Category Archives: Deer

Seen This Week

Turtleheads blooming in Schenley Park, 3 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 September 2023

Seen this week:

Turtleheads and late boneset flowers at Schenley Park. Do you see the honeybee?

Honeybee flies to late boneset, Schenley Park, 4 Sept 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A rainbow with crows over Oakland.

Fiery sunset on 7 September.

Six deer in Schenley Park — only 5 made it into the photo.

But there’s a photo of deer I wish I’d been able to take: Friday morning 8 September along 5th Ave between the Cathedral of Learning and Clapp Hall I saw 3 deer — 2 does and 1 fawn — standing on the pavement at Clapp Hall. They were close to the curb of 5th Ave at Tennyson as they tried to figure out how to cross 5th Ave during rush hour.

(photos by Kate St. John)

p.s. Right now there are 2 flamingos in PA in Franklin County east of Chambersburg.

Be Careful Out There! Deer in the Road

Deer sprinting across a road (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

7 September 2023

A year ago I learned that deer are really easy to find and photograph in Schenley Park in August but suddenly much harder to find in September. As their breeding season, called the rut, approaches its November peak deer become secretive in the woods(*). However, the rut prompts them to move around a lot so they sprint across the road. Their behavior in past six days has borne that out already.

On a walk in Schenley Park on 1 September I saw four bucks resting in their usual spot near the Upper Trail. One buck had just shed velvet from his 9-point antlers which were bloody from the missing velvet. With him were one 8-point and two 4-point bucks. Shedding velvet is the first obvious sign of the rut and the biggest buck was ready.

Two days later, on 3 September, only one 4-point buck remained in that resting place. The others were somewhere secret and moving around. That night I heard two reports of deer collisions in the city. These don’t end up in the deer-killed-by-cars statistics if the deer are only stunned:

  • Mary at 8:15pm posted a comment on my blog: “Off-topic but I wanted to let you know that a deer and car collided this evening around 730 pm on Schenley Drive near the library. Deer sat on the side of the road for a while. Then stood up as people gathered around.”
  • Dylan @DylPar252 tweeted from Pittsburgh on 3 Sep at 9:49pm: “I literally just watched one get hit by a car in front of my house on a busy inner city street. The deer do indeed need managed (she kept on moving btw)”

In the city, deer have to cross roads to get anywhere especially in Schenley Park. The deer pictured below are on a virtual traffic island — Flagstaff Hill — surrounded by cars. When I took this picture in April they weren’t charged up with breeding hormones so they ambled or trotted across the road instead of sprinting.

They had to cross a road to get here! 3 deer on Flagstaff Hill, April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

But now we can expect a lot more accidents in the months ahead. Collisions don’t end well for deer.

Deer deer on Circuit Road, Schenley Park, Oct 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

And they don’t end well for cars.

Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman's car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)
Deer damage to Marcy Cunkelman’s car, 19 June 2017 (photo posted by Marcy Cunkelman)

So be careful out there! Watch out for deer in the road.

Learn more about cars and deer in this vintage article.

p.s. Yesterday City Council approved two bills that will begin deer management in the City of Pittsburgh. When the bills were introduced last week the public made comments on hunt vs no-hunt yet no matter where someone stood on that spectrum everyone agreed there are too many deer in Pittsburgh.

The first step in City Deer Management will be a pilot program bow hunt in Frick and Riverview this fall. It will not solve the deer overpopulation problem but is the first step in deer management and is required by the PA Game Commission.

Here are three of the many news articles about City Deer Management in Pittsburgh. Please don’t ask me how the hunt will be conducted. I don’t know that answer.

(credits are in the captions)

p.s. Deer are secretive in autumn in Schenley Park except … There’s a place where someone puts out food. Six were feeding there on Sunday 4 Sept.

How Deer Create a Browse Line

Browse line in Schenley Park — gap below the trees — at the entrance to the Upper Trail, 18 August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

23 August 2023

The white-tailed deer population in the City of Pittsburgh has been so high for so long that most people think the browse line in our parks is normal, but the light-gap you see under the trees above is not normal in a balanced forest. It’s a sign of deer overpopulation. Here’s what a browse line is and how deer maintain it.

Browse line: A phenomenon that occurs when herbivores consume all of the vegetation in the woods between the ground and the level of their highest reach. A clearly visible line is formed between the leafed and the leafless areas.

paraphrased from Blue Jay Barrens: Fallen Trees and Browse lines, May 2011

Is the browse line hard to recognize in the photo above? Here’s an extreme example.

