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Discussion Starter #121
It REALLY depends…
JULY 7, 2020
Independence is a theme this time of year. And we are following suit. But we aren’t talking declarations or fireworks. We are talking freedom from density!
In the last post, I discussed density dependent and density independent factors. A cool paper demonstrated how they can work separately and in concert on a deer population.
Managers can’t control those density independent factors, but maybe lowering population density can insulate it from them. If animals are not stressed by density dependent factors, they may be better equipped to handle a $1,000,000 winter or hurricane. After all, sharing a limited amount of resources with fewer individuals means more for all. Right?
Well, fear not. Because you know someone has investigated this too! This time we are going south to the Florida flatwoods where deer say “winter-sminter!” Not much snow or freezing temperatures in the pine flatwoods on the Gulf Coast of the Florida panhandle.
Looking at body mass, antler beam diameter, and number of points of yearling bucks over a 10 year period as deer density declined, no differences were observed. Density decreased by 75%.
Competition among deer for resources must exist for a density dependent relationship to exist. So it appears that competition was not the issue. There was plenty of browse available. What wasn’t available was high quality forage.
Studies of the habitat suggest the nutritional value of browse in the flatwoods is suboptimal for body growth and may only meet the basal energy requirements of deer. Even phosphorous levels were below maintenance-level requirements. Indeed, deer in some areas of Florida experience reproductive rates comparable to those where winter starvation was chronic yet none of those deer suffered malnutrition as measured by bone marrow fat, pericardial and peritoneal fat body size, and weight.
Regardless of population density, there is no way to improve their nutritional plane. There is no insulating these deer from another density independent factor because the Florida flatwoods was a constant density independent factor. Independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!
The question then becomes how do you manage a deer herd that is insensitive to changes in density? And how do we know if measures of deer health (reproduction, antler beam diameter, body mass, fat reserves) are the result of density dependent or density independent factors? And then there is the Synergistic Population Density and Environmental Effects on Deer Body Condition that tells us that both density dependent and density independent factors can work together. GAH!
The only answer is to know your critter and where they live. Deer are ubiquitous but also unique. Pennsylvania deer are no different than Florida flatwoods deer or Canadian island deer but the places they live are. To understand Pennsylvania deer, we need to understand the forest – the trees, the plants, the soils, the deer. And as we know, all those things resemble a Christmas light knot that you might find in Clark W. Griswold’s garage!
I am beginning to think independence is never celebrated in nature.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter #122
Character Arcs
JULY 14, 2020
I’ve always loved literature that includes a great character arc – the slow, maddening obsession with a powerful ring or the gradual redemption of a young hero where the character’s changing values from good to evil (or evil to good) alters the story’s dynamics with unpredictable outcomes!
Americans are going through their own character arc – people views and perceptions of wildlife are a changin’.
Like in my favorite novels, the transformation of American values is a fascinating with many uncertainties about what these changes will mean.
People value hunting less, but our wild spaces and places more and more. While numbers of hunters are decreasing nationwide, those who participate in wildlife-watching activities such as birding are increasing dramatically, and public engagement with natural resources and conservation is at an all-time high.
Since 2001, more people than ever care about and engage with our natural resources.

In the most recent survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife shows that only 5% of the US population hunts.

A study of National Values found that the number of hunters is decreasing as younger generations are participate less than previous generations due to a lack of interest.

Shooting wildlife with cameras, instead of guns, is also becoming more popular in Pennsylvania. More than twice as many Pennsylvania residents indicated they were active wildlife viewers than active hunters.

Similar to the US at large, the average hunter in PA is about 50+ years of age. Age, time to hunt, and places to hunt rank among the top factors that influence hunting interest — Interest that appears to be waning for some hunters.

But just like in famous works of literature, it isn’t always certain what these changing values mean for wildlife.
Decreased hunter numbers and changing values could put wildlife and wildlife conservation in the crosshairs as states, including Pennsylvania, grapple with how to manage deer populations and fund those management efforts.
As hunter numbers and interest in hunting declines nationwide, much of the story has focused on money.
Concern about funding may be warranted. Historically, state agencies have relied heavily on hunting and fishing related activities to fund their conservation efforts – although that is changing.
Many U.S. citizens think tag and license sales as well as public taxes will be the hero of this story and fully fund wildlife conservation in the US.

However, license sales only account for 35% of the money that supports state agency conservation in the US.
State agency conservation funding is increasingly coming from diverse sources. This is reflected in Pennsylvania’s very own Game Commission.
The PGC has diversified how they fund wildlife management – which is a good thing because hunting licenses account for less than 20% of the Game Commission’s funding.

The PGC uses that money to support many different things. For example, the Game Commission continues to improve hunter access – more than 1.4 million acres of State Game Lands are open to hunting. In addition, there are 3.6 million acres of private land open to public hunting in the Farm-Game, Safety Zone and Forest-Game programs. Add the nearly 3 million acres of other public land open to hunting, and Pennsylvania hunters have almost 8 million acres, or 12,500 square miles, of land open to public hunting. (from rosenberry article).
We all agree that money is important. Money definitely plays an important role in the ongoing story of declining hunter interest and participation.
But something is missing. Who or what could the missing piece in this complicated story line of the conversation?
Did I mention that I also love cliff hangers?
-Tess Gingery
 

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Discussion Starter #123
The BIG reveal
JULY 20, 2020
As discussed in our last blog post, the conversation around money has overshadowed an important plot development regarding how America’s changing values will influence conservation:
(Drum roll please…)
How will managers control deer populations if people don’t hunt?
Unfortunately, shooting deer with cameras instead of guns won’t help manage the population.

After all, hunting is the most common way for an adult deer in Pennsylvania to meet its end. What happens when all those deer in our freezers stay in the forest and fields instead?

Even with diverse funding sources, it is difficult to picture what Pennsylvania would look like without hunters removing 300,000+ deer each year.
Diminishing hunting pressure has already contributed to increasing deer populations. And deer overpopulation can cause a lot of problems.

