Walking along Ferson Creek recently, I couldn’t help but notice how the tips of so many plants — young trees, shrubs and crispy brown wildflowers alike — looked really ragged. Frayed. Shredded, even.
The damage was consistent, beginning at the base of the plants and continuing up almost as high as my head.
As I surveyed the scene, my brain played a little trick on me. What first came to me as the thought “Oh dear,” slowly morphed into the realization, “Oh! Deer!”
These chewed — or, more accurately, torn off — stems and twigs are a distinctive sign known as deer browse. Because white-tailed deer, the only native ungulate, or hoofed mammal, we have in our area, have no upper incisors, they grab and pull as they forage.
The result is vegetation that, at best, looks like it got a bad haircut, and, at worst, dies from the abuse.
When you’re out and about in deer habitat, which we have in abundance in our local natural areas as well as wooded neighborhoods, keep an eye out for deer browse as well as these other common signs:
Clue #1: Cloven Hooves
Deer have “cloven,” or split, hooves, and leave behind prints that are vaguely heart-shaped, but with a ridge down the middle. The “pointy” part of the heart is the front of the foot, where the two crescent-shaped halves come together, but don’t actually meet. These “points” indicate the direction of travel.
However, just as we can spread our toes, so too can deer. Depending on substrate and other factors, like gait and age, deer can splay their hooves and leave behind tracks that are V-shaped, with the “pointy” part of the V indicating the rear of the track.
When tracking a deer in very soft substrate, like wet sand or mud, look for imprints of the animal’s dew claws — the two other toes of a deer’s foot. They will appear as large dots behind the hoof print.
Print size varies, depending on the age and sex of the deer, from around 3 inches for young fawns to more than 5 inches in length for large bucks. Also, you may notice that the same deer leaves two different-sized hoof prints. Because the front legs bear more of the animal’s weight, the front hoof prints will be larger and deeper than those of the rear.
Clue #2: Scat
Depending on diet, deer scat can appear as piles of individual, acorn- or oblong-shaped pellets (typical in winter, when food is low in moisture) or soft clumps (in spring and summer, when vegetation is lush).
Clue #3: Follow The Trails And Paths
Deer are creatures of habit, frequenting favorite areas over and over. Their thoroughfares start out narrow, but as more animals — and humans — discover them, they grow wider.
Some of the trails you walk on today in our parks and preserves are former deer paths.
Clue #4: Bedding Areas
As prey animals, deer can’t afford to sleep for long stretches at a time. But they do nap often, especially in winter.
When these large mammals, which generally weigh 100 to 300 pounds, lay down for a 30-minute snooze, they flatten vegetation and pack down snow.
But, again, being vulnerable to predation, they can’t afford to be obvious about it. If you want to find deer beds, you usually have to venture off their “beaten path.”
(Those of you with deer in your neighborhood may dispute this point. If you have deer sleeping in your yard, know that they’ve come to recognize the spot as a safe haven, a bed and breakfast they may visit early and often.)
Clue #5: There’s The Rub
Each autumn, at the onset of the whitetail mating season, or rut, bucks will vigorously rub their heads and antlers against saplings.
This action, which for the deer serves as a means of marking territory, for humans provides an easily observable sign: long strips of frayed bark and exposed sapwood, typically at heights between two and four feet above the ground.
Clue #6: Antlers
These bony structures, which basically are extensions of a buck’s skull, emerge each spring and are shed each winter — usually in December and January in our area.
Now is a great time to spot recently shed antlers. However, please remember that it is unlawful to remove any natural objects, including antlers, from parks and forest preserves. And if you go hunting for sheds on private property, make sure you first obtain the landowner’s permission.
Left on the ground, shed antlers serve as an important source of calcium for a number of woodland creatures, including mice, voles, chipmunks and squirrels. Older sheds will often bear the marks of the gnawing action of these animals’ constantly growing incisors.
Where To Find Clues
Where do you look for all these signs? In our area, it’s pretty easy.
Locations that have steady food sources and good hiding places will be rife with signs of deer — maybe even the animals themselves. Bear in mind though that deer are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk.
Open woodlands (those that have been maintained via prescribed burns and invasive brush removal), cornfields and yards — especially those with bird feeders — in exurban and rural areas all are likely to support somewhere between several and many whitetails.
Within the St. Charles Park District, Norris Woods, Delnor Woods, Persimmon Woods and the Hickory Knolls Natural Area are good sites to put your newfound deer-tracking knowledge to use.
Next week our tracking series continues with a look at a common but elusive local mammal, the American mink.
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