Tuileries Garden in Paris, a man-made browse line (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This eye-level view of the Grande Allée of horse chestnut trees at the Tuileries in Paris is a man-made browse line in which gardeners trim the trees and clear the ground to maintain an opening beneath the trees at uniform height. Nothing is growing between the ground and the trimmed height.

An individual deer browsing the ground and lower branches of trees does not create the browse line. It’s the cumulative effect of too many deer eating at the same location over and over.

Last Friday I watched two 8-point bucks, antlers in velvet, maintain the browse line next to the Upper Trail at Schenley Park. The current browse line, seen in the video, is that clear view straight through the woods to the cars passing on the road beyond.

In the video the bucks eat herbaceous stems and leaves on the ground, then switch to twigs, leaves and stems of trees. About halfway in, the buck on the right stands on his hind legs to reach the lowest branches. The buck on the left wrestles with a tree to yank off the branches. Deer only have lower teeth so they can’t sharply bite off a branch like a beaver would.

Two bucks reinforce the browse line in Schenley Park, 18 Aug 2023 (video by Kate St. John)

In late August, when forage should be quite plentiful, these bucks are forced to eat their own cover and what little remains of the edible plants.

Buck in velvet has no cover to hide him, Schenley Park, Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

p.s. Here’s what the forest would look like if there was no browse line.

No browse line here, August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

The Calm Before The Rut: Deer in August

6-point buck in Schenley Park, 4 August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

13 August 2023

In the city of Pittsburgh there are so many white-tailed deer that it’s easy to see them in August. The bucks are eating, eating, eating to bulk up. The does are hanging out with their adolescent fawns in this brief period between birthing and mating. It’s the calm before the rut.

Last Friday morning I found eight deer resting in dappled shade in Schenley Park. My cellphone photos don’t do them justice except for this: The photos show how hard it is to notice deer that are lying down and not moving.

Four bucks resting in Schenley Park, 11 August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

A few of them moved, however, grooming to shed their chestnut brown summer coats for gray-brown winter pelage. The photo above shows four bucks with antlers in velvet, each with a different point count: 4-point, 6-point, 7-point and 8-point.

Two does and two fawns rested a short distance from the males. The fawns gave the group away. They did not hold still for long. (The second doe is not in the photo.)

Doe and two fawns resting in Schenley Park, 11 Aug 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

One week earlier it was impossible not to see this six-point buck browsing the hillside right next to the Lower Trail.

Deer eating in Schenley Park, 4 August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

He’s leaving a lot of greenery behind but the leaves he’s not eating are unpalatable invasive aliens called goutweed. The buck is nosing through them to re-browse the deer-food plants hidden below the goutweed. Those food plants won’t recover this late in the season. All the food will be gone and he won’t be back to this spot.

Buck browsing in Schenley Park, 4 August 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

In August the days are still longer than the nights and deer hormones are not surging yet but it’s only a matter of time and the Equinox before their sedate demeanor ends. According to the PA Game Commission, after 12 weeks of rut excitement from mid October through early January:

  • 98% of the mature does will have bred
  • 40% of the fawns will have bred at only 6-7 months old (city/suburb phenomenon)
  • 85% of the pregnancies will result in twins or triplets, some with different fathers.

It’s calm now before the storm.

Schenley Park suffers from its overabundant deer population. See this article for more information: The Forest Lives in Mortal Fear of Its Deer.

A NOTE TO COMMENTERS: Some interesting threads have developed in the comments with new readers weighing. Please note that comments on this blog are moderated and may be edited for clarity. Comments that could inflame others will be edited or deleted.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Prothontary warbler in Frick Park, 25 May 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

27 May 2023

This week’s big news was the unexpected prothonotary warbler that Charity Kheshgi and I found in Frick Park on 25 May. He was still present yesterday but BirdCast showed birds migrating out of our area last night so we’ll see if he’s still there this morning.

Migration is nearly over and the dominant landscape color in Pittsburgh now is green. It’s hard to remember that only five weeks ago (23 April) most of the trees were brown.

Daisies are blooming along meadows and roadsides, invasive wineberry is in bud, and bladdernuts have already formed green seed pods in the city parks.

Daisy blooming at Schenley Park, 22 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Wineberry leaves and buds, Schenley Park, 22 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bladdernut seed pods, Frick Park, 23 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

On our walk in Frick Park on 23 May, Charity and I saw many deer including an obviously pregnant doe who looked ready to drop twin fawns. We wondered where she would hide them now that the browseline makes it possible to see right through the woods.

This deer-browsed Japanese knotweed shows how little food remains for deer in Frick. Normally they don’t eat Japanese knotweed but with few native plants left they are hungry enough to try it now.

