Tuesday, May 15, 2007


I have been reading Richard Nelson's "Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America" and a couple of Nelson's descriptions of encounters with deer and of deer interactions caused me to think of some of my own encounters with deer. I think any big game hunter who has spent much time in the field probably has at least a couple of stories about having deer walk right up to or right by him, which is an event which ought to make anyone's day. More than that, Nelson's description of deer socialization brought to mind a morning nearly ten years ago.
It was late September and I had taken a sleeping bag, groundsheet, water and rifle up to an unroaded mesa top which consists of large parks interspersed with aspen and spruce. I cold camped a couple of hundred yards behind a small hill overlooking one of two tanks on the mesa and the first gray light found me shivering in the frost and overlooking the water. Soon four mule deer does, each with that year's fawn, made their way down near the tank. Rather than water, they commenced to feed in the swale. After half an hour or so, one of the fawns suddenly straightened up, looked wildly around, the sprinted through the other deer, describing a quick half circle as soon as it got past the outermost, only to stop and nonchalantly resume browsing. All of the others were showing various signs of alarm- a couple had even started to run themselves. I, too, was busy looking for what had spooked the doe. However, as the instigator was showing no more signs of flight, after a bit they settled down and went back to feeding as well. Ten minutes or so after that, one of the does tore off through the group with no warning, bumping one of the fawns in the process, who chased after her. A couple of quick turns, they both stop, pant a moment, and go back to feeding. For the next hour or so, the deer fed around and eventually watered, spicing up their morning with bursts of "tag" which followed some set of rules I never figured out. Periodically, one of the does or fawns would take off and charge pell-mell through the group, sometimes being chased by another, sometimes bumping one of the others, only to suddenly stop and go back to feeding. Maybe it just felt good to run on a chilly morning.

Nelson expresses an aesthetic preference for whitetails, but to my mind, nothing really compares to the blocky grace of a big Rocky Mountain mule deer. Further, although it usually means that I've been busted, I also get a thrill every time I hear the wheezy snort a deer uses to warn of a predator. Those does and fawns described above eventually fed back into the edge of some aspens to bed, while I left them to it and crept back off the hill to circle around the mesa edge, looking for a buck.

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