There are many important potential outcomes of America’s character arc and changing values. But fewer hunters in our state, and the effect it could have on the number of deer on the landscape, could be an important plot to pay attention too.
-Tess Gingery
 

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Discussion Starter #124
Did you lick that?
JULY 27, 2020
Licking stuff has always been gross. And that was pre-COVID19. It’s bad enough to lick the frosting off a cupcake and put it back but licking things like doorknobs and phones are completely out of the question.
Most mammals and 2-year-olds don’t share this philosophy on licking. For deer, licking plays an important role in behavior. Before breeding, a buck will lick the urogenital area of a doe. After birth, a doe will lick her newborn fawns from head to toe. Does also lick perineal area of her fawn to stimulate defecation while nursing. And she’ll groom her fawns long after there is a need to do so. Kind of like your mother wiping your face when you are 11 years old.
In some instances, licking serves a physical purpose – removing fawn poop or ectoparasites. But mostly, licking is a form of communication – strengthening bonds and transmitting information.
For all the attention that gets paid to them, bucks don’t contribute much in the way of deer society. Their services are only needed a couple months of the year. No giving birth. No lactating. No need for grooming or bonding. They just hang out, grow antlers, and wait for those 2 months. That’s a lot of time to do nothing. Hanging out with your homies gets dull after a while. What’s a buck to do all summer long?
I present to you the licking branch.
It’s like the corner bar. Bucks come and go. Stopping for a sniff and a lick. Licking branches are used by bucks year-round and are the main scene in spring and summer. Bucks need to protect their most prized possession so rubbing anything with their sensitive growing antlers is out of the question. But spitting on a branch is A-OK.

Nobody knows how a licking branch is chosen. They are often associated with scrapes but don’t have to be. They are usually located over a trail or along the edge of a field – think high traffic areas. And they have to be the right height – just slightly above his head. Marking involves mouthing the branch. This apparently allows him to leave his own mark while smelling and tasting the ones already there. Crazy!
Like many things in the deer and natural world, what information is being exchanged and why they are used throughout the year is a mystery. It has been suggested that it communicates identity and status and may facilitate social bonding. Nothing like a few bros bonding over a branch. That bar analogy holds up.
There is a reason I don’t go around licking branches or anything else for that matter. It’s called disease. Viruses, bacteria, and other nasties deposited by others can hang out there and wait. Prions, like CWD, are on that list of nasties. In fact, licking branches were rated the highest risk for prion contact related to scraping behavior. Note this is not the only way for a deer to come in contact with CWD prions.
But the licking branch will soon take a back seat. Those sensitive antlers are slowly dying. That’s right. Antler growth is over and calcification has started. Soon bucks will be able to use their new head gear. Their 2 months of fame will be here before you know it. Until then, they’ll keep licking stuff just like that 2-year-old.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter #125
Triplets in July?
AUGUST 3, 2020
While checking some game camera videos, I came across what appeared to be a doe with 3 fawns. Triplets aren’t the norm and with a 20 sec video I was skeptical.

Then just a week later what appeared to be another video of them.

What are the odds? We often hear about sightings of triplets. But how rare are they?
From 1999 – 2006 the PGC checked 6,253 road-killed female deer for embryos. Of all those deer, only 125 (2%) were carrying triplets. So 1 in 50 females may give birth to triplets. I’m not a gambling man but these odds are better than winning the lottery.
Of those 125 triplets, 91 (1.5%) were from adult females (at least 2 years old), 30 (0.4%) were from yearlings, and 4 (<0.1%) were fawns. I was really surprised that last figure was greater than zero!
Triplets occur in every WMU, but the top areas are WMUs 1A and 2B (Pittsburgh area and along the Ohio border), and WMU 5B (Lancaster and York counties area).
Keep in mind that not all triplet embryos become triplet fawns. Some embryos are aborted or resorbed by the female if she cannot obtain sufficient nutrition over winter.
Let’s just assume those are triplets in that video. What are the odds that if they were born June 1st (half of all fawns are born in PA by that date) that all 3 would still be alive by the end of July (~9 weeks later)?
We’ve already discussed this for twins. For them, only about 1 in 4 (or maybe 1 in 3) adult doe still have both babies in tow. Fire up the calculator and we’ll figure it out for those twins plus one.
The percentage of fawns that survive to 9 weeks of age in Pennsylvania is 65% – 75%.
That means the probability that all 3 fawns survive to 9 weeks of age is 0.27 (= 0.65 × 0.65 × 0.65) to 0.42 ( = 0.75 × 0.75 × 0.75).
Consequently, the odds of a doe having triplets this time of year is about 1 in 120 to 1 in 185.
But also keep in mind that just because a doe and fawn are traveling together doesn’t mean they are mother and offspring. We know that by January there is only a 50% chance that a doe and fawn traveling together are a mother-offspring pair.
-Duane Diefenbach
P.S. The odds of seeing a doe with quadruplets? Less than 1 in 3,000 at birth and between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 20,000 by August!
 