Deer damage on Japanese knotweed, Frick Park, 23 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park the color green extends to the rampant algae in Panther Hollow Lake. See last November’s article on why the lake has algae so often.

Algae in Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 26 May 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

What birds will we see this weekend? Come to my Schenley Park outing tomorrow, 28 May, to find out.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Nowhere To Hide

Two deer at Schenley Park, 24 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 April 2023

At the end of winter Pennsylvania’s landscape has very little cover yet wildlife still needs shelter, especially from bad weather. Normally birds and animals would hide in thick bushes and shrubs but the deer population in Schenley Park is so high that they’ve denuded the thickets, including bush honeysuckle, even though it provides them with good shelter and is not a favorite food.

Without cover the deer were easy to see in Schenley Park’s barren woods in late March. The deer pictured below was camouflaged in plain sight until it moved.

One deer camouflaged on barren hillside, Schenley Park, 24 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Evergreen bushes could provide shelter but the yews have been browsed literally to death as the deer population has grown exponentially in Schenley in the past couple of years. The white backdrop at Frick Fine Arts building shows the damage typical of all yews near the park.

Deer damage on yews at Frick Fine Arts building, Univ of Pittsburgh, 17 Feb 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Now that the honeysuckle has leafed out it’s obvious that deer have eaten their own shelter. You can see straight through these bushes at ground level.

Browseline on honeysuckle, Trough Trail Frick Park, 13 April 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The effect of deer browse is also starkly obvious at Frick Park’s deer exclosure at Clayton East. The slideshow below gives west and north views of the fenceline, the plants growing inside the exclosure (I took a photo through the fence) and the barrens outside the fence. (I pivoted in place to show inside/outside.)

Ground-nesting birds can make a well hidden nest inside the exclosure but not outside.

The deer have eaten their own shelter as well as that of birds, rabbits and other animals in Pittsburgh’s city parks. There is nowhere to hide.

(photos by Kate St. John)

More Deer, More Ticks, More Lyme

Deer in Schenley Park, Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 March 2023

Black-legged tick season is here again and with it comes the threat of Lyme disease. We now find ticks in neighborhoods where they never used to be and white-tailed deer are the reason why. More abundant deer mean more ticks. More abundant ticks mean more Lyme disease. Though deer themselves don’t spread Lyme disease they have an effect on its abundance. Let’s examine the Deer, Ticks, Lyme connection.

Lyme disease is a debilitating illness caused by a bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that’s transmitted by the bite of a black-legged tick. 

Black-legged ticks (Ixodes scapularis and Ixodes pacificus) have a two year life cycle as egg, larva, nymph and adult. At each stage the tick must drink a blood meal to transition to the next one — from larva to nymph, from nymph to adult, and from adult female to produce eggs. (Note: Ticks eggs do not carry the Lyme bacteria.)

Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)
Chart of black-legged tick life stages (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Larval ticks are so tiny that their normal blood hosts are small animals and birds including the white-footed mice, chipmunks, short-tailed shrews and masked shrews that are responsible for infecting 80-90% of ticks. Nymphs and adults are large enough that they can also feed on humans and deer.

Black-legged tick life cycle (diagram from CDC enhanced with life form names)

When a tick bites a host and sucks its blood it takes up the host’s blood and transfers some of its own body fluids into the host. If the host is infected with the bacteria, it infects the tick. If the tick is infected, it infects the host.

Deer cannot transmit Lyme to ticks because they’re never infected by it (lucky them!). Deer are not to blame for spreading Lyme. However deer are key to the black-legged ticks’ reproductive success.

Deer are the adult ticks’ preferred host and their long distance transport system. Deer bodies are the place where adult ticks meet and mate in the fall. After mating the male dies but the female lives on. She sips a last blood meal, then drops off to the ground and hides in leaf litter while her body develops eggs over the winter.

Adult ticks meet in the fall during the rut while deer are moving around a lot. Bucks average 3-6 miles per day but may travel as much as 10-20 miles in search of does. Does may travel to meet or evade them.

Deer in western Pennsylvania (photo by Steve Gosser)

Meanwhile ticks are along for the ride. When a pregnant female tick drops off after her last blood meal she may be 3 to 20 miles from where she started and she’s carrying 1,000 to 3,000 eggs that she’ll lay in the spring.

In places with overabundant deer moving into new areas, as is happening in Pennsylvania, we find an abundance of ticks where they’ve never been seen before. Pennsylvania also has the highest number of Lyme disease cases in the U.S.

Deer are not the reservoir for the Lyme disease bacteria but in places with too many deer there are too many ticks. More ticks mean more Lyme disease.

