Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Recently Read: "The Hidden Life of Deer" by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

     I found this book in the new non fiction section at Weyenberg Library in Mequon, WI. I hate the deer; they are so very, very destructive on my property. I have always called them gigantic rats  because of their pest status.  But I decided I might be interested in reading this book. Maybe it would help me keep them away from my treasured shrubs, perennials and annuals. But when I began to read this book, my feelings changed somewhat. I had no idea these animals had so much of a social structure. Nor did I appreciate how much they knew about their environment, climate, and each other, and how much they communicated with each other about that knowledge. I learned they communicate with scent, with body language, and with their raised white tail among other methods, but none of these methods are vocal, of course. I learned about their family groups with daughters staying with their mothers for several generations and there possibly even being a grandmother leading this family group. I also learned that the young males gather in small groups as well, often with an older experienced buck from whom the younger males learn. The older buck does not purposely teach them; in fact he protects himself and lets the younger go first if there might be danger. But the young males do learn just by hanging out with the patriarch.
     The author is very dedicated to conservation and to the protection of the animals on her property even down to the flies that take refuge in her barn turned into her office, and to the mice and rats that take refuge in her buildings. After her most active mousing cat leaves her home, she has to resort to some pest removal of some of these rats with poison and experiences terrible guilt as the poison spreads to other animals through the rat carcuses. One year when the oaks failed to produce acorns, she went against the Department of Nautral Resources recommendations of her home state, New Hampshire, and began to feed corn to the deer and by default to a large local flock of turkeys. She spends a lot of time justifying this and countering her justifications with the reasons against it offered by the local experts. In the end, one tends to lean toward the author's feeding decisions even though I still get very put out at these large mammals when they eat my flowers.   

      I enjoyed reading this book and indeed developed a new respect for an animal that I had felt was very dumb. Deer are not dumb nor are the turkeys that the author writes so much about. Now I just have to figure out how to outsmart this ungulate species so that I can coexist without so much frustration. One method is to plant primarily flowers and shrubs that the deer do not usually eat. Following are some pictures that show some of those plantings. Some of the flowers that both the deer and I enjoy will need to be fought for with sprays and barriers and other methods of keeping the deer away. And after reading this book, I now know why nothing that I do lasts for very long. I used to say that the deer got used to a certain spray and learned to eat around it. Now I know indeed that this animal, much smarter than I had appreciated, does indeed learn to outsmart me. The ungulates have survived for millions of years. We are probably a relatively new species on this planet compared to their ancestors. 
The wild bergamot and the white and purple coneflowers in this sunrise picture are not the deer's favorite and grow in borders around my property. Likewise below are daffodils and bleeding heart, also usually ignored by the various mammals around our property.


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