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Whitetail: Trophy, Food, or Friend?

Sunday, November 21, 2021


A peaceful and increasingly rare sight on Indigo Hill--a doe keeping company with a crow, as the first morning gold streaks the meadow. Mid-June 2021

You may have noticed that my stories about the deer I know have dropped off the blog. No Ellen, no Buffy, no Flag or Pinky or Jolene, no TinyTine, no Lil' Pisser no mo. No buck sparring matches in the meadow. Where have they gone?

In the long view, hunting pressure has increased exponentially around my 80-acre sanctuary in the last five years. One 160-acre property that borders my land to the south and was closed to hunters for 30 years is now owned by avid hunters. That piece of land includes the house (the so-called Pink Palace) where Bill lived his last year. So there's that.

On the north neighboring side, multiple corn feeders, game cameras and a new feedplot are in use. A lot of animals are being taken.

A bit farther down the road is a 250-acre property that's also got feeders and feed plots, and is enthusiastically hunted. 

These pieces of land all connect; I've seen deer I know, like the magnificent buck TinyTine, both in my backyard and in the middle of that 250-acre piece. TinyTine has been gone for two years, taken, as I knew he would be. He had ten points; he showed up on the game cameras; he was marked. The allure of all those corn feeders is too great. While I am endlessly grateful that these properties are still in woodland and not, say, in housing developments, and I'd far rather have hunting lands neighboring mine than tract housing or drill sites, I can't fail to notice the impact of this newly intensive land use.



TinyTine (right) kisses an 8-point buck with whom he was just lightly sparring, Jan. 8, 2019. See the little lobster claws at the end of his main beam? Contrary to popular belief, bucks can stay good friends throughout the rut. They aren't at all the testosterone-blinded rage machines that pop hunting culture makes them out to be. Bucks, according to Joe Hutto, are tender, sensitive animals who often keep strong bonds with their mothers, and happen each year to grow large bony prongs people covet.

Needless to say, with all the change in land use, I've noticed a distinct drop in deer numbers. More than that, I don't recognize anyone any more. I miss the quiet, gentle neighbors I used to enjoy so much, but they're gone like April snow. Curtis went to investigate some piles of skins and skeletons strewn beside a nearby hunting cabin late last winter and came back home carrying Buffy's tail. 



How did I know? She was the only
deer I'd ever seen with a fox-red tail. Ellen's was red, too, but Buffy's was fox-red. That was a bad moment for me, looking down at Buffy's severed tail in my hand. But that, in a nutshell, is what it's like to fall in love with a deer. It isn't likely to end well.

Buffy had been Ellen's closest companion. They were either sisters or mother and daughter--I never knew which. Buffy took on Ellen's last two fawns, Pinky and Flag, when Ellen was killed at at least 9 years of age by a thoughtless arrow, and left in a sad little heap along my driveway in November 2016. Buffy cared for those fawns as if they were her own. I figure she had to be at least 13 when she was killed.

February 3, 2014. Buffy grooming Ellen.


And why was Buffy killed? Because she was there, and she didn't think to look up when she came to the corn feeder under their tree stand. They didn't know her like I did. They didn't know her at all.

I searched my computer, and I have 60 photos of Buffy, stretching from 2009 to 2018. Nine years is a long time to follow a deer, to fall in love, to see her through the seasons and a weeping, eventually ulcerated eye that somehow got better; to see her through everything else that happens to a wild deer. The feelings I had toward the deer who lived here are what make me bite my tongue nearly in two when I interact with some of my neighbors. Suffice it to say we are at cross purposes, and I am outnumbered.

I've just finished reading Joe Hutto's book, Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch. Most will remember Hutto from "My Life as a Turkey," a PBS TV re-enactment of his experience incubating and raising chicks from a clutch of wild turkey eggs he found, about to hatch but abandoned. The incandescent book he produced from the experience of following the poults through the woods, watching them grow in wisdom and experience, is one that has shaped me greatly. It's called Illumination in the Flatwoods. I read it when it first came out in 1995 and was never the same again. I'll say the same about this book.
Touching the Wild hit me hard, kept me up at night, thinking. If you like your natural history sugar-coated, you won't like this book. But then, if you liked things that way, you probably wouldn't be here, reading my stuff. It's not always sweet. There are the occasional severed tails.