Deer cross the road in Schenley Park, July 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information check out these resources:

p.s. There’s also a flu-like disease, called babesiosis, that’s carried by black-legged ticks and is now gaining momentum. Uh oh!

Seen This Week

Flowering cherry, Pittsburgh, 1 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

4 March 2023

This week the weather stayed above freezing with an extraordinary high of 72F on 1 March. The plants and trees responded by bursting into bloom and leaf. Pictured here are:

  • A flowering cherry tree in Shadyside, 1 March
  • Coltsfoot in bloom at Moraine State Park, 1 March
  • Hairy bittercress blooming in Shadyside, 2 March
  • London plane tree seed balls disintegrating (a spring thing), 27 Feb
  • Honeysuckle leaf out, 2 March.

A week ago my photos of blooms, buds and leaves were 4 weeks earlier than last year. When I get a chance I’ll see if spring is still running four weeks ahead of schedule.

Coltsfoot blooming, Moraine State Park, 1 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Hairy bittercress blooming, 2 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
London plane tree seed ball disintegrating, 27 Feb 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle leafing out, 2 March 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Now that the plants are waking up for spring Pittsburgh’s deer (over)population is finding more to eat. In front of Phipps’ Botany Hall I found a side-by-side example of yews, a favorite deer winter food, protected and unprotected from deer browse. One bush has no protection, the rest were wrapped in plastic fencing(*). You can already see the difference.

(photos by Kate St. John)

(*) The protected yews were wrapped on 15 December 2022 so, at the time of the photo, the unprotected yew was showing 10.5 weeks of deer browsing.

The Forest Lives in Mortal Fear of Its Deer

Buck browsing a tree in Schenley Park, August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

18 January 2023

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac: “Thinking Like A Mountain”

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), quoted above, was a writer, philosopher, forester and conservationist. In the early 1900s he participated in a project to eradicate wolves from the American West. Back then it was thought that the absence of wolves would be great for our range cattle but no one considered what would happen to the landscape without the apex predator. Thirty years later Leopold wrote about it in A Sand County Almanac. We see the same results in Pennsylvania and in Pittsburgh’s parks today.

  • In the absence of hunters (wolves) the deer proliferated.
  • Deer still ate what they always ate, but the higher population consumed so much more.
  • The deer’s favorite food plants disappeared first; all new growth was consumed. The deer covered more ground and ate less favored plants.
  • After a couple of decades with constant browsing and so many plants missing, the landscape cannot regrow itself. The range failed within 20-30 years.

It’s not the mountain rocks that are afraid of deer. It’s the forest that fears for its life because deer are its predators.

Doe and fawn browsing on a tree (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the deer population is in balance with the habitat, the forest is fine. When the population is too high the forest shows signs of distress on its way toward failure including browse lines and small bonsai-like trees, as seen in Schenley Park below.

Deer damage: Browseline in Schenley Park, Sept 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bonsai-like deer damaged sapling, Schenley Park, Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Riverview Park deer overpopulation has encouraged the proliferation of invasive Asian jumping worms (Amynthas agrestis) and led to a host of other problems including erosion, described by Mark Kramer in How One Park’s Ecosystem — and Maybe its Legacy — Is Eroding Away.

Amazingly, it all started with the decision to remove an apex predator. We humans are the reason why there are too many deer and, so far, we haven’t had the will to reduce their population to a sustainable level.

In the meantime the forest is afraid for its life.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons)

Deer Density at a Glance

Tall columnar arborvitae along an alley in Kutztown, PA, 27 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 December 2022

At Thanksgiving in Kutztown, PA I was stunned to see a solid wall of arborvitae bordering a neighborhood. In Pittsburgh’s East End, arborvitae is always bare from the ground to 4-5 five feet up, eaten by our overpopulated deer. Here’s a row of arborvitae at Schenley Park golf course.

Deer damage on arborvitae at Schenley Park golf course, 11 Dec 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Why didn’t deer browse the Kutztown trees? My guess is that they are the Green Giant variety of Western arborvitaes. Davey Tree explains:

Deer don’t care for Western arborvitaes, like green giant, steeplechase or spring grove. So, if you plant these, they may leave them alone.

Though, when deer are starving, they become less picky and will eat almost anything, including those deer-resistant arborvitaes. If deer are a big problem in your yard, avoid arborvitae altogether. Stop Deer from eating Arborvitae trees (even Emerald Green)

There are so many deer in Pittsburgh that indeed they eat almost anything. They even nibble on poisonous milkweed!

Kutztown has far fewer deer per acre.

The trees show deer density at a glance.

(photos by Kate St. John)