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Discussion Starter #126
Berries, birds, and the best way to eat
AUGUST 10, 2020
It’s berry season! I look forward to it every year. I have access to ACRES of berries, and I take advantage of my good fortune. Picking begins around the 4th of July and goes until I run out of time or berries. The latter of which never happens.
My berry patches are disbursed over a large area, so I need to be strategic since time is the limiting factor in my quest to fill as many buckets as possible. Just like every other critter on the landscape, I need to forage efficiently.
In our endless quest to explain everything, ecologists developed a theory to explain how animals would make decisions when foraging. From that quest, Optimal Foraging Theory (OFT) was born. We’ve talked a little bit about it in the context of search image.
According to OFT, an animal should adopt the foraging strategy that provides the most benefit (energy) for the lowest cost. For example, do you expend a lot of time and energy to planting and caring for a garden or are you better off collecting wild berries that provide less energy but also take a lot less time and energy?
It’s all about return on investment. Animals should be angling for the biggest return. There is a whole field of study dedicated to OFT. As you can imagine, there are many factors that influence the “optimum” way to obtain food – like food value, search time, and handling time.
But what does it look like in the real world? When critters are presented with a cornucopia of berries…I mean food…how do the tenets of OFT play out?
Take, for example, the overworked mountain chickadee parent. Their one goal is to bring as much food as possible in as little time as possible to those noisy, never-full nestlings. For them, the deciding factor is foraging time. They visited the same foraging location on consecutive flights not because of increased frequency of capture of the same prey type or quantity of prey but because it significantly decreased foraging time. Combine that with selecting the same prey type (there’s that search image again!) in the same location and it was like compound interest on the decrease in foraging time. Prey that is readily obtained in large numbers, even if they are small, were preferred.
In my quest for berries I am one with the mountain chickadee parent. After visiting 4 different berry patches, I concluded that only one was worthy as a foraging location. While all had berries, foraging time was substantially reduced by repeatedly visiting just one.
Does foraging time always trump other factors? As they say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat even when you are trying to optimize.
So now we go from chickadees to finches – and not just any finches but Darwin’s ground finches in the Galapagos. If you don’t know the story of Darwin’s finches, check out The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time. It’s an amazing book.
There are many different sizes and shapes of bills on finches in the Galapagos. Researchers looked at handling efficiency of seed types and patch profitability. Obviously, birds with bigger bills could handle larger seeds. However, patch profitability was a big factor in seed choice. Small seeds with lower energy returns were highly profitable if they were at high density within a patch.
Optimal Foraging Theory says that finches should become less selective of patches (seed clusters) as overall food availability declines. With less food around, more options need to be added to the menu and diets should become more generalized.
But the finches were not big fans of OFT.
It turns out OFT fails when food is superabundant and when scarce. When food is abundant, there is no need to be optimal about anything – patches and seed types don’t matter because any patch or seed type can provide adequate nutrition. When food is scarce, finches don’t prefer certain seed types or patches because a limited menu doesn’t provide much choice.
Why spend time being optimal when adequate will more than suffice?
I am one with Darwin’s finches too. At the height of berry season, I go a bit mad. Faced with berries in every direction, my attention is diverted everywhere I look. There are so many I flit from one cluster to the next. Overwhelmed, there is no need to be choosy or methodical.
red raspberry bush in July
It appears that deer agree with me and the finches. Given the breadth of a deer’s diet, deer are satisfied with a range of “good” foraging strategies rather than an “optimal” one.
Why am I even talking about foraging – optimal or otherwise? Deer basically eat habitat. To understand the interactions between deer and their habitat, you need to understand diet selection.
It is obvious that OFT cannot fully explain the choices that animals make when they head out for a meal. As we all know, ecology is messy and complicated. Deer must absorb, translate, and apply a plethora of information in real time. It’s not going to be textbook.
But OFT has shown us the importance of things like search and handling times. The value of a food item is contingent upon many factors. It’s not just about the number of calories in an acorn or a maple bud.
Our forests play a role in determining diet. We’ve seen how soil chemistry affect plant communities. That affects deer diet. And deer diet can affect plant communities. It’s a crazy circular relationship.
Berry picking is not the only reason for my madness.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter #127
Food Processors
AUGUST 19, 2020
I like to cook but my kitchen has never been optimal. My triangle always has a table or a dog in the middle of it. Then there are the accessories. I’ve been a gypsy for over half my life. Small appliances that get used once in a blue moon were more trouble than they were worth. For many years, a microwave and toaster are the only items that made the cut.
Then I discovered pesto. You need some sort of emulsification device to make pesto. In my travels, I inherited a blender. For years, I made pesto in a 1970s avocado green Hamilton Beach blender. It got the job done but it was difficult to clean, didn’t always chop the nuts up, and I could never scrape out ALL the pesto. Sigh.
Then my life changed. I was bequeathed a Cuisinart 8-cup food processor. It weighed a ton. I wasn’t very excited about it until I made pesto. Holy Cow! What a difference. It was a breeze – took half as much time and cleaned up in the blink of an eye. The difference was so stark I had a hard time believing it. What else could this marvel of small kitchen appliance do?
Chop peppers for jelly, knead dough for empanadas, even make laundry detergent! I could do all this and more with the proper tool.
Of course, this blog post isn’t about my kitchen appliance journey. There are many tools used to manage wildlife. The biggest and most well-known is hunting. We’ve been using regulated hunting to manage deer and lots of other species for over 100 years.
But there are others. Like trapping – for example, hunting is NOT effective in controlling wild pigs. However, professional trapping is effective at controlling and reducing wild pig population growth. Trap and transfer has been used to reestablish many extirpated species. Deer, turkeys, fishers, black-footed ferrets, wolves, bighorn sheep, and California condors have all benefited from this management strategy. Targeted removal has been used to control TB in deer in Minnesota and nutria on the Chesapeake.
Then there is habitat management…let me count the ways. The habitat management tools are extensive – from planting native flora to prescribed fires to liming to brush pile building to grazing to dynamiting marshes to create potholes.
There may be many management tools in the box, but not all of them are available to use all the time. Like small appliances in the housewares department, there is no limit to the number of kitchen gadgets I could own. Do I really need that food processor? How often do I use it? How much room do I have to store it? I managed without it for years. I still got the job done.
Social, political, logistic, or economic constraints often limit management tools. For example, deer in suburban areas. Hunting has always been our go-to for managing deer populations but like it or not, hunting in a neighborhood like the one below is logistically impossible and socially unpopular.
J Dingel PA Game CommissionPhoto Credit J Dingel PA Game Commission
In the end, hunters cannot remove enough deer to make a difference even if they could find a suitable tree or a deck because they have their own constraints like work and family which limits their time. So hunting, while an obvious tool in the box, is one that cannot be effectively used.
Another effective tool stuck in the toolbox – liming. We know that soil pH has declined in Pennsylvania over the decades. We also know that soil chemistry affects plant growth as well as the forage quality of those plants. Liming could manipulate the pH of soil benefiting both flora and fauna species in our forests. Germany has been liming their forest since the 80s – 200,000 tons/year at a cost of $118/acre! Has it helped soils recover? Yes!
There are 16.7 million acres of forest in Pennsylvania. If lime were applied to half the forest acreage, it would cost over $940 million/year. Will this tool ever coming out of the box in large scale and meaningful way? Hard to say, but if liming were cheaper than fencing, and the effects lasted longer, it might be possible when deer densities are compatible.
Pennsylvania State Forest
Sometimes we even have to manage with limited or incomplete information. There is a lot we don’t know. That’s the whole reason we conduct research. We are still learning about deer-forest interactions but that doesn’t mean we don’t use management tools available to us right now. Could things change as we get a better understanding? Sure – that’s what science is. But we can’t stand idly by doing nothing while we wait for those answers. That’s why we’ve tried to integrate The Deer-Forest Study with the ongoing management on the forest.
It would be nice if we had all tools available to us under all circumstances but that is just not reality. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t manage. I made pesto without that fancy food processor and it was good! We can still manage deer and habitats with the tools that are available. Sometimes it just takes a little creativity and persistence.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter #128
Peeing your pants
AUGUST 25, 2020
Peeing is a part of life. Aside from the biological function of removing waste products from the body and providing us a host of entertaining idioms (pee in your Wheaties, pee like a racehorse, no pot to pee in – to name a few), urine is a great communicator.
Moreover, it’s not just the urine itself. How and where one urinates also transmits a message. My female dog lifts her leg to pee on countless posts and trees in her never-ending battle with the local fox to dominate the neighborhood. Whether it’s marking territory boundaries, conveying social status, or signaling reproductive state, the bouquet of urine holds much meaning.
Deer have 297 million olfactory receptors (human have a measly 5 million for comparison). Olfactory communication is their jam. I dare you to find a hunter that hasn’t been busted by that nose. There is no escaping it so save your money and hope the wind is in your favor.
There are many examples of how deer use urine and behavior to communicate but today I’m going to focus on rub-urination which is when a deer rubs their tarsal glands together while urinating over them. Urine, glandular secretions, and bacteria mix to form a tell-all perfume.
For bucks, the frequency of rub-urination increases during the rut. But I’m over talking about bucks and the rut.
The catalyst for this post was not the endlessly talked about rut. It was this cute spotted baby.


