A female white-tailed deer. (ED ROBINSON PHOTO)
While November may not be as eagerly anticipated as October’s foliage season, for many people it is a favorite time of year. As the days get shorter, our white-tailed deer population enters the breeding season known as the “rut.” You can observe many changes in deer behavior as animals reluctant to make an appearance during daylight hours become more active as they search for a mate. This month is also prime time for deer hunting with firearms across our state.
White-tailed deer are one of the most popular creatures for wildlife viewing, from the time they appear as tiny, spotted fawns until they grow into mature bucks with sizable antlers. In recent years, however, the interest in having lots of whitetails around us has dimmed as they have overpopulated many parts of southern Maine. Not only can deer cause considerable damage to forest habitat, they also figure prominently in the growing incidence of blacklegged-tick-borne diseases (primarily Lyme, anaplasmosis and babesiosis). Health experts have labeled the rising population of whitetails as a human health issue.
As northern Maine has reverted from small farms to forest, the population of whitetails has fallen, since there is less favorable habitat for an animal that depends upon browsing new growth of trees and shrubs, grasses and forbs. In southern Maine, the gradual conversion of forests to housing tracts has created ideal conditions for deer, since those new homeowners install a range of landscaping plants that often appeal to a deer’s palate.
With restrictions on hunting in suburban areas, there are few checks on the growth of deer numbers. Predators like wolves, cougars, bears, lynx and coyotes are either absent from southern Maine or present in insufficient numbers to control the deer herd on their own. Maine registers over 3,000 deer collisions each year on our highways, sometimes with fatal results for humans.
When you are afield this month, look for small trees that have damage to their bark roughly 2 feet above the ground. This is called a “rub,” caused by bucks scraping their antlers on the trees to build their neck and shoulder muscles and to leave their individual scents. You may also see a “scrape,” an area 2-4 feet in circumference where deer of both sexes have dug up the ground with their hoofs, leaving scent from urine and glands. As the middle of November approaches, rubbing and scraping activity reaches a peak, as the does come into estrous and bucks are traveling constantly in search of those “does in heat.” If you are really lucky, you might encounter two bucks fighting with their antlers, trying to establish dominance and win a doe’s heart.
There is a sizable deer population in Harpswell and a number of people hunt with archery equipment or firearms (only shotguns and black-powder rifles are legal in Harpswell). The harvest provides a considerable amount of highly nutritious organic protein, and helps to keep deer numbers in check. Hunters should have written permission from landowners allowing them access and all deer stands must have the hunter’s contact information. It is illegal to hunt over any kind of bait placed for the purpose of attracting deer. In fact, any feeding of deer is prohibited by state law between June 1 and Dec. 15.
Hikers should be alert to the possible presence of hunters in their favorite woods, and should wear bright-orange clothing through November and the first half of December. Dogs should be controlled to avoid disturbing hunters and an orange vest is also a good idea for your pet.
Ed Robinson’s new book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More” is now available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support the conservation and public education efforts of HHLT.