They’re everywhere! Who are these woodsy wanderers, and what are they up to?
This year we’re spotlighting Philly’s best beasts! Every month, we’ll bring to life a different native creature thriving in our midst. For January, we kick off this series with Pennsylvania’s state animal, the Whitetail Deer.
Easily recognizable by their signature white tail, held straight and aloft as they spring through wooded landscapes, whitetail deer are fascinating animals. As herbivore “browsers” they typically meander around a general area, nibbling on whatever’s available: grass, leaves, twigs, shoots, flowers, seeds, berries, nuts, mushrooms, etc. Their four-chambered iron gut can handle toxic fruits and fungus that would sicken or even kill humans.
Whitetail deer tend to be matriarchal. The most common social group is a doe with her fawns and female yearlings (and sometimes even young adult daughters). Yearling bucks tend to take off on their own with their first rutting season, and start a new life 3 – 5 miles away. When they’re not fighting over females in the fall, bucks tend to hang out together in loosely-defined herds.
Most fawns are born in Pennsylvania in May or June – females in a particular area usually synch up so they all give birth within a few days. Does only associate with their fawns two or three times a day to nurse, keeping out of sight to elude predators. When left alone, the fawn instinctively knows to conceal itself in underbrush (and to change its hiding spot regularly). In three weeks, the fawns will be big enough to keep up with their mother, and by 18 months they’ll be sexually mature.
Whitetails bucks lose their antlers every winter, and grow them back the following spring and summer. Until mating season in autumn, a deer’s antlers are fairly soft and flexible, then a surge of testosterone causes the antlers to calcify into giant head weapons.
The dense bone is so solid and heavy that a buck’s neck gets noticeably thicker to accommodate the added weight. When rutting season is over, there’s no need to expend this extra energy so the antlers drop off painlessly.
These “sheds” are quite valuable – worth up to $12/lb in states that permit sales. PA is not one of those states, however, it’s perfectly legal to collect them for personal use in art, crafts, jewelry, décor, etc. It’s also legal to sell that stuff, as long as the antlers are used as a part of a finished product, and not the product itself.
Deer sheds also relate information about the animal’s health and the environment – and they’re just very interesting to see up close. Look for them from January thru March, anywhere there’s deer activity, especially in thickets where they bed down and along paths they’re known to travel. Look for tracks, scat, and scrape marks on tree bark. Creek beds are great spots, too, and if you have a dog, they can be quite good at finding sheds (evidently they make a very enticing treat/chew toy).
Our native whitetails have been an abundant source of food, clothing, and shelter for generations of Native Americans and European settlers. In 1721, Pennsylvania passed the country’s first game laws to protect them, but it was no use: by the late 1800’s, deer were nearly extinct from 150+ years of aggressive hunting and land-clearing.
Not so fast! Conservation efforts established the state forest system, and soon deer were reintroduced, and thriving here again. Today, Pennsylvania is home to an estimated 1.5 million whitetail deer – about 1,000 of them live here in Philly’s parks and greenspaces. Chances are, you’ve seen one yourself strolling across someone’s lawn or snacking their way through urban gardens. Just last December, a young buck got stuck in a construction pit in Roxborough, and the Game Commission came out and “rescued” him.
Since 1999, Philly Parks and Recreation has enacted “deer management” efforts to help keep populations healthy, mitigate environmental impact, and reduce the number of vehicular deer collisions in the city. Sharpshooting wildlife biologists with the US Department of Agriculture thin herds with high-powered rifles over several weeks every winter, in a handful of targeted parks. They work at night, using special muzzles so as not to disturb nearby neighbors; all the meat is donated to local food banks.
Still, it’s sad to think we have to take out 300 – 400 of these beautiful animals annually. Philadelphia Advocates for the Deer organized in the early 2010’s to seek a kinder solution to the city’s deer management. The group still has a website (phillydeeradvocates.com) and a Facebook page but it’s been years since the last activity. Sorry, Bambi!