Duane captured this fawn rub-urinating right in front of his camera. Rub-urination is not a male-only-reproductive-season activity! ALL deer regardless of age or sex rub-urinate year-round. That’s right females AND fawns rub-urinate.
Because they are not bucks, there is a dearth of research on rub-urinating in females or fawns. But there is some. For females, rub-urination is more common during nocturnal periods and often associated with termination of bedding. Observations suggest that for females rub-urination is likely more related to season than courtship activities. Unfortunately, no observations were made during fawning season so what role rub-urination plays in post-partum territoriality is unknown.
But what about fawns? Black-tailed deer fawns two days old have been seen rub-urinating. There is no reason to think white-tail fawns are any different. Eighty percent of nocturnal urinations by fawns were rub-urinations. Rub-urinating occurred after sudden separation from a caregiver for hand-raised fawns. Fawns also attract their mothers and other members of the group by rub-urinating.
What does all this tell us? Urine even plays a role in relating emotional state!
Bucks rub-urinate when threatening each other during the rut; females can chase a fawn away by rub-urinating; and fawns can call their mom by peeing their pants.
Rub-urination is a deer’s answer to a socially stressful situation. Because peeing your pants is a sure-fire way to get your mom to come make everything better.
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Discussion Starter #129

Diminishing Returns

AUGUST 31, 2020
To say this year has looked a bit different is an understatement. COVID-19 has put the kibosh on most of our travel plans for over 6 months. Trips to Florida, Maine, Montana, and Australia cancelled or postponed indefinitely. But that doesn’t mean our summer has been without excitement. Make your own fun we say! [Be advised – Duane’s and my idea of fun is probably not the norm.]
Duane lives on a farmette in central Pennsylvania with dogs that frolic about the fields, a beef that roams the hillside, chickens that strut the yard, and rats that plague the barn.
Duane’s mission this COVID summer – kill all the rats.


Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus) are an introduced species that made their way here during the colonial period. They like people. If people live there, Norway rats will too. And they are nothing but trouble – from damaging crops to killing chickens to spreading diseases (like bubonic plague and typhus!), they do it all. Duane’s war on rats is not novel. Humanity has been fighting it since the transition to an agrarian society thousands of years ago.
Duane and I collaborate on a lot of things and this endeavor is no different. In May, I started receiving texts that contained charts and graphs about rat sightings. Duane being Duane was collecting data. Me being me formulated a plan to write fun blog posts. So here we are.
As stated, the mission was to kill ALL the rats in Duane’s barn. Anyone who has waged war on a rodent population knows this is a lofty goal with a low probability of success. The fewer the rats, the harder they are to catch. And then there is the time invested. It might equate to a fool’s errand.
I’m 300 words into this post and have yet to mention deer. Don’t worry it’s coming.
Deer management is a conundrum. Managers work to meet goals based on habitat and deer health using a tool that isn’t always on board. That tool is, of course, hunters. Let’s harken back to my exploration of small kitchen appliances. Hunters, while our go-to tool for species management, have a completely different perspective on hunting. Their motivation is not management. It’s for “fun” – being in the woods, practicing a skill, quieting the mind, filling the freezer, or any of a million other personal reasons.
Deer are managed by increasing or decreasing harvest by way of hunters. The challenge has always been increasing harvest. Because there is a stark difference between perception and reality when it comes to deer density. Why? Because fewer deer on the landscape require more time and effort to find and harvest.
Most people understand that. What they may not understand is that the relationship between that time and effort is not a linear relationship. There is a fabulous paper by Van Deelan and Etter that covers this concept. The modeling in the paper makes Duane happy but the outcome of the analysis is eye opening.
The take home message: relative effort accelerates as deer density declines. Below a threshold deer density, the effort it takes to kill (or see) a deer exponentially increases. The critical point is around 38 deer/square mile. Anything above that density and there is very little change in the amount of time to harvest a deer. Below that, time to harvest a deer shoots up like a rocket.
Hours of hunting per deer seen based on deer density. Graph is based on research by Van Deelen and Etter (2003)Note that as deer density declines the hours required to observe a deer increases exponentially.
From a hunting perspective, there is little difference perceived between 38 deer/square mile or 58 deer/square mile. But going from 38 to 18 deer/square mile it’s like the bottom fell out. If you’re a hunter with a limited amount of time to spend having “fun,” it may seem like there are no deer left in the woods. When, in fact, it “just” takes 30% more time to harvest or see one.
If we were a normal predator, we might decide it’s not worth the effort. Like my berry picking forays, foraging efficiency has declined and it’s time to move on to another patch. But that’s not what usually happens.
Hunters inevitably complain that there are no deer left; management efforts fail; and deer densities increase. Or if hunters do move on to another patch, management efforts still fail (because not enough deer are harvested) and deer densities increase (because hunters aren’t there to harvest them).
Managing deer with this tool is hard.
Ok, back to rats. Below is a graph of observations when warfare began.
The camera recorded for 20 sec every time it was triggered for motion. In each video I counted the number of unique rats (that is, if I saw 11 rats there had to be 11 in the frame at one time). This graph represents over 300 rats observed in just over 70 videos in one night!
The purpose of Duane’s COVID summer project is not only to kill all the rats. It’s also a great illustration of this effort/response concept with little at stake – other than Duane’s time, money, and sanity.
We’ll follow the kill as well as Duane’s time, money, and sanity over the next few posts!
-Jeannine Fleegle and Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter #130
A man, A plan, A rat
SEPTEMBER 3, 2020
For any task you need a clear objective – Kill all the rats. Check. There are 3 key elements required to successfully reach this objective – good plan, time, and money.
In the past, I have removed an occasional rat with my .22 and rat shot. I didn’t know at the time but this is when I first met One-Eyed Jack. Before that, his name was just Jack. More on that later. I knew this would not be a successful strategy – 1) because Jack (now One-eyed Jack) was still alive and 2) If you go out at dusk and shoot a couple of rats, their friends will wait until you are in bed before they come out again.
What’s a research statistics data nerd to do? Use the internet, of course! There is tons of information and misinformation. I found one source that was not only entertaining but also useful. The website by Shawn Woods called mousetrapmonday.com is THE testing grounds for all sorts of rat and mouse traps. You can spend hours on YouTube watching his videos (just ask my wife).
Rats are neophobic – meaning they are afraid of new things. It’s one of their keys to success. Once an invasive rodent is established, you must spend a lot of time gaining their trust before you begin to trap them.
So after some investigation here was Phase I of my plan:
  1. Pre-baiting – begin baiting with sunflower seeds to assess the enemy and the numbers of troops.
  2. Monitor – use a game camera set on video: 20 second clips with a 30-sec delay between triggers; count the minimum number of individual rats observed in each video clip; then sum the count for all videos after each night.
  3. Bait and switch – after letting the rats get comfortable with the sunflower seeds, switch out the seeds with a poison that is only toxic to rats.
  4. Analyze and adapt – track the count; assess the impact; and deploy Phase II.
A note about the poison. Rats (and gerbils, hamsters, and mice) cannot vomit. Unlike my dogs. It turns out that corn gluten and salt can kill rats and mice by stopping up their digestive system and causing dehydration. The rats become comatose and die in their burrows. Although poisonous to rats, corn gluten won’t hurt other wildlife – and other wildlife can eat any dead rats and not be poisoned themselves.
True to form, rats were reluctant to feed on the sunflower seeds. But they warmed up. The 5 days prior to replacing the seeds with poison, I was getting about 200 views of rats per night. On the 29th of May, I deployed the poison.

They took the bait…I mean…poison.


Unfortunately using this method precludes us from knowing how many succumbed. And while I could have monitored my video count to assess the effect, I was too excited about Phase II to wait that long.
I have no illusions of how this will end. Rat eradications have mostly been successful only on islands. Although Alberta, Canada has successfully eradicated the rat. But it took the Alberta government, with cooperation from the public, nearly a decade just to bring infestations under control! I only have one (hopefully) COVID summer.
-Duane Diefenbach
 

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Phase II – A Repeating Trap
SEPTEMBER 8, 2020
After watching Mousetrap Monday videos for a week or so, I finally settled on the second tool I was going to use to reduce the rat population – a rat trap that could repeatedly capture multiple rats per night.
This was an escalation in warfare. I spent $45 on rat poison and was now investing $300 in a rat trap.
Duane on porch with Uhlik Repeater trap
The trap is an ingenious design whereby there is a hopper for bait (sunflower seeds) that sits above a trap door that empties into a cage. When rats climb up on the trap to access the bait, they trip a lever that allows the trap door to open and down slides the rat(s)! Like a rat amusement park except I’m the one having fun.
Check it out.


My very own Diefenbach House of Fun…or Horror? Either way it’s very satisfying.
This is why I could not assess the effect of the poison completely. Remember that I mentioned rats are neophobic? I introduced the trap on May 28 – the day it arrived on my doorstep. For it to work, the rats needed to be comfortable with their new park ride by climbing on and feeding from the trap. This took a few days and I was excited to open the door for business. Also, after a rat takes a one way slide, you must transfer them from the trap before you humanely euthanize them. Otherwise, your little rat amusement park will be abandoned forever!
I set the trap on May 31. Check out what happens to rat sightings the first night I catch a rat. They drop dramatically. Are all the rats gone? We all know the answer to that question. Unfortunately, I was not consistent in my camera deployment (this is a fun summer project – I’m using science but I’m not being graded), but you can see it takes a few days before rats return to the trap. I quickly learned to open the trap for a few days. Then lock it down. Then reopen.

After a month and spending $45 on poison (no idea number killed) and $300 on a trap, I appeared to be making progress on my campaign against the rat population – at least my crude index to rat abundance seemed to at least have a downward trend (see graph below).
And by the 24th of June, my per capita trap expense had declined to $12/rat.

Looking at the blue line, rat mortalities appeared to be plateauing. With the population declining, my effort needed to increase. This is expected given what we know about the effort/efficiency curve. What wasn’t expected was the revelation of my rat nemesis, One-eyed Jack.
Time to implement Phase III.
-Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter #132
Phase III – What every story needs
SEPTEMBER 10, 2020
When we embarked on this COVID summer project, we had no idea what an epic adventure it would become.
Harry Potter vs Lord Voldemort; Superman vs Lex Luther; Batman vs the Joker; Captain American vs Red Skull – classic tales of good vs evil were about to be joined by Duane vs One-eyed Jack.
Duane’s rat chronicles were now a saga complete with protagonist (Duane), antagonist (One-eyed Jack), and bard (Jeannine).
A chance meeting in February created One-eye Jack. Like Ultron or Syndrome, Duane had created his nemesis. But because Duane leans more toward the classics, Moby Dick may be a more apt comparison.
Our hero recounts:
“I named him One-eyed Jack because he had only one good eye. That made him recognizable among the tens of rats in the barn because only one eye reflected in the infrared illumination from the camera.
He never walked onto the trap door. He’d climb up the trap. He would perch aside the trap door and carefully pluck loose sunflower seeds laying on top.
He’d just sit there. Eating my sunflower seeds. And glares at the game camera.”


