Wed 28 Feb 2007
With my neighbor’s housecat keeping them company, eight blacktail deer spent Wednesday afternoon grazing and chewing their cud in the fields around my cabin.
Housecats don’t bother blacktails, unlike the coyote that crawled through my fence in January and caused the deer to immediately scatter.
A blacktail doe watches a housecat on a woodpile washing itself.
Before we go any further with this, however, let’s get our terms straight, for the word “deer” is constantly evolving. Our word “deer” comes from the Old English word “deor,” which referred to animals in general, of course, including deer. In Middle English, the language of Chaucer (c.1343-1400), the word was spelled “der,” and The American Heritage Dictionary notes it could refer to all manner of creatures, including “a fish, an ant, or a fox.”
Even in the plays of Shakespeare (1564-1616), who wrote in Modern English (albeit of the Elizabethan variety), the meaning of the word remains uncertain. In King Lear, Act III, scene iv, the Earl of Gloucester’s much-abused son Tom ‘o Bedlam (disguised as Edgar) laments, “Mice and rats, and such small deer,/ Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.”
What does all this mean? “Deer is a commonly cited example of a semantic process called specialization, by which the range of meaning of a word is narrowed or restricted [over time],” the dictionary explains.
Male North American blacktail, white tail, and mule deer are ‘bucks’ while male European red deer are ‘stags.’
Had Shakespeare lived 10 million years earlier, however, Edgar’s lament might have made more sense. As Bruce Morris writes for Bay Nature, “All three major deer species native to North America (blacktail, whitetail, and mule) trace their ancestry back to a primordial, rabbit-size Odocoileus, which had fangs and no antlers and lived around the Arctic Circle some 10 million years ago.”
Based on DNA tests, Morris adds, “researchers theorized that whitetails (Odocoileus viginianus) emerged as a separate species on the East Coast about 3.5 million years ago.
A blacktail buck, characteristically stretching his neck low to the ground, sniffs for a doe in estrus.
“They apparently expanded their range down the East Coast and then westward across the continent until reaching the Pacific Ocean in what is now California some 1.5 million years ago. Moving north up the coast, they evolved into blacktails….
“Columbian blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) are the subspecies of blacktails native to the Bay Area…. According to the California Department of Fish and Game, there are now approximately 560,000 deer in all California, about 320,000 of which are Columbian blacktails….”
A seemingly perplexed fawn watches as the doe runs away from the buck, who licks his nose in to help pick up her scent.
Morris reports that “blacktails have a typical lifespan in the wild of seven to 10 years, but they can survive in suburban habitat for as long as 17 to 20 years if unmolested….
The breeding season is in November, notes Mary Ann Thomas writing about West Coast blacktails from Southern Arkansas University. Gestation lasts about 200 days with typically two fawns born. The fawns’ camouflage spots begin to fade after a month.
“Suburban deer have minuscule home ranges, measuring three or four blocks for females,