Category Archives: Deer

The Largest Living Organism is Dying of Deer

Pando in October snow, 2021 (photo by Beth Moon via Flickr Creative Commons license)

29 November 2022

In 1976 Jerry Kemperman and Burton Barnes discovered that 106 acres of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) in the Fishlake National Forest of Utah were actually all the same male plant, one root with thousands of suckers that grew into trees. It came to be known as Pando — “I spread.”

Quaking aspen, Pando, in fall (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Pando weighs 6,600 tons making it the heaviest known organism on Earth and it is very old, though no one is sure whether it’s 10,000 or 80,000 or even a million years old.

Aerial image of the location of the single aspen tree, Pando (highlighted in green) at Fishlake National Forest, Utah (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

However, almost as soon as Pando was discovered researchers found that sections of it were not rejuvenating because new sprouts were being overbrowsed by deer. In that part of the U.S. the species is mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Mule deer in Colorado (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

So they fenced it — twice — one fence in 2013, another in 2014.

Map of 2018 Pando study partially funded by U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Grant/Award Number: L21AC10369 (map downloaded from Wiley Online Library)

Then in 2018 Paul Rogers and Darren McAvoy of Utah State University conducted a followup study sampling Pando’s health inside and outside the deer exclosure fences and concluded that the fencing was not working.

According to September 2022 Sci.News “The unfenced areas are experiencing the most rapid aspen decline, while the fenced areas are taking their own unique courses — in effect, breaking up this unique, historically uniform, forest. … Fencing alone is encouraging single-aged regeneration in a forest that has sustained itself over the centuries by varying growth.”

“One clear lesson emerges here: we cannot independently manage wildlife and forests.”

Sci.News, October 2018: Pando, World’s Largest Single Organism, is Shrinking

Aldo Lepold’s experience in his early career when he worked to eradicate wolves from the American West changed his perspective on trees and deer. At one point he shot an old female wolf and was there to see the green fire go out of her eyes as she died. He wrote …

I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.…

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. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades.

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

Pando’s days are numbered because new trees are not growing up to replace the old ones. This is how a forest dies.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, map from Wiley Online; click on the captions to see the originals)

November Deer in Pittsburgh

Doe on the trail in Frick Park, 10 Nov 2022 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

13 November 2022

It’s mid November and the rut is at its peak in Pennsylvania. Bucks sniff the air for females in estrous (flehmen), chase does in heat, and hide with them in thick cover to breed repeatedly. Some run into traffic, including yesterday’s road-killed 6-point buck in Schenley Park. Meanwhile birders in Frick Park are seeing all of this up close. Very close.

On 10 November Charity Kheshgi and I encountered a group of five. Two does and an 8-point buck were hiding in a thicket when a 4-point buck walked onto the trail behind us, sniffed the air and looked down at the females. Meanwhile another doe (at top) walked onto the trail ahead of us. This could have been dangerous for the two of us. Fortunately the deer did not view us as competitors.

4-point buck on the trail looks down at the 8-point and two does, 10 Nov 2022 (photo by Charity Khseshgi)

The 8-pointer was hard to see in the underbrush but he resembled this one Mike Fialkovich saw on 5 November that appears to be flehmening.

8-point buck in Frick Park, 5 Nov 2022 (photo by Mike Fialkovich)

Deer are a prey species, alert to the presence and intent of predators. “Is the predator here? Is it hunting?” And they move to locations of least danger. We see them up close in Frick Park because they have learned that humans in Pittsburgh’s city parks are not dangerous even during hunting season.

Meanwhile, hunting is currently in progress statewide and it’s good to be aware of it. We have so many deer in our area — Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 2B — that hunting lasts longer here than in most of the state.

Map of Pennsylvania WMUs from PA Game Commission

Here’s a quick summary of deer hunting times and types, now through January, in WMU 2B both Antlered and Antlerless unless otherwise noted.

  • now – Nov. 25, including Sundays Nov. 13 and Nov. 20, WMU 2B: Archery
  • Nov. 26 – Dec. 10 including Sunday Nov. 27: Statewide Rifle (“Regular firearms”)
  • Dec. 26 – Jan. 28, 2023, WMU 2B:
    • Archery
    • Flintlock
    • Extended Rifle season (Antlerless only).
Wear Orange and be alert for hunters! Note hunting on three Sundays in November.

p.s. When you’re on the road, watch for deer running into traffic, especially at dusk.

(photos by Charity Kheshgi and Mike Fialkovich, WMU map from PA Game Commission, calendar marked up from timeanddate.com)

City Deer in the Rut

Doe drinks from a pond in Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, 10 October 2022 (photo by John English)

25 October 2022

If you’ve been watching white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the City of Pittsburgh you’ve noticed that they’ve changed their behavior since early September. Back then deer were easy find in groups during the day but now in October they seem to have gone missing. Soon — very soon — they’ll be running into traffic. All of this is part of their breeding season, called the rut, which is driven by photoperiod.

