BackBack

Whitetail Predation



October 2012 to June 2013

Turn! Turn! Turn!
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

TO EVERYTHING there is a season…a time to live and a time to die." Whether you get your proverbs from the Byrds or the Bible, there's no denying this one. Deer die; so do people, trees, tomato plants, and all those silly butterflies that insist on flying in front of the grill of my car. It's a fact of life – the minute you pop into this world, the clock starts counting down. It's a sobering thought and one that we don't like to dwell on. But as Disney taught us in the Lion King, it's the circle of life and that's what I am going to dwell on for the next several months.

"Really, J.T., that's what you're going to muse about for the next 10 months—the many ways a deer can complete its circle of life?" You betcha! Specifically, I'm going to talk about deer and those that love to eat them. Yes, predators of all shapes and sizes. Why? Because it seems the collective conscious believes that deer are innocent victims in a horrible plot perpetrated by the devil himself. The devil has nothing to do with it but people, coyotes, bears, and the occasional fisher do.

Humans, bears, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, fishers, foxes, eagles, and even alligators kill deer. It is no secret. There is no conspiracy afoot. It is simple biology and ecology. The fact of the matter is that deer are a prey species and, as such, predators (single-celled, 2-legged, or 4-pawed) have always and will always kill them. It's the very definition of prey — an organism that is killed and eaten by another organism (i.e. predator). The sooner we understand this very complex and necessary relationship the better off we will all be.

We are going to talk about coevolution, adaption, and predator exclusion. Mother Nature is one tough cookie. And while deer may be a menu item, there is no great skill required to obtain their 'daily bread.' Not the case for a predator — as illustrated by Wile E. Coyote. He's skinny for a reason. These growling monsters with big teeth and sharp claws are trying to make a living just like everyone else. And like the monster in the closet, when you open the door and shine the light on it, there is really nothing to be afraid of. Remember there is a time to every purpose under heaven. And turns, turns, turns.

Bueller...Bueller
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

THERE IS NO DENYING that predator is a sexy word. The nuts and bolts of predator prey relationships, nor so much. I sat down with my general ecology book-The Economy of Nature. As I skimmed through pages that have not seen the light of day for more than a decade, to provide some background and perspective as we get started on our "circle of life" journey, the irony of the title did not escape me. The monotone voice of an Economics teacher rang in my ears-"anyone? Anyone?" Ferris Bueller is not the only one who'll need a day off after this.

Predators and prey have an uneasy but necessary relationship with one another. Predators cannot exist without prey and prey may not exist without predators. What? Predators with extreme efficiency would eat their prey to extinction. Bad for prey, even worse for predators. Because without prey, predators seal their own fate of extinction. But prey can certainly exist without the hungry cloud of predation, right? Well, not necessarily. Predation increases diversity by reducing competition between prey species. See what I mean. Anyone? Anyone?

Mother Nature is harsh but she's not stupid. Prey species do not co-exist blissfully with one another, holding hands and singing Kumbaya. Without predator removals some prey species would happy squeeze out their competitive resource rivals.

So how does Mother Nature prevent an economic catastrophe and create stability in the market for both predator and prey? She diversifies: refuge acquisitions for prey, lower returns on predator efficiency, and increased investments through altenative prey sources. Implementation of this strategy is the resulting predator-prey relationship. Predators and prey do not evolve in a vacuum. Remember, one can't exist without the other-like the Ying to the Yang or Jecklel to Hyde. This is an unbreakable bond driving prey to better ways of escape and avoidance and predators to vary hunting techniques-two populations interacting and responding to one another's evolutionary changes for survival. In science, it's called coevolution and basically guarantees that neither predator nor prey will get the upper hand for more than a short period of time - a dynamic equilibrium ensuring the survival of both.

Staying awake for Mother Nature's economics lecture is one thing, but understanding it is another. It is complex. Oversimplifying predation is akin to taking the day off, which is the last thing any of us should do.

It's What's for Dinner
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

THE BURGER — an American food icon. Whole restaurant chains have been built around it — McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's, Red Robin, Fuddruckers — just to name a few. It's on the menu of countless other eating establishments as well. This is the predicament in which the white-tailed deer finds itself — on the menu of a laundry list of predators. Deer (whitetails, blacktails and mule) are the most wide ranging members of the cervid family. The only place in North America they are not found is the Arctic Circle. Of the three deer species, whitetails are king. They exclusively inhabit the entire eastern U.S., from the Atlantic west to the Rocky Mountains, and even have a taste for the Caribbean, extending south through Central America and into South America.

