Funny, but when I look out my window on the edge of town now, deer tracks in the snow are all over the neighbor's yard and driveway.
And when I go out to shovel the walk, it’s not even noteworthy anymore to remark about seeing fresh deer tracks.
Whitetails are changing.
I like to laugh with my neighbors and tell them that deer are no longer respectful to me. “Don’t those deer know who I am?”
“They are eating my shrubs and flowers and I am only 10 feet away in the house!”
The DEC and a lot of folks concur that an overabundance of whitetails is to a greater or lesser degree a problem.
But actually, the deer population here in the southern part of Western NY is about the same as it has been for the last number of years ... (google NY harvest data.)
So the deer are changing their behavior. It's like they have learned that they are safe in and around the villages and towns.
Course, they are hunting for food.
Whitetail deer will seemingly eat and thrive on just about all plant material; from roots, to stalks, stems, twigs, buds, flowers and fruit when they can get it in season.
Mostly, if it grows, they'll eat it.
Deer won’t eat the alliums ... garlic, onions, leeks. But then, when digging early leeks in March or April, it is not unusual at all to see where a whitetail munched and sampled an early growth on the tops of the little green leek (or ramp) shoots in a big patch. They don’t eat daffodils, bleeding hearts, poppies and a few other flowers too.
Nature has built into the whitetail a food processing system that allows deer to thrive where most of our large domestic herbivores (like cows and horses) would starve.
But deer pay a price for this extreme gastronomic utilitarianism. It takes a while for them to "gear up."
And as the deer population continues to move disproportionately closer to human habitation, here in the Southern Tier of New York state, their voracious nature will have an ever-increasing and accelerated impact upon our woody plant and grass community outside our back doors.
There is an answer.
I am against the new NYDEC ban on feeding deer supplements.
Of course there is a very good motivation for the ban ... the looming CWD threat.
And better to be safe than sorry, and all that.
But the jury is still out on the efficacy of banning mineral supplements as a way to stop the inevitable spread of CWD.
I think we all know how and why the whitetail’s Chronic Wasting Disease has popped up in new places.
Not from corn or urine-based scents, or mineral blocks, or deer lures, or mounts and wild deer harvested in the next state, but there are a disproportionate number of incidents that can be tracked back to farmed whitetails that escape their enclosures.
I feel like the kid who finally said the emperor has no clothes.
Whether deer are farmed for antler velvet, meat, or those huge racks, it means millions and millions of dollars. Course, that's hard to perfectly quantify. But after reading and studying the CWD contaminated area, it seems pretty clear even to this deer hunter who writes outdoor stories that the epicenter of CWD outbreaks has its genesis around deer farms.
And of course there is a ton of powerful pushback upon our wildlife agencies by the deer farming community in these modern times where power seems to trump reason.
But here, wild deer go where they can shop for the best groceries.
But there's a catch, the whitetail's complex and highly efficient four-part alimentary processing system can’t change gears overnight.
There is a necessary lag time in their ability to synthesize one food type and then shift to another.
Human beings on the other hand can jump from one type of food to another without missing a beat … if not a burp.
Whitetail stomachs (all four of them) are highly efficient bio-chemical engines needed to alter their chemicals, acids, enzymes and bacteria in a gradual way to process their food.
And nature coincides, whether it's domestic or wild, never producing or making available a crop all at once, but slow at first and then it peaks, like apples and acorns, or the growth of grasses in springtime.
That way, slow assimilation is not a problem.
Whitetails that are fed corn and grains in the winter at feeders by biologists studying behavior have a difficult time sustaining their energy on available wild browse, or twigs.
Evidently the bacteria and chemicals in the deer's stomachs needs to "grow" and modify to adapt to a new food source.
Also, whitetails, starving from winterkill in northern "yards" where they group up when the snow is extremely deep have been airlifted hay.
The bales were dropped right in the deer-yard. But the deer still died. The scientific conclusion, after autopsies, is that they in fact starved to death with stomachs full of hay because their bio-chemical machinery could not adapt quickly enough to sustain life.
If the hay had been slowly introduced to them, say over a month's time, then they would have had a better chance at survival by being able to digest the airlifted hay.
Deer, as ruminants that chew a cud, seem to need a mix in their bellies. Even when the apples and acorns fall, whitetails still need to graze on grasses and browse woody stems.
And as the woodlands mature, and browse is succeeded by big trees, whitetails move closer to our homes.
Try having a nice tulip garden without a fence in whitetail country now. Good luck.
We lost a lot of bulbs two years ago in front of our house where tulips grew thickly for years. Deer eat the bulbs too.
Whitetails seem experimental as well and adapt quickly. Deer have even learned to dig potatoes and eat pumpkins. Residential ornamental shrubs from Asia are becoming a favored winter food source, right next to a porch or window, seemingly the more exotic and expensive, the more yummy to a deer.
Those whitetails that have over-browsed their woodlots in much of their range, and having gleaned most of the best and most nutritious and available plant material, have no choice but to leave the deeper woods during the winter and invade our front and back yards.
Whitetail hunters are learning that we no longer need to go "way back in" to encounter deer any more.
And matter of fact, areas in relatively close proximity to houses now sustain some of the highest densities of whitetails, not solely because of the relative sanctuary and safety, but because of the diversity and abundance of food.
A great paradox in deer management is becoming: How do we manage deer, keeping their population in harmony with man, if hunting near residences is excluded as a viable answer?
One answer might be if we could modify again the new current New York state ban on feeding deer so we could supply them with a healthier menu of mineral supplements and protein back in the woods.
If the state DEC would get in line with other state game departments, all across the country and allow those of us who care about whitetails to augment and enhance the wild deer's woodland cuisine and menu, our whitetails would once again tend to be more creatures of the woods and not such a density problem in our backyards, front yards, driveways, parks, and roadways.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.