In late summer, white-tailed deer hang out in bachelor groups of adult males and matriarchal groups of does with fawns. As the rut goes through phases, described below, the dynamics change. In the city we live with so many deer that it’s good to know the phases.

Pre-Rut Phase: In late September and early October testosterone levels rise in the bucks, they rub on trees and shed velvet from their antlers. The bachelor groups break up as each male goes it alone and adjusts his home range. During this phase the bucks eat a lot, especially acorns. Once the rut begins they’ll be too busy to eat while chasing, breeding and tending does.

Buck on a tree, Fall 2008 (photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie via Flickr Creative Commons license)

The buck rubs were fresh in Schenley Park on 9 October 2022. Right after this the bucks “disappeared” from the park.

Buck rubs in Schenley Park, 9 October 2022 (photos by Kate St. John)

Bucks also spar to settle their pecking order as shown in this photo from Tennessee. I have never seen sparring in the city parks.

Two bucks locking antlers, Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Seeking and Chasing Phase: As the females begin coming into estrous the males search for and chase does in heat. The bucks move around lot, averaging 3-6 miles per day. Meanwhile doe+fawn groups break up as adult females become distracted. Watch out! They may run into traffic.

The late summer groups have already broken up in Schenley and Frick Parks. The only deer I’ve seen recently are lone females or almost grownup fawns.

Peak of the Rut: According to The Whitetail Rut in Pennsylvania, the peak in Pennsylvania lasts about five weeks, 29 October to 3 December. Their graph, embedded below, is tiny on purpose so that you will look at the original graph, including date ranges, on the Boone & Crockett Club website.

At the peak of the rut bucks make long excursions out of their home range in search of females, sometimes 10-20 miles. The peak also includes a “tending” phase during which bucks and does pair up and hide in thick cover to breed repeatedly.

Post-Rut Phase: Activity drops off precipitously in early December after most of the does have bred. Adults stop wandering and settle into their home ranges. The males still have antlers and some will search for recently-matured fawns that come into estrous (red color in graph above), but the frantic edge is gone.

When will we see deer in lazy groups again in the city parks? Wait and see.

Heard of a dozen+ deer in Schenley Park; Cathedral of Learning in distance, March 2019 (photo by Kate St John)

Resources for this article:

(photos by John English, Kate St. John and Creative Commons licenses from USFW Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. Embedded graph from Boone & Crockett Club website)

October With Too Many Deer

Colorful leaves, Schenley Park, 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 October 2022

The season has changed and the woods in Schenley Park look different than they did a month ago. The trees are putting on fall color and deer are providing more evidence of their overpopulation in the park.

Doe browsing in Schenley Park, 21 Aug 2022. NOTE: A buck-rubbed sapling is in the foreground (photo by Kate St. John)

With the growing season over there is less greenery for deer to eat and there are fewer places to browse because they have already denuded many areas.

Nothing growing on the ground in the presence of too many deer, Schenley Park, 9 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

What is left has been eaten down to nubs, just visible above the unpalatable invasive plants. Below, goutweed nearly hides the tops of what used to be jewelweed while pokeweed was browsed to tiny leaves and bare stems.

Favored plants are browsed to the tops of unappetizing plants (goutweed), Schenley Park 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pokeweed overbrowsed by deer, Schenley Park, 9 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

As the greenery disappears deer eat tree saplings and small branches. In cases of deer overpopulation, such as Schenley Park, the young trees are foraged down to bonsai.

Ash tree sapling overbrowsed by deer, like bonsai, Schenley Park, 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley no longer has enough food for deer so at night they walk into neighborhoods and browse in backyards. This is happening across the city and has prompted some residents to consider a Deer Management Plan for Pittsburgh. KDKA’s Andy Sheen reports: Some Pittsburgh residents say it’s time to get deer population under control. Click on the link or the screenshot below.

Some Pittsburgh residents say it’s time to get the deer problem under control, KDKA Andy Sheehan

(photos by Kate St. John + screenshot from KDKA)

Deer Are Picky Eaters

Arrowwood viburnum, Schenley Park, September 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 September 2022

In western Pennsylvania, where we have a high deer population, gardeners have learned from experience that white-tailed deer will eat some plants and not others. They heavily browse their favorites to the point of killing them but leave others untouched, even plants in the same genus.