With this sort of coverage, deer could be the burger of the predator world, well known to both northern and southern carnivores. They also come in a variety of sizes — small for those who prefer lighter fare to large for those with a crowd to feed. So they are a welcome addition to the dinner table for the famished fox or the ravenous pack. What's not to love about the delicious white-tailed deer? In the tropical rainforests of Venezuela, exotic predators such as the jaguar, ocelot, and even the jaguarondi, stalk our very familiar white-tailed deer. Moving to more familiar ground, wolves and mountain lions were the main predators of deer in what is known as the eastern United States before Europeans colonized it.

Historical accounts indicate that deer were the main food source of mountain lions, and were considered a staple of the wolves. These infamous and iconic nemeses of the whitetail have long since vanished from our eastern landscape. But predators are still a part of a whitetail's everyday life. Lest we forget about coyotes, bears, bobcats and humans to name just a few. All still play a very active role as predator in the lives of our modern day white-tailed deer. And like the wolf, mountain lion and jaguarundi, the predators we find today in Pennsylvania are different in size, hunting technique and prey selection. Looking at each, we can appreciate their relationship in Mother Nature's economic market and the role they play in the "circle of whitetail life." So grab a seat at the table. Dinner is about to be served and everybody loves a good burger.

Song Dog
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

COYOTE— derived from the Aztec word coytl, which refers to the god of music, dance and song. Call me a biologist, but coyotes are fascinating. Smaller than the neighbor's German shepherd, they weigh between 20 and 50 pounds and likely live only six or eight years in the wild, but have the reputation of a Goliath. Revered by ancient cultures and disdained by the white man. Given its modern history, I'm not sure what the coyote has to sing and dance about.

This species has been hunted, trapped and poisoned for decades and yet persists, even expanding its range and numbers. Like our beloved whitetail, coyotes can occupy a wide range of habitats, from open lands to forests, but do best in areas with variety: brushy country, ravines, thickets and small woodlots. Coyotes can be solitary, live in mated pairs or be part of a pack of three to seven related individuals. They depend primarily on vision, followed by hearing then olfaction to hunt. They search, stalk, pounce (for small stuff like mice) or rush (for stuff a bit bigger) their prey. Excess food is cached by burying it.

As for the coyote menu, there isn't much that is not on it — mice, rabbits, hare, squirrels, groundhogs, snakes, bugs, fruit, carrion, whatever is most abundant. Variety seems to be the spice of life for the coyote.

So what about deer? If you listen to the buzz, coyotes are akin to the apocalypse for the whitetail. Don't believe all the hype. Historically speaking, white-tailed deer are more abundant now than they have ever been. Coyotes are not a new predator, and deer, like coyotes, know how to survive. Coyotes incorporate deer into their diet when they are plentiful. Annually, deer are most abundant and easy to catch in June, July and August. Deer less than three months old are on the menu for coyotes. After that, they are off the list until the next year. That's what we learned when we conducted the largest fawn study in North America.

Deer are just another opportunistic food item for the coyote. Removing coyotes from the predator equation does not mean more fawns will live, though. In a recent study, coyote removal only boosted neonate survival when lagomorph (rabbit) populations were low; in other words, when coyotes did not have an alternate prey option.

So despite false accusations and unrelenting persecution, the coyote survives. Perhaps that is what all the singing is about.

Won't You Be My Neighbor
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

I HAVE LIVED in six different states up and down the east coast and even ventured across the mighty Mississippi but Pennsylvania is the only state in which I have shared a range with the black bear. The possibility of a new neighbor weighing 200-500 pounds, having 1- 1.5-inch claws, running up to 35 mph, and scaling trees and fences with ease was something entirely new and somewhat foreign to me. I never really gave it much thought until my acorn-shaped birdfeeder disappeared, unceremoniously ripped from the branch of the large rhododendron five feet from my back door. Hello, neighbor.

Historically, black bears were found across all forested portions of North America from Alaska to Mexico. But as civilization tamed the wilds of this continent, the once ample supply of black bear habitat became increasingly scarce. Today, the Appalachian Mountains are the spine propping up black bears populations in the eastern U.S. Pennsylvania is in the heart of the eastern black bear range and sightings are possible in all 67 counties. However, their habitat preference is relatively inaccessible terrain with thick understory and good supplies of mast. Not known for their social graces, bears, which can live well into their teens and beyond, are solitary animals with the exception of females with cubs.