Phase II of our saga introduced the repeater trap. By this time, 25 rats had slid down the trap door to meet their end. But One-eyed Jack was not one of them. There were still plenty of rats left. At dusk, they would scurry under the chicken coop. Time for Phase III.
Phase III involved the shotgun (using non-toxic shot of course).

Cool and calculating, Duane devised his latest assault. It would take place in rat alley – a corridor between the chicken coop and barn where the rats ran between buildings. He baited with a pile of sunflower seeds, sat in a lawn chair behind an upended wheelbarrow, and waited.
It only took 15 minutes on the first night – 3 rats with one shot!
And one of them was One-eyed Jack!
By mid-August, Duane had 39 confirmed rat kills. In the graph below the numbers represent the number of rats killed with each shotgun attempt.
The black lines represent the decline in sightings on the game camera. The blue line is the cumulative number of rats killed, with the numbers representing the number killed per shooting attempt.
It illustrates the true dedication of our protagonist to his cause, his mission, his calling!
If we assign 30 minutes to each night with the shotgun (even though the first night took half that time), we can see how catch per unit effort changed over time.
  • The first 7 rats took 12.8 minutes per rat killed.
  • The next 3 rats took 20 minutes per rat killed.
  • And the last rat took 180 minutes!
Weary from his quest, Duane put down the shotgun. His effort and removals equated to going from 38 deer/mile2 to less than 5 deer/mile2.
But he is gaining ground. His index to abundance shows an unmistakable decline.
Time for Phase IV.
-Duane Diefenbach and Jeannine Fleegle
 

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Discussion Starter #133
SEPTEMBER 15, 2020

Duane’s COVID summer project centered around rats in the barn but it’s not hard to see the parallels to deer management.
Economics
We kicked off this series explaining the relationship between deer densities and harvest. It is not a straight give and take no matter how much we want or expect it to be. Deer density and how it relates to the effort to see or harvest a deer is non-linear. That is, as deer densities decline it takes exponentially more effort per deer seen or harvested.
Our COVID summer project complete with protagonist, antagonist, and bard is a not just an allegory of deer management but almost a direct comparison when we look at familiar and recurrent beliefs that deer have been “wiped out” in <fill-in-the-blank>, Pennsylvania.
Pulling out all the stops, Phase IV of rat eradication included adding a kill trap to the mix called the A24. This trap is a humane killing trap that was developed in New Zealand where non-native mammals have decimated the native fauna. The only native mammals in New Zealand are bats and marine mammals, which means that none of the native bird, reptile, and invertebrate species have adaptations against mammalian predators – they don’t even recognize them as predators.
After being deployed for about a month, the A24 has not killed a single rat. How’s that for the Law of Diminishing Returns. Just this week we finally got video of a rat taking some seeds sprinkled underneath it. The repeating trap has even dried up with only one removal recently after weeks of zero rats partaking in the slide. Videos show there are still rats with clips showing 1-2 rats at a time – but mostly just a single rat.
Shanty vs Chateau
Clearly, there is no way to trap and shoot our way out of this problem. Eliminating rats also requires eliminating habitat. That’s right, hitting them “where they live” so to speak. The rat army marches on its stomach. Between raiding the cucumbers and tomatoes in the greenhouse and the feed scattered by chickens in their pen, there is no shortage of food. They aren’t just scraping by in a shanty town.
Habitat is also a big part of the story about white-tailed deer.
Deer were nearly exterminated from Pennsylvania by 1900 through a combination of factors:
  1. Unrestricted harvest for commercial sale
  2. Subsistence hunting, and
  3. Loss of habitat when much of Pennsylvania was stripped of its forests.
You might enjoy reading a book by E. N. Woodcock (b. 1846, d. 1917), who hunted and trapped in Potter County, titled “Fifty Years a Hunter and Trapper”. He relays his first-hand account of declining catch per unit effort although he didn’t know to call it that.
“Like other boys who lead an outdoor life, I grew stronger each year and as I grew older and my trap lines grew longer and my hunts took me farther into the woods. Finally as game became scarcer my hunts grew from a few hours in length to weeks and months camping in a cabin built in the woods in a section where game was plenty.”
-E.N. Woodcock
If you want to eliminate deer, you need unrestricted hunting and habitat decimation.
Photo of a former forest in Tioga County, Pennsylvania in the book “Pennsylvania Trees” by Joseph Simon Illick, Dept. of Forestry, June 1914, Harrisburg, PA; Wm. Stanley Ray, State Printer, 1914. In Pennsylvania during the late 1800s and early 1900s thousands of acres of forest were stripped of trees and abandoned, which then burned under destructive fires.
Today, deer are managed, primarily, by a single tool – recreational hunting. If Duane only applied a single tool to his rat problem, this would have been a short series and the graph would look very different. To move the needle on the local rat population, 4 different methods were implemented with 2 of them operating continuously. A no-holds-barred full-frontal approach – which would be equivalent to no regulatory restrictions on deer harvest. But like the rats, they still have that chateau to live in – habitat that conceals and provides.
The Show-Me State
For biologists, data speaks volumes. Experiments have been conducted with unrestricted hunting and deer reduction. An excellent one was conducted in 1971 in Wisconsin at the Sandhill Wildlife Area. For 28 days in a 14.3 square mile area with 86-160 hunters/day (6-11 hunters/mile2), a total of 593 deer were harvested. A population of ZERO was achieved, but towards the end it took 50 hunter-days per deer killed! You don’t need to be from Missouri to see that curve.
Total removal of deer on 14.3 sq. miles took 28 days, Sandhills Wildlife Area, Wisconsin. Data from: Creed, W. A. 2001. The total removal hunt. Pp. 53-66 in J.F. Kubisiak et al. Sandhill whitetails: providing new perspective for deer management. Wisconsin DNR.The Impossible
While it may feel like there are no deer left in the woods on the few days you can get out there, it is not a reality. Total removal of deer cannot happen because the antlerless harvest is limited by an allocation of licenses. And that allocation goes mostly unfilled.
I had a queen-sized bed once where the most comfortable place was smack in the middle. Not too hard, not too soft – like Goldilocks it was just right. Pennsylvania is the “just right” spot for deer in North America. Our winters are not too snowy, and our climate is cool enough that most deer diseases are not an issue (although that is changing). Plus, we get plenty of precipitation (another potential limiting factor).
If you look at the relationship between latitude and buck harvest density (antlered deer harvested per square mile), you can see that not only is Pennsylvania near that peak of that curve, but we’re almost an anomaly like several other states.

