be safe travelling our highways.

    Just another point of view.

  9. Sometimes I wonder about people – what edactly does Kitty think the deer would have done to her mother, just walking down the street? Deer do not attack people! Just to point out that if deer were killed and the numbers were to go down temporarily, who is to say that any of the remaining deer couldn’t decide to take a walk down the street…….This is the most absurd argument for killing deer!

  10. When I was a kid, it was a rare treat to see a deer in my yard. I can count on one hand the number of deer sightings I had throughout my entire childhood. Perhaps this is because deer back then had more habitat and didn’t need to go into people’s yards to find food; it’s hard to say.

    Now, I see deer in my yard every day. Even more remarkable than that, when I try to shoo them away, they stand there and stare at me. All of the deer in my neighborhood have very little fear of humans, though I can’t recall one boldly walking toward me in the 16 years I’ve lived here. It seems unlikely to me that deer with a healthy fear of humans will walk toward a human; instead, they will run away, even though they have hooves and in some cases antlers to defend themselves. I have to agree, it would be highly unlikely for a deer to try to harm a human without any provocation, such as being shot at or cornered, but I still have a healthy respect for those hooves and antlers, and being approached by a deer would not make me happy.

  11. I would invite anybody who doubts the impact of deer on forest devastation to take a ride with me through the vast forests of northcentral Pennsylvania. There you will see mile after desolate square mile of forest with no understory other than ferns. In some places even the ferns haven’t survived and there is nothing but bare soil just waiting to be eroded into the nearby otherwise pristine streams. As we walk through the forest there will be no need for a trail since there is no brush to impede passage. Continuing on our journey we suddenly come to a tall fence erected by DCNR. Inside the fence are mature trees of the same age and species as outside the fence, but look: a beautiful understory of small trees, vines and brush, so thick that the area is all but impassable by foot. The only difference between the lush understory inside the fence and outside the fence is the exclusion of deer from the fenced area. What could be better proof that deer have destoyed our forest than that?

  12. Motorcycle collides with deer, biker killed
    Friday, July 16, 2010
    Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

    A motorcycle rider was killed early today in a collision with a deer in Salem, Westmoreland County, state police said.

    The driver, William Mark Amos, 47, of Export, had been riding his bike at about 1 a.m., traveling north on Routh 819, when a deer crossed into his path about 100 yards south of Ridge Road.

    The victim, who was not wearing a helmet, was pronounced dead at the scene, state police said.

    State police are investigating.

    Read more:

    I knew William Mark Amos when he was a kid.

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