Story and Photographs by Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… the dictionary defines the word habitat as “the natural environment of an animal, plant or other organisms”. In our Adirondacks, we have an amazing diversity of habitats that we can visit. Some of these habitats include Lakes, Ponds, Rivers, Marshes, Meadows, Bogs, Sand Plains, Needleleaf and Hardwood Forests; each of these habitats is home to interesting flora (plants) and fauna (animals). The more you know about the habitat of plants or animals you hope to photograph or observe the more likely you are to actually find what you seek. Plants and animals find habitats that will suit their needs which include climate, terrain, food, and water supply in addition to safe areas for feeding, hiding, resting, breeding and raising offspring. For some, the habitat may change with the time of day, as some animals feed in one habitat and sleep in another, while other animals migrate for food or breeding with seasonal changes.
White-tail Deer have already molted into their hollow-shafted darker winter hair which is thicker and provides greater warmth and camouflage. Their eating habits change dramatically too. As the weather becomes colder and snow begins to cover the grasses their diet will change to browsing on bark, shrubs, lichens and Needleleaf boughs of conifers. The cellulose that they will be consuming is digested much differently than grasses. Deer like cows are ruminants with a four-chambered stomach. As the chewed cellulose of twigs etc. enter the rumen, the first of the four chambers, it is attacked by plant-digesting microbes. Deer in inclement weather will eat quickly. Once they have returned to a place of safety they will regurgitate the undigested food (known as cud) and then re-chew it and swallow it again; the cud will then continue through the other chambers of the stomach. The first stomach chamber, the rumen, contains different microbes and bacteria for digestion of cellulose than it does for the tender grasses of spring and summer feeding. If a deer is offered food in winter that isn’t in their winter diet it could significantly upset the rumen’s digestive capabilities. The acidity may rise and bloat the rumen causing indigestion which for the deer may be fatal. Feeding deer in winter may actually be “killing them with kindness”. Deep snow in winter can severely impact our white-tailed deer. Once the snow deepens to about eighteen inches the deer will “yard up” both for easier access to food supplies and protection. A “deer yard” may consist of a few acres to several square miles within coniferous woods. The deer will tramp-down trails and bed-down in close proximity, with their heads facing in different directions, to heighten their alertness for predators; the bedding area is most generally on a south-facing hill.
This past spring the buck white-tailed deer began to grow their antlers. The yearling bucks may grow “buttons” while the older bucks have grown spikes or large antlers which may have many points. A deer is as healthy as its habitat, which means the antler size increases with age, genetics and good nutritional health. The antlers grow at the rate of one-half inch per day, which is the fastest growing bone known to science. Human hair only grows about one-half inch a month. The deer’s antler can weigh as much as nine pounds and from beginning to shedding they have them for about eight months. The Cervid Family which includes deer, moose, elk, and caribou all grow antlers which are different from the horns grown by Bovid Family members that include cows, sheep, and bison. Horns are grown for protection while antlers are basically for identification (visual and scent) during mating season. The antlers are first used to spar and eventually to single out the dominant buck. Horns are permanent, continuingly growing projections of living bone protruding from the skull. Horns are not usually branched and may be found on both males and females. A doe deer may sometimes grow antlers, but this is extremely rare.
New antlers are covered with velvet, which is a blood-rich skin that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. As the late summer days grow shorter, hormones are released which changes the physical appearance of the bucks. Their neck muscles grow stronger to accommodate the weight of the antlers. The blood supply to antlers is terminated and the velvet dries up and either falls off or is rubbed off. Bucks will spar with small trees or shrubs to rub the velvet off and at the same time leave scents. They have scent glands between their antlers and below their eyes. They have four major glands that are used for scenting during the rut (the female deer’s fertile season). The breeding season begins about mid to late November. The doe deer releases hormones and pheromones letting the bucks know that she is in heat and is now able to breed. Bucks reach sexual maturity at about eighteen months and they rarely eat or rest during the time of the rut.
I have learned that deer can see in color, but not as many colors as humans. Deer are dichromatic which means they have a two-color vision, yellow and blue. Humans are trichromatic meaning that we have three color vision, red, yellow and blue. Deer being unable to see red or orange is one of the reasons that hunters wear red or orange for camouflage and protection while hunting. By the end of December, the bucks will have shed both their antlers; the lack of testosterone level drops once the rut has ended. If you have found an antler or a pair of antlers you are quite lucky. Most antlers become the source of calcium for many small animals such as mice, squirrels, rabbits, porcupines, and other rodents and are quickly eaten.
I found it interesting to learn that deer don’t have top front teeth (incisors), but instead, they have a hard bony pad on the top jaw and rear molars. The lower jaws have both incisors and molars. An adult deer needs about five to seven pounds of food daily. Deep snow and inability to get to their food sources are major factors in deer mortality rates. White-tailed deer are great fun to see and photograph. Please keep in mind a “fed deer may mean a dead deer”. You can read more about ruminates guts online.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bimonthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com