Viburnum is a case in point. Gardening advice at Rutgers University’s Landscape Plants Rated by Deer Resistance indicates that arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) is deer resistant. Pictured at top, these shrubs are healthy in Schenley Park where the deer population is more than 100 per square mile.

Deer also don’t like the Japanese snowball (Viburnum plicatum) which thrives as an invasive in Frick Park, shown below.

Viburnum plicatum fruit, Schenley, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

But they love our native hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) and consume it to local extinction.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) is a favorite food of deer (photo taken in Maine by Kate St. John)

Read about hobblebush in this vintage article.

When it comes to viburnum, deer are picky eaters.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Why Is Wingstem Thriving in City Parks?

Honeybee approaches wingstem, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

17 September 2022

In Schenley and Frick Parks you can look straight through the forest if you duck your head below four feet high. In Schenley Park the ground is often bare and most plants in that four-foot zone are gone. But one flower, wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), is doing just fine in the city parks.

Wingstem, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022

The absence of cover from the ground to 4 – 5 feet is called a browseline (below) and is evidence of an overpopulation of white-tailed deer.

Bare ground and absence of cover below the trees in Schenley Park, September 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

According to this KDKA report, the deer population in Schenley Park is estimated at 80-120 per acre, which roughly equates to 57-86 deer per square mile. A 2010 deer study for City Parks found that the parks can support 7-8 deer per square mile, but with 8 to 11 times that number living in Schenley any plant still growing there is definitely something deer don’t eat.

Doe browsing in Schenley Park, September 2022 (photo by Kate Sr. John)

So why don’t deer eat wingstem?

A thicket of wingstem on the “elbow” trail, Frick Park, 8 Sep 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The leaves are bitter!

Find out more about wingstem at Illinois wildflowers.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Insects, Deer, a few Birds Yesterday at Schenley

7-point buck in Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

29 August 2022

A year ago in Schenley Park we had such a slow birding day that I wrote, “We worked for every bird.” A year later, nine of us were there yesterday and the birding was even slower! (14 species instead of 19.) However we found lots of insects and two white-tailed bucks in velvet. Here’s the story in pictures, thanks to Connie Gallagher.

Connie saw the very Best Bird, a blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, Schenley Park, 28 August 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

We pondered the identity of these wasps and then remembered, all at once, that they are bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), a type of yellowjacket wasp.

Bald-faced hornets at their paper nest in a pignut hickory, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

There was still dew on the wild senna as this bumblebee gathered nectar.

Bumblebee on wild senna, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

The browseline is so severe in Schenley Park that there’s no cover for the deer who sleep there during the day. Looking down from the Falloon Trail we saw two bucks, a 7-point buck (at top) and a 10-point below.

10-point buck in Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

Fortunately some of us heard these birds flying overhead. I can tell their identity by shape and the yellow tips of their tails. Cedar waxwings.

Cedar waxwings fly over, Schenley Park, 28 Aug 2022 (photo by Connie Gallagher)

Here’s the group that worked for every bird on Sunday. Thank you all for coming!

Schenley Park outing, 28 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

See our checklist at https://ebird.org/checklist/S117700393 and printed below.

Schenley Park–Panther Hollow, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, US
Aug 28, 2022 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM, 1.5 mile(s), 14 species

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 5
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) 4
Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) 2
Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) 1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) 1
Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) 1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) 7
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) 1 Seen by Connie
American Robin (Turdus migratorius) 1
Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) 5
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) 3
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) 1
Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) 3 Including a bald female Cardinal

(photos by Connie Gallagher (group photo by Kate St. John))

Meet the Familiar: Synanthrope

Pigeons on a traffic light (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 August 2022

I had never seen the word “synanthrope” until I found it attached to this photo.

Passer domesticus as synanthrope (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are synanthropes. So are pigeons.

synanthrope (syn-anthrope) [from Greek: syn-anthrope: syn=”together with” + anthropos=”man”] is a wild animal or plant that lives near, and benefits from, an association with humans and the somewhat artificial habitats that people create around themselves.

Wikipedia: Synanthrope

We can be forgiven for not knowing this little-used word since its present meaning is only 74 years old(*).

Synanthropes live with us but we often disparage them. They are wild but too familiar, too “tame,” too weedy. Here are some more examples.

Dandelions (Taraxacum sp.)

Dandelions in the grass (photo by Kate St. John)

Horseweed (Erigeron canadensis) and pilewort (Erechtites hieraciifolius) are native North American plants that like disturbed soil. We notice them in August when they start to look ugly.

Horseweed (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Closeup of pilewort flowers (photo by Kate St. John)

Two local mammals may be recent synanthropes, formerly shunning humans but now benefiting from our habitat.

Squirrels love our birdseed and shelter (attics).

