2016-10-20 / Nature

Use Caution During Breeding Season

By Jack Kelly


The length and size of antler racks are determined by age, nutrition and genetics. A well-nourished stag will begin sprouting new antler buds in April, which may grow up to one-half inch per day. The term “buck” comes from frontier days, when a male deer hide was worth $1, or a “buck." The length and size of antler racks are determined by age, nutrition and genetics. A well-nourished stag will begin sprouting new antler buds in April, which may grow up to one-half inch per day. The term “buck” comes from frontier days, when a male deer hide was worth $1, or a “buck." With mid-October comes the breeding season for white-tailed deer, one of the hallmarks of autumn across Newport County. Known colloquially as “the rut,” it lasts well into December. Aquidneck Island’s motorists and bicyclists need to remain cautious during this time, as deer can suddenly bolt across roads. Deer are found in almost every part of the island, with greater concentrations in more rural areas.

Male deer, also known as stags and bucks, are single-minded during this time and will throw caution to the wind in pursuit of females. They are driven by hormonal urges to mate with multiple does, and may walk or run into traffic. Females, in attempts to elude an amorous stag, may do the same. Last year in Rhode Island, over 1,100 deer were involved in motor vehicle, motorcycle and bicycle accidents, some involving human fatalities. Many of these accidents resulted in vehicular damage and costly repair bills.


Two does nuzzle while foraging at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. 
(Photos by Jack Kelly) Two does nuzzle while foraging at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge. (Photos by Jack Kelly) Herds are typically controlled by an older doe, and bucks must fight for dominance and the ability to breed with the herd’s females. Stags engage in sparring battles by using their antlers, or racks, to push against each other until the weaker one capitulates and cedes the match to the stronger male. Usually bloodless, these contests of male dominance can have tragic consequences for both combatants. If the animals' antlers become interlocked and they cannot separate, they become easy targets for predators or may starve to death.

The length and size of antler racks are determined by age, nutrition and genetics. A well-nourished stag will begin sprouting new antler buds of highly vascularized tissue, known as velvet, in April. The new antlers may grow up to one-half inch per day. During summer a buck may damage his developing antlers and knock them askew, leaving the rack disfigured. Biologists report that approximately one doe in 10,000 develops antlers due to hormonal causes.

When racks reach full length, usually by September, the bucks rub them against trees to remove the velvet coating. The exposed antlers have sharp tine points and are hard as stone. Bucks use these formidable weapons to defend themselves against predators at times.

Deer subsist on a diet that includes leaves and twigs, fruits and nuts, grass, corn, alfalfa, and even lichens and other fungus. They have a four-chambered stomach and are cud chewers like many domesticated farm animals.

Nature has gifted these magnificent creatures with remarkable and unique defense abilities. White-tailed deer are capable of running from predators and other dangers at speeds of 40-47 miles per hour, and their tracks can be spaced as much as 25 feet apart. They are capable of jumping barriers up to nine feet in height, and can broad jump over 30 feet with a running start. They possess a distinctly keen sense of smell and can detect the scent of humans and predators days after passage through a region. Deer are capable of moving their ears 180 degrees without moving their heads, and biologists believe that their hearing is so acute that they can determine from how far away a sound was made.

White-tailed deer are quick and skillful swimmers, escaping to ponds, rivers, and other bodies of water to elude predators. They can swim at speeds over 10 miles per hour. Deer enjoy very good night vision and color vision during daylight hours. Their lighter spring and summer coats of reddish-brown hair are replaced by a denser bluish gray coat of heavier hair during the winter months. These changes are rapid and can take place in only a week or two.

Does give birth to one to three fawns after a gestation period of 201 days, or approximately seven months, usually in May or June. Fawns are born with a white-spotted coat of reddish-brown hair and spend most of their first few weeks of life sleeping while the mother feeds nearby, returning to nurse her young regularly. The hair color and white spots, resembling splashes of sunlight, help to camouflage the young deer.

Getting a glimpse of these amazing creatures can be as simple as taking a walk among the beautiful natural surroundings offered by our island home.

Being able to photograph them was a joy for me. To all the people who have sent prayers and kind words regarding my health since last week's column, thank you.

Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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