Nearsighted, they can't see clearly beyond their nose so to speak. But that wonderful long, broad nose "sees" what the eyes can't and their ears can hear a pin drop.

When it comes to the bear menu, they could dine at the same establishment as a coyote. Bears are known as opportunistic omnivores. Seventy-five percent of their diet is typically vegetation, which includes tree buds, fruits, berries, acorns, skunk cabbage and the occasional spoils of a birdfeeder. The other 25 percent of the menu is comprised of mice, squirrels, groundhogs, colonial insects, with a fawn or two thrown in for good measure.

Wait a minute, did you say fawn? Yes, I did. The lumbering and loveable lug won't turn his nose up when whitetail is served. In the Pennsylvania Game Commission fawn survival study, which was the largest conducted in North America, bears took as many fawns as coyotes. Fawns are abundant and available to bears in June and July. After that, our lumbering lug moves back to things that don't run away, including roadkilled deer. Really, who wants to chase dinner when you can just plunk your fanny in a berry patch or visit the neighbor's birdfeeder?

Soft Kitty, Warm Kitty
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

WHILE OUR UNIVERSE sprang into existence about 14 billion years ago, the little ball of fur known as the bobcat only hit the scene 20,000 years ago similar to many of the species we know today. Originally ranging throughout the eastern U.S., its current range has been constricted for the normal and obvious reasons but the bobcat is still found in much of Pennsylvania excluding the western third and the southeast corner of the state. They are highly adaptable and can be found in close proximity to large cities. A friend in southwest Connecticut snapped a photo of one traveling through her front yard this past spring. Its basic habitat needs are for woodland and for resting and activity areas like rocky ledges, swamps, or briar thickets.

WHILE OUR UNIVERSE sprang into existence about 14 billion years ago, the little ball of fur known as the bobcat only hit the scene 20,000 years ago similar to many of the species we know today. Originally ranging throughout the eastern U.S., its current range has been constricted for the normal and obvious reasons but the bobcat is still found in much of Pennsylvania excluding the western third and the southeast corner of the state. They are highly adaptable and can be found in close proximity to large cities. A friend in southwest Connecticut snapped a photo of one traveling through her front yard this past spring. Its basic habitat needs are for woodland and for resting and activity areas like rocky ledges, swamps, or briar thickets.

While bobcats are in fact soft, they are not to be trifled with. The bobcat is about twice the size of your house cat. Average males weigh about 28 pounds and females 15 pounds. They are solitary and crepuscular meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Bobcats hunt by sight ambushing or stalking and pouncing on their prey.

The bobcat menu looks a lot different from the bear or coyote menu. Unlike our opportunistic omnivores, bobcats are strict carnivores. Bobcats can take down prey that is eight times their own weight, but prefer mammals between 3 and 13 pounds. Dinner of choice is usually a bunny, but if the opportunity presents itself, mice, squirrels, opossums and the occasional dove or turkey can find its way onto the dinner table. As long as its meat, it's on the menu.

So while our soft kitty has the fortitude and constitution to make a meal of the whitetail, they constituted less than eight percent of predator mortalities in the Pennsylvania study. Similar or lower predation rates by bobcats have been seen in other areas in the Northeast. Happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr, purr, purr…

Fishers, Foxes, and Sam the Dog
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

FROM THE TITLE, it may seem like I'm playing the "one of these things is not like the other" game, but I'm not. Carnivores are well represented in Pennsylvania. And they come in all shapes and sizes, including Sam, the dog that watched over the sheep herd as Wile E. did his best to make off with one of the flock. But we'll get back to him in a minute.

FROM THE TITLE, it may seem like I'm playing the "one of these things is not like the other" game, but I'm not. Carnivores are well represented in Pennsylvania. And they come in all shapes and sizes, including Sam, the dog that watched over the sheep herd as Wile E. did his best to make off with one of the flock. But we'll get back to him in a minute.

Let's start with fishers and foxes. Fishers and foxes aren't even in the same family. Fishers are related to the mink and weasel. Foxes are related to coyotes and dogs. However, they do have some similarities. They are small. Foxes weigh between 7 and 14 pounds. Fishers are smaller than that. Males are 8 to 12 pounds while females are only 4 to 5 pounds. Foxes occupy a diverse range of habitats from farmland to forest and are found throughout Pennsylvania. Fishers prefer forested habitat and they have expanded their range considerably in Pennsylvania over the last couple decades.