The possibility of Duane buying a lottery ticket is higher than that of eliminating deer in any area with our current system of management.
Mischief
While we had some fun hunting down this mischief of rats, this in no way equates to our feelings about deer. The white-tailed deer is native species cherished by millions of people – not to mention the biologists who manage them. We are hopeful that our comparison gave you a new perspective on the management of this wonderful species.
We enjoyed it anyway 😊
-Duane Diefenbach and Jeannine Fleegle
 

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Discussion Starter #134
Jeremy Gillespie of Going 4 Broke Outdoors interviewed me for Episode 5 of his podcast. Jeremy asked a lot of follow-up questions on topics that have been covered in the Deer-Forest Blog.

In fact, Jeremy was so thorough in his research I had to spend some time before the interview refreshing my memory about what we wrote about!

If you have been a long-time reader of The Deer-Forest Blog you will be familiar with the topics covered, although there is always more opportunity in a podcast to dive into the weeds on a given topic. If you’re new to our blog this may be a good way to find out what topics we have covered in the past.

All our podcast and webinar links are available here.
 

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Same Thing, Different Year?
SEPTEMBER 21, 2020

We have shown a lot of movies of deer movements. Our most famous deer died outside his home range at a place he only visited once in the prior two years we followed him. Then we have locations of bucks who completely shift their home range during the rut.
This fall we thought we’d do something a little different. We have accumulated data on 7 bucks that we have monitored for 2 or 3 years.
We will show you the movements of the same deer, on the same day, on the same hour, in two different years. At the same time!
In this post we visit Buck 16159. He was captured in winter 2018 when he was at least 2 years old. We followed him through the 2018 deer season and most of 2019. He was legally harvested during the 2019 rifle season when he was at least 3.5 years old.
We don’t know the answer to these questions but maybe you’d like to ponder them while you watch this deer’s movements for the months of September, October, and November – before, during, and through the tail end of the rut.
Does he start his range expansion during the rut at the same time each year? Does he use the same places to rest? Do his 2018 locations predict where you’ll find him in 2019?
Enjoy the show!


Below are his movements in October.

And finally we have his movements in November

When I watched these movies, at times Buck 16159 appeared to move in the same direction on the same date in different years! Was it my brain trying to identify a pattern in the chaos? Or did that buck really remember when and where he moved the previous year.
To answer that question, I calculated the standard deviation of the distance between each pair of locations and compared that to the standard deviation of the average distance between a random ordering of locations. I repeated this 1,000 times.
I had to conclude my brain was trying to discern a pattern from chaos.
Duane Diefenbach
 

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Discussion Starter #136

Two Bucks, Three Years
SEPTEMBER 28, 2020
This week I have 2 different bucks we tracked for 3 years. That means these bucks were at least 2.5 years old the first year and were last tracked when they were at least 4.5 years old. Our collar batteries don’t last for more than about 3 years so the collars were removed by sending a signal to the collar to detach so it falls off the deer.
We’ll first look at Buck 8111, who we tracked 2014-2016, and he has typical movements for October and November. There is some evidence that activity tends to pick up by late October.

In November movements are pretty similar among all 3 years. Note that by late November movements are really reduced. This is expected as deer respond to hunting activity related to the bear season and upcoming rifle season.

Buck 8111 was harvested in the 2016 rifle season when he was at least 4.5 years old.
The next deer, Buck 8809, was tracked over the same period (2014-2016) and has some interesting movement patterns. As the rut picks up in late October, he shifts his home range to the west. Every year he makes short forays to the west, but in all three years by 30 October he has shifted his home range.

He spends the peak of the rut in this area to the west. Then on practically the same day each of the three years he returns to his home range in the east.

The behavior of Buck 8809 is likely related to the breeding season. The fact that his movements are so consistent from one year to the next provides evidence that the rut occurs at essentially the same time every year. You can read more about the timing of the rut in PA here.
He was harvested in the regular rifle season in 2019 when he was at least 7.5 years old. The harvest record makes no mention of the size of the antlers. He was probably just an average Joe.
Duane Diefenbach
 

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Larry Kauffman says:
SEPTEMBER 29, 2020 AT 10:55 AM
In fact, buck 8809 was not just an “average Joe”. He was a beautiful 20 inch ten point with better than average mass and two additional stickers on the G-2’s. He was harvested by my son, Dave Kauffman, on Wednesday of the first week. Interestingly, he got a somewhat smaller ten the year before that looks like a carbon copy less than a quarter mile away. We have numerous cameras in the study area and get many pictures of your tagged bucks and does.
Also a tagged bear that turns out was part of the study.
 

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Oh what a beautiful morning…
OCTOBER 3, 2020
October is upon us and love is in the air. But I’m not talking about deer. Today is the first day of statewide archery season and hunters are smitten. After 8 long months, they head back into the field.

And because 2020 is the year we will never forget, October has not one but 2 full moons! The harvest moon rose on October 1 at 7:14pm. And in a twist of fate that is pure 2020, a second full moon will present on October 31.
Moon phase is a big deal. But not to deer. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – the full moon has no effect on deer movements. While the moon plays no role, there is that October lull in deer movements. Ha! Just kidding. There is no October “lull” either.

And then there is the weather. Bucks are wimpy when it rains but does don’t care. All deer like to travel in any kind of wind conditions. And no matter how high the mercury rises in the thermometer, it is business as usual.
Hunters care more about the moon, weather, wind, and “lull” than deer! How deer move based on these factors (and many others) cannot be deciphered. So stop analyzing!

