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Jul 9, 2018 3:25 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Long Island’s Resilient Deer

At four months old, this female fawn has probably stopped nursing and is foraging on its own. MIKE BOTTINI
Jul 9, 2018 3:53 PM

Long Island’s largest terrestrial mammal, the white-tailed deer, has proven to be very resilient and adaptable to man-made changes in the landscape. During my field work to determine the distribution of river otters on Long Island, I was surprised to find sign of deer in the form of tracks and scat in the westernmost otter sites on the north shore of Nassau County, not far from Queens.Since then I’ve learned that they’ve been sighted even farther west at Alley Pond Park in Queens. Excellent swimmers with hollow hair that makes them very buoyant, they’ve also made their way to Inwood Park in Manhattan and onto Staten Island. Although it is very difficult to determine numbers of deer (and otter) in a given area, only 10 years ago (2008) NYSDEC biologists estimated there were 24 deer on Staten Island.

Today that estimate is approximately 2,000 and has been correlated to increases in the incidence of Lyme disease, motor vehicle collisions, and damage to the island’s greenbelts. That prompted New York City to initiate a deer reduction program on Staten Island in 2016, and budget $3.3 million toward the effort.

The plan involves capturing and sterilizing the island’s bucks via vasectomy operations, and is being done by the same organization, White Buffalo, that worked on reducing East Hampton Village’s deer numbers by capturing and sterilizing does. Both programs are seen by some as a more humane control option that culling, which is debatable, and both, as with culling, require a long-term commitment of resources to capture and sterilize newcomers who swim to Staten Island and walk over the village border from adjacent town lands in the case of East Hampton Village.

The Staten Island project is billed as the first large scale deer control campaign to use vasectomies. Two years into the program they have documented a dramatic decrease in the ratio of fawns to does from one per doe to one per two does, a fact that supporters point to as progress. But with 100 bucks still roaming the island vasectomy-free, and hundreds of male fawns to capture and treat this year, the ultimate success of the program has yet to be proven.

Fawns are becoming more visible this month, as they are now approximately five weeks old and are spending less time bedded down while mom feeds on her own in the general vicinity, staying within hearing distance of her fawn’s call.

As is the case with many wildlife camouflage patterns, a fawn’s white-spotted, reddish coat appears quite conspicuous when seen standing out in the open. But when it lies down under some cover the spots mimic the dappled sunlight filtering through leaves and tall grass, making it surprisingly difficult to detect the fawn. I’ve come across a motionless fawn on the edge of a trail, and even when I pointed it out to my companions standing just feet away, most could not see it.

Contrary to popular belief, fawns are not odorless at birth but their scent is much less than a mature deer. Does rely on their faint scent to relocate their young after they’ve been grazing and browsing. During their first week of life, before they’ve developed coordination in their running muscles, they will remain completely motionless even when touched. At one week old, they will run if threatened or disturbed.

During their first month, the fawns remain bedded down in hiding most of the day, waiting for mom to return to nurse four to six times per day. After two weeks they begin to feed on vegetation, experimenting with various plants but relying on their mother’s rich milk for sustenance. Their four-chambered stomach is fully developed at two months of age but they will continue to nurse for up to five months, into September and October.

Lacking any significant predators other than man on Long Island, management of our largest terrestrial mammal remains a daunting challenge. Management strategies must take into account the fact that deer have the ability to double their numbers every two to three years, and the fact that feeding is not just an issue in our gardens and farm fields, but in our wildlife preserves where overbrowsing is having a cascade effect on the entire ecosystem: plant communities, rare plants and ground nesting birds.

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