Squirrel on the bird feeder (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) prefer forest edges next to open areas, a landscape often created by humans. Have deer become synanthropes?

Buck in velvet at Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

p.s. (*) Merriam-Webster explains that the word was introduced by botanist Theodor von Heldreich at a botanical conference in Paris, 16-24 August 1878, making its first-ever use almost exactly 144 years ago.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)

Eradicated By Deer

Doe in Schenley Park, July 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

22 August 2022

Back in 2010 the City of Pittsburgh commissioned a deer count in the parks that found the population was too high and not sustainable for the habitat. Nothing has been done since then to reduce the deer population other then accidentally killing them with our cars.

Twelve years have passed. According to deer experts “Urban deer can live for 10 years; the deer population, if unchecked, doubles about every two years.” Schenley Park now has as much as 64 times the number of deer we had in 2010. This is truly unsustainable, even for the deer themselves.

8-point buck in Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley’s deer have completely consumed all the good food plants and are starting to nibble the poisonous ones. The browse line is painfully obvious. In the process deer have eradicated their favorite plants from Schenley Park.

Orange (Impatiens capensis) & Yellow jewelweed (Impatiens pallida)

Orange jewelweed and yellow jewelweed provide nectar for hummingbirds and bumblebees and are a favored food of deer.

Orange jewelweed in Schenley Park in 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)
Yellow jewelweed in Schenley Park in 2018 (photo by Kate St. John)

Both jewelweeds were prolific in Schenley Park as recently as four years ago.

Orange jewelweed was prolific in 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

But this year all the accessible plants have been eaten down to bare stems. The only ones that flower are those in spots unreachable by deer — on extremely steep slopes or hidden among thick cattails in Panther Hollow Lake.

Deer ate the jewelweed, no flowers, no leaves (photo by Kate St. John)

Jewelweeds are annuals that must re-seed every year but no seeds are produced in this deer-browsed landscape. Impatiens will disappear from Schenley Park when the seed bank is exhausted.

False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

False Solomon’s seal used to grow throughout Schenley Park and it carpeted the ground in an area near the Bridle Trail. All of it has been eaten to the ground since 2014. Here’s what it looked like eight years ago.

False Solomon’s seal blooming in May 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)
False Solomon’s seal in August 2014 (photo by Kate St. John)
White wood asters (Eurybia divaricata)

White wood asters used to bloom in Schenley’s woods. Not anymore. Here’s what they looked like in 2013.

White wood asters in Schenley Park, August 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

Eradicated plants are indirect evidence of too many deer in Schenley Park. Direct evidence is their visibility every day.

A sustainably-sized deer herd would hide in the underbrush while sleeping during the day, but the browse line in Schenley is so severe there is no cover for them. The large herd has coped by becoming accustomed to people and leashed dogs.

I stood near this group of three deer on Sunday 21 August using my snapshot camera zoomed to 90mm (approximately 2x). This 8-point buck did not care that I was there.

8-point buck in velvet, Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Young doe and buck browsing in Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Doe watches a husky dog on a leash approach in the distance, Schenley Park, 21 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

(photos by Kate St. John)

UPDATE: I was interviewed by Andy Sheehan, KDKA News, 25 August 2022. Click on this link or on the image below. Experts warn deer are destroying Pittsburgh’s parks and moving into neighborhoods.

Video: Experts warn deer are destroying Pittsburgh’s parks and moving into neighborhoods

Three articles, 2017-2019, about deer in Allegheny County by John Hayes, Post-Gazette:

I Love Yew

White-tailed deer browsing leaves in Newark, OH (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

17 August 2022

Yews are popular landscaping shrubs but they don’t last long in the face of deer overpopulation.

All yew species are toxic to some degree, but our native Taxus canadensis is less toxic than others and was used medicinally. Deer don’t read the warning labels. They love yew.

Closeup of Canadian yew branch and leaves (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Canadian yew aril and branch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Every night they creep up behind Carnegie Museum and browse the yews along the driveway to the parking garage. They nip off the small branches and eat all the leaves. The shrubs struggle to grow new leaves for photosynthesis before the deer return.

Yew overbrowsed by deer behind Carnegie Museum, 16 August 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Deer have killed the yews closest to the sidewalk (dead twigs), overbrowsed the middle shrubs (green knobs), and cannot yet reach the tallest branches. But they are eating their way there.

Yews browsed by deer behind Carnegie Museum, 16 Aug 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t assume their love stops with yew. There are more delectables in Schenley Park that they adore. Soon we’ll explore more.

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

p.s. Just for yuks here are 13 garden plants that deer will utterly destroy. Meanwhile, did you know that Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) is so toxic it can kill wildlife? Unfortunately its pollen triggers asthma.

Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) closeup of leaves and stem (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)