A wise man once told me “you can’t kill’em if you’re not there.” So get out there and enjoy it!
-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section
 

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Triplets in July?
AUGUST 3, 2020
While checking some game camera videos, I came across what appeared to be a doe with 3 fawns. Triplets aren’t the norm and with a 20 sec video I was skeptical.

Then just a week later what appeared to be another video of them.

What are the odds? We often hear about sightings of triplets. But how rare are they?
From 1999 – 2006 the PGC checked 6,253 road-killed female deer for embryos. Of all those deer, only 125 (2%) were carrying triplets. So 1 in 50 females may give birth to triplets. I’m not a gambling man but these odds are better than winning the lottery.
Of those 125 triplets, 91 (1.5%) were from adult females (at least 2 years old), 30 (0.4%) were from yearlings, and 4 (<0.1%) were fawns. I was really surprised that last figure was greater than zero!
Triplets occur in every WMU, but the top areas are WMUs 1A and 2B (Pittsburgh area and along the Ohio border), and WMU 5B (Lancaster and York counties area).
Keep in mind that not all triplet embryos become triplet fawns. Some embryos are aborted or resorbed by the female if she cannot obtain sufficient nutrition over winter.
Let’s just assume those are triplets in that video. What are the odds that if they were born June 1st (half of all fawns are born in PA by that date) that all 3 would still be alive by the end of July (~9 weeks later)?
We’ve already discussed this for twins. For them, only about 1 in 4 (or maybe 1 in 3) adult doe still have both babies in tow. Fire up the calculator and we’ll figure it out for those twins plus one.
The percentage of fawns that survive to 9 weeks of age in Pennsylvania is 65% – 75%.
That means the probability that all 3 fawns survive to 9 weeks of age is 0.27 (= 0.65 × 0.65 × 0.65) to 0.42 ( = 0.75 × 0.75 × 0.75).
Consequently, the odds of a doe having triplets this time of year is about 1 in 120 to 1 in 185.
But also keep in mind that just because a doe and fawn are traveling together doesn’t mean they are mother and offspring. We know that by January there is only a 50% chance that a doe and fawn traveling together are a mother-offspring pair.
-Duane Diefenbach
P.S. The odds of seeing a doe with quadruplets? Less than 1 in 3,000 at birth and between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 20,000 by August!
Five years in a row, we've had the same doe drop triplets. Cumberland County, southern edge of WMU 4B.
 

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Synchronous Serendipity
OCTOBER 13, 2020
While we have put the topic of fawn predation to bed on this blog, it’s still shows up. A recent publication in Functional Ecology took a look at reproductive synchronization in white-tailed deer as it relates to predator defense strategies.
Reproductive synchrony is just a fancy way of describing how spread out or clumped births are.

Before we get into how this might affect predation, let’s talk about the weather or more specifically seasonality. It’s widely acknowledged that climate factors (think food and temperature) are the muscle behind whether how much births are synchronized. Indeed, deer exhibit a wider birthing season in the mild and relatively seasonless south than in the north where there are distinct windows of plant growth.

But can predators reinforce or increase birth synchrony too?
There are two strategies used by prey species that may have arisen as defense strategies against predation. Predator swamping and predator avoidance hypotheses.

Predator swamping hypothesis predicts a high synchronization of births. Strength in numbers or, in this case, it’s a they-can’t-get-all-of-us mentality. If all young are born at the same time (birth pulse), it’s like an all you can eat buffet. Predator bellies are too full. They can’t eat all of them so overall young have a better chance of survival.
If predators really influence birth synchronization, then you might expect fawns born on either side of the birth pulse to be at greater risk of predation and experience lower survival.

Predator avoidance hypothesis predicts asynchronous births. If you are a hider like the white-tailed deer fawn, then fewer of you playing hide and seek will make it more difficult for a coyote or a bear to find you than if everyone is playing at the same time.

These seem like plausible theories.
But to which strategy does the white-tailed deer subscribe? And are there data to support it?
This research looked at birth timing and survival data for fawns from 9 study areas including Pennsylvania. If the predator avoidance hypothesis was at play, population level survival probability would increase with asynchrony (more spread out births) and individual fawn survival would not be affected by its birth date relative to peak fawning.
I’ll cut to the chase: Patterns of fawn survival better support the predator swamping hypothesis, not predator avoidance; and predators may present a selective force great enough to shift reproductive synchrony.
That means that along with temperature and food availability, predation may also influence when does give birth.
I’m a fan of the predator swamping hypothesis because it makes complete intuitive sense. I like things that make sense!
However, one of the findings didn’t quite jive. Remember our pyramid of births showing predator swamping hypothesis? When looking across data from 9 different areas, fawns born AFTER, but not before, peak parturition were at increased risk of predation.
If predators really had an influence on synchrony then fawns born on either side of the peak should be at greater risk, not just those on the tail end.

Why did only fawns born AFTER see higher mortality?
Well I seem to remember that young females (first breeding cycle) and those in poor physical condition are bred later than older does and those in good physical condition. That would mean their fawns are born later. Fawns of inexperienced first-time moms and those in poor condition are already at a disadvantage. Even this study noted that heavier fawns had a decreased predation risk for the first 30-days of their life.
The upside of this paper is the large scale and giant sample size. The fates of over 860 fawns were analyzed. This allows us to see patterns that are invisible with smaller studies or on individual study areas.
The downside of this paper is that it ignores other aspects of deer biology. Fawns born on the back side of the peak already have a strike against them and it’s not just their birth date. Their fate may already be sealed, and it has nothing to do with coyotes, bears, or bobcats lobbying for synchronicity. Proximate vs ultimate mortality – an underweight fawn born at a subpar birth site to a yearling doe is eaten by a bear. The bear is blamed but really that fawn was going to die no matter what.
I love the predator swamping concept. But it’s just a happy byproduct of climate seasonality. Serendipity as they say. Like when I realized I could use Nature’s Miracle to clean up cat pee AND get the stink out of my running clothes!
-Jeannine Fleegle
(Graphics by Tess Gingery)
 
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