Cold and snow would occasionally arrive this time of year, but the deer study activity out of Lowry Nature Center continued just the same with many of our school groups back in the day. For nearly 20 years starting in 1970, working there as a naturalist, I helped students discover deer signs on our trail walks.
Now a new group of naturalists keep the deer study going.
I always felt it was a great adventure to find deer tracks, trails and beds in the snow. So did the students. We looked for browsed twigs on trees and shrubs, and learned to identify these woody plants. What fun to discover that deer were living on pencil-size twigs of sugar maple and basswood, red osier dogwood and staghorn sumac. Looking for deer signs led to good discussions, with the young learners asking me many questions. What follows are a few answers.
Yes, the whitetail deer is the largest wild animal in southern Minnesota, where they like forests and clearings. They also are found from southern Canada into South America as far south as Bolivia. Adult deer average 3 feet in shoulder height and weigh 100 to 250 pounds. When seen at a distance or when bounding through the woods, deer appear to be much larger.
The most conspicuous part of this magnificent animal is the large white tail. When fleeing, whitetails send up the danger flag. Their white tails stand tall and alert others to possible trouble. A reddish summer coating gives way in autumn to the thick, gray-brown, insulating winter coat.
Summer and autumn food consists of leaves, shoots, grasses, mushrooms and acorns. Winter food includes mosses and lichens — and the browsed twigs. We think of deer as plant-eaters but on occasion they have been known to catch and eat fish in shallow streams, and even to dig through several inches of snow to feed on wintering colonies of ladybug beetles. When active, deer prefer the hours of subdued light. On moonlit nights they may feed all night.
Deer are colorblind, seeing the world in shades of gray, but their eyesight is excellent; their hearing, too. They rely heavily on the sense of smell, too, to understand their world. They are constantly sniffing the air.
While whitetails can sprint close to 40 miles per hour, they depend on camouflage and their keen senses to survive.
Jim Gilbert's observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.