That said, if you'd like to know something of what goes on between doe and fawn, in the heads and hearts of these remarkable creatures, I highly recommend it. It is humbling to learn how utterly out of touch humans, whether hunters, wildlife managers, or observers, are with the minds and souls and welfare of the animals they profess to "know," "harvest," and "conserve." Hutto was himself once a hunter. Enough said. Mr. Hutto, I am your kid sister in Ohio, and I watch my wild neighbors with the same raw and oft-broken heart that guides you. I don't feed them, and I can't touch them, but I feel for them.

So in that context, when I, weeding the garden, got an alert from my phone that my Moultrie trailcam had new photos just a few hundred yards down the meadow, I was gobsmacked to see these thumbnails roll in. Yes, I have a trailcam setup, gifted to me by Bart Stephens of Wingscapes.com, which sends real-time alerts on my iPhone when something interesting walks by my trailcam.
This was interesting. And I was staring down the meadow from my east hill, knowing this was unfolding, unseen...it's so freaking cool.

I didn't know the doe at the time, but I instantly empathized with her. You'll have to look at the timestamps on the photos to understand why this series of photos hit me so hard. As my (noble and ethical) hunter friend Matt Mullenix commented, "No coincidences there."



She stood sentinel
Six minutes by the camera’s count
Her fawn sporting in circles
I, gratefully spying with magic electrons.





Finally it was time.


Her fawn fed, she bedded it down
Scentless and warm
Where she hoped no tooth or claw would find it.


That’s a doe’s life, isn’t it?
Nothing but gamble and hope.
Trying again, year upon year.
Today was all right. 

We'll see about tomorrow.






I wrote this post in mid-June 2021, moved by the story that unfolded in snapshots before my eyes. I am happy to say that both the doe and fawn made it, and I watched that little thing grow all summer and fall, almost always running as it passed the camera. I wish it luck in the naked, weepy woods of November, with the booms of men sighting in their guns for the upcoming season echoing all around. I'm bracing for another hunting season. Each year, it gets harder for me to endure. Like many Americans, I've been thinking a lot about guns lately, and now I'm hearing them all around again. It's that time of year.

What I'm trying to convey with these stories is that, despite the attitude some hold, hunters don't own the privilege of being in the woods, or knowing something about deer. That sounds a bit odd, but you have to place it in the context of my being a lone woman with gray coming into her hair, who has lived here for nigh on 30 years, surrounded by hunters, and now moreso than ever. Unlike most people in this area, I go out into the woods nearly every day of my life, all year around--not just for a few weekends in November. When I interact with hunters and I'm treated, as I sometimes am, with disrespect and bluster, even shouted at as I make my way through the woods, it freezes something down inside me, hard and still as rock. Hunters are not the only people who belong in the woods, or know something of what goes on there. Nor do they have dominion over the earth or its animals, whatever the dogma states. Their weapons don't make them king. They only make hunters something to which I and the animals must give a wide berth. Most demand my deference with firepower and nothing more. Only a very few will ever earn my respect. They know who they are. And only they know why it's something worth earning.

Tell me something I don't know about deer. Tell me something about the does I knew and followed for a dozen years before you killed them. Tell me about their children, about the small white flash between their toes that told me they were Ellen's. Did you notice that? Tell me about the soft-eyed buck who came up to my studio window just as he had as a fawn: Ellen's son, all grown up. About the long looks we exchanged, the pictures of his mother that I saw in his eyes. He nosed the feeders, sipped from the bird bath. He knew he was safe with me. How many points did he have? How much did he dress out to? Tell me what you know about deer, you who descend for a few weeks or days each year and shoot them over piles of muddy corn.
I'm here, watching.
Here, listening.
Here, learning.







If you're intrigued by my setup, go to the Wingscapes website to find Moultrie Mobile trailcams set up for AT&T or Verizon, that will send lo-res thumbnails right to your phone in real time. When you get a keeper, you can click on it and download the hi-res version to your phone or computer, which I did for this blogpost. These cameras will be available soon at Wingscapes, and they are available now at BassPro, Cabela's,Dick's, Sportsman's Warehouse and Academy. They will be in Walmart soon as well. If they're not available on the Wingscapes website, please feel free to buy from any of the other outlets listed.

I can attest that it's exhilarating to get those notices that Something has just walked by your trailcam; to see what's stirring in the middle of the night, and sometimes, if you're very lucky, to piece together a story like this one. I'd never have known this was happening but for my Moultrie Mobile camera! Many thanks to Bart Stephens for setting me up with the latest and greatest technology for my studies.


3 comments:

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Beautiful post, Julie. Thank you.

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