Learning To Love Our Neighbors

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A Dazzlement of Deer

Since my move last week, I’ve settled into a new home on wooded property that backs into a lovely ravine. Thus, the land is shared with a rich and wondrous array of wildlife. There are birds galore, some of which are trying to make nests under the deep eaves of the shake roof. My cat Sophie finds this enchanting, and she spends many happy hours on various windowsills. Several mourning doves are the most determined of the would be nesters, but they don’t seem to be very good at it. They keep piling a random looking assortment of twigs and grassy bits into the soffits, most of which falls out fairly quickly. The birds keep trying and though I find it a bit sad Sophie seems vastly entertained by the rather hapless process.

There are definitely raccoons and opossums out there as well as squirrels and rodents large and small, as I can tell by the scat and/or obvious signs of browsing. However, the most frequently seen visitors are the largest (I hope). A sizable and quite tame herd of Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) also call this place home, and have for many years, or so I hear. In the past, I’ve worked hard to re-route deer, which habituate to certain plants and pathways. This usually involves creating barriers and baffles that redirect the critters away from their accustomed superhighways (where they intersect with the garden) to new and fresh territory where they’ll hopefully find lovely things to eat that aren’t planted by me.

Being A Buttercup

This herd is by far the largest and most at home around humans of any I’ve met so far, and I don’t think simple distraction techniques are going to work. Since I’m likely to be here for just a few years, I’m thinking that the most likely win-win strategy is the one called “suck it up, buttercup”. If my best choice is to deal with it, I figured that I might as well learn how to live with these admittedly graceful and beautiful creatures. For one thing, I’m seeing that left to their own devices, they seem to enjoy eating the lush, long lawn grasses, which are mainly ryes and fescues. That’s intriguing, since I never had deer browse on ornamental grasses in garden settings (so far anyway). Ok, deal! You can crop the lawn and I won’t have to mow!

Sadly, they don’t seem to have much sense of order, or the kind of work ethic that involves finishing the job. After a few nibbles, they wander over to snack on alders or willows, or hazelnuts. Well, that’s fine too! They also enjoy the various Rubus species that flourish around here, from salmonberry and thimbleberry to upstart blackberries. Still ok, and explains why they went after my raspberries so determinedly in the past. And salal as a preferred munchie, huh. The new growth is fairly tender, with a fresh, rather earnest flavor that is endurable if not endearing. (I ate the young leaves all one spring as an experiment after reading that local tribes used young salal foliage as trail snacks because they suppress hunger. Huh.)


Another really noticeable thing about these critters is that they are big. Seriously big, and very healthy looking. The does run anywhere up to about 130 pounds, and well fed bucks can top 200. A doe with fauns is very protective, like any mom, and can get surprisingly aggressive if she feels that people are threatening. Though most people killed by deer are driving cars (and the deer do not walk away either), people who get between a mom and her babies can end up badly hurt. When you see deer up close, as in a few feet away, you realize that they really are big, powerful animals and a little respect is definitely in order. So far, however, it’s a one-way street, as I don’t seem to strike fear into any deer hearts. Indeed, they barely look up when I walk out the door or even when I drive up. They’re too busy munching on the lawn, the clovers, the dandelions, and even the new growth on ivy. (Now that strikes me as hardcore; how good can leathery, waxy ivy taste?)

Maybe they aren’t as concerned with taste as nutrient quality. Like cows, deer are ruminants, swallowing in haste to digest at leisure. Though this herd hangs around the hood (a neighbor fed them for years), they can cover a fair amount of ground. Where pickings are slimmer, they may wander through a 2-3 square mile range. Some of the more distinctive island deer are definite roamers, sighted all over the place. They seem to be connoisseurs of expensive plants, as they specialize in visiting well stocked and varied gardens. Maybe they just want a taste of the good life; after all, even well fed deer don’t live all that long. Between their natural predators like coyotes, cougars, and bear, and the dangers of civilization, from cars to domestic dogs, few deer make it past their fifth birthday.

Making A Haven

I often keep a stash of compost or dairy manure in my gardens, and over the years, I’ve often seen deer snuggle up into the relative warmth of the decaying material on chilly winter nights. I’ve also found deer “nests”, mashed down places where they clearly come to snooze in peace. It’s kind of endearing, and gives me a feeling of compassion for these innocent animals who get hated and harassed by people like me who want our gardens to remain undamaged.

So what would I plant if I wanted to make deer feel at home? It’s more a case of what would I not rip out, since deer feed mainly on native plants (really). Here’s a list of their preferred foods: notice that it does not include roses, lilies, clematis, daturas, or many a precious plant that they eat for novelty or perhaps even spite!

Natural Deer Favorites

Vine maple (Acer circinatum)
Red alder (Alnus rubra)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)
Snowbush (Ceanothus)
Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
Hawthorne (Crataegus columbiana)
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
Oak (Quercus spp.)
Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)
Blackberry, Thimbleberry, Salmonberry (Rubus spp.)
Willow (Salix spp.)
Elderberry (Sambucus spp.)
Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
Creeping Oregon Grape (Mahonia nervosa)
Clover (Trifolium spp.)
Dandelion (Tarraxacum spp.)
Burnet family (Sanguisorba spp.)
grasses and crops
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa)
Wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.)
Orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata)
Fescues (Festuca spp.)
Mushrooms and fungi

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