The good news is that the Humane Society of the United States is working with science on sustainable contraceptive solutions for non-lethal population control – we might be less than a decade away from eliminating the need for culls. 🤞
Meanwhile, hunting numbers have been declining with the loss of public hunting grounds to private owners and development (which has also been destroying deer habitat at alarming rates). It’s hard to escape the irony that many hunting organizations now work with conservationist groups to ensure that if anything gets to kill these animals, they do.
IMMUNOCONTRACEPTION: A KINDER SOLUTION
As the white-tailed deer population in Philadelphia continues to remain high (in Philadelphia parks, it’s estimated there are approximately 50 deer per square mile. The state game commission says the ideal number should be about 10), we face a persistent challenge of managing overpopulation.
While these majestic animals are a cherished part of our natural heritage, their proliferation has led to significant consequences, including a surge in car accidents, rampant overgrazing in forests, crop damage, and the spread of tick-borne diseases.
The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a leading animal welfare organization, is working on an innovative solution – immunocontraception. This groundbreaking method utilizes the body’s immune response to prevent animal pregnancy, offering a humane, non-lethal alternative to traditional population control measures.
ZonaStat-H to the Rescue?
One of the key immunocontraceptive vaccines in development is known as ZonaStat-H. This vaccine is based on porcine zona pellucida (PZP), a naturally occurring protein found in pig ovaries.
ZonaStat-H works to prevent pregnancy in female animals by blocking the fertilization of their eggs by sperm. ZonaStat can be administered by hand injection or via darts fired from rifles, CO2 pistols, or blowguns.
ZonaStat-H has already received registration from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use on wild horses and donkeys. HSUS is actively working to expand its registration to include other species, such as white-tailed deer. Obviously, this would be a game changing tool for wildlife management.
The Next Generation PZP Project
In 2016, HSUS partnered with Purdue University to embark on a groundbreaking research project called “The Next Generation PZP Project.”
The primary goal is to develop a PZP vaccine that offers effective multi-year contraception. This breakthrough would significantly enhance the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of immunocontraception by reducing the need for repeated treatments.
The project focuses on creating synthetic, longer-acting formulations of PZP that can be delivered in a single dose.
If successful, this would revolutionize population management efforts worldwide, including wild boar, Norway rats, mongooses, parakeets, African elephants, and many more. Learn more at wildlifefertilitycontrol.org.
Companion Animals: Exploring New Possibilities
HSUS is not limiting its immunocontraception efforts to wildlife alone. The organization is also exploring the potential use of immunocontraceptives on companion animals like dogs and cats.
The goal is to contribute to reducing the problem of pet overpopulation and homelessness. However, it’s important to note that this research is still in its early stages, and numerous challenges and uncertainties must be overcome before immunocontraception can be widely used for companion animals.
For more info about the Next Generation PZP Project, visit humanesociety.org.
🦌 FUN FACTS: WHITETAIL DEER 🦌
- Whitetails can run as fast as 40 mph in strides as long as 25 feet; they can jump 10 feet in the air.
- They are strong swimmers, and have been documented traveling more than 2 miles
- They can live up to 20 years in captivity, but in the wild most of them don’t reach more than 5 years old.
- Most deer eat very little over the winter, relying on fat reserves to survive (losings much as 30% of their weight by spring).
- Deer antlers grow fast – as much as 1 inch per day; does are attracted by the sound of their clashing
- Deer can’t see red, green or orange (which is why hunters can get away with those bright orange vests)
- Vocalizations include snorts, bleats, and grunts. They can also make a “whiew” sound by chuffing air out their nostrils. Bucks have a special “dominance grunt” that they use to intimidate other males.
Thoughts? Opinions? Strong feelings about which other native species we should (or shouldn’t) highlight? Please leave your comments below or email email@example.com. Stay tuned for next month’s Local wildlife feature, and meanwhile we hope the info shared here will help you better identify and appreciate this staple species of Pennsylvania woodlands and valleys.