Fishers are renowned for being porcupine killers, but their diet is much more diverse than that. Like foxes, fishers eat small- and medium-size mammals such as mice, hares, birds, insects, fruits, nuts, berries and carrion. Really the only thing that is on the menu of the fisher that is rarely on the menu for the fox is porcupine. What if deer were served? Like any opportunistic carnivore, neither foxes nor fishers will pass up venison — be it fawn or 3-day-old roadkill. However, the small stature of the fisher and fox prevents deer from being a constant on the menu.

The Ultimate Predator
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

PEOPLE, we have the power to level mountains, cause large-scale ecosystem changes, eliminate entire species from the planet and produce reality TV. Does it really come as any surprise to you that we are the number one factor causing a deer's demise? All the coyotes, bears, bobcats, fishers, foxes and dogs in Pennsylvania don't hold a candle to the wave of mortality known as hunting. If you are a deer in Pennsylvania, it's the two-legged predator for which you had better watch out. For more than two decades, Pennsylvania hunters have been harvesting more than 300,000 deer annually. If I were a deer, I'd rather take my chances with a coyote. There's a better chance of outrunning one of them than a bullet.

Wait one cotton-picking minute — you don't see Joe Hunter taking those cute, speckled, defenseless babies in June or July, while the rest of those four-legged predators are on the prowl. But don't think for one minute that people do not cause any fawn mortality prior to our established hunting seasons. In the largest fawn study conducted in North America, right here in Pennsylvania, people (in one way, shape or form) were responsible for 17 percent of all fawn mortalities. While 'natural' predators do account for a higher percentage of fawn mortality, there is no denying that cars, fences, tractors, even abandoned wells, are all effective human-related predators.

Wait one cotton-picking minute — you don't see Joe Hunter taking those cute, speckled, defenseless babies in June or July, while the rest of those four-legged predators are on the prowl. But don't think for one minute that people do not cause any fawn mortality prior to our established hunting seasons. In the largest fawn study conducted in North America, right here in Pennsylvania, people (in one way, shape or form) were responsible for 17 percent of all fawn mortalities. While 'natural' predators do account for a higher percentage of fawn mortality, there is no denying that cars, fences, tractors, even abandoned wells, are all effective human-related predators.

Still doubt our ultimate predator status in the deer world? Let's look at adult deer. Over the last decade or so, thousands of adult deer have been collared, tagged and tracked across Pennsylvania. For those animals that met their end while we were keeping tabs, 71 percent did so during the hunting season. Another 14 percent had some other unfortunate human-related encounter. Adult deer that had an unfortunate encounter with a predator — one percent. Eighty-five percent of adult deer mortality is at the hands of people. Do you still have doubts about the number one predator of deer in Pennsylvania?

A Survivor
By J.T. Fleegle
PGC Wildlife Biologist

WE'VE TALKED about coyotes, bears, bobcats, fishers, foxes, man and even man's best friend. As predators, their job is to eat prey. As prey, deer are on the menu. Not the best position, but you have to play the hand you are dealt. Mother Nature doesn't care. Predators may be armed with big teeth, sharp claws, or high-powered rifles, but deer have a few tricks of their own.

WE'VE TALKED about coyotes, bears, bobcats, fishers, foxes, man and even man's best friend. As predators, their job is to eat prey. As prey, deer are on the menu. Not the best position, but you have to play the hand you are dealt. Mother Nature doesn't care. Predators may be armed with big teeth, sharp claws, or high-powered rifles, but deer have a few tricks of their own.

Let's start on day one of a deer's life. What defense can a tiny fawn muster against a canid? Well, as they say in sports and business, the best defense is a good offense. That's right, fawns have an offense. It starts with their birthday. Hundreds of thousands of fawns are born within a two-week period. There is strength in numbers. Those teeth and claws just can't keep up. And even if they could, they have to find them first. A deer's first coat is an "invisibility cloak" and is washed clean of any scent. They fade into the landscape, hiding in plain sight.

Given the success and persistence of deer on the landscape, these endowments are more than enough to create a fair contest. So the next time you admire this graceful animal, remember it's a survivor and not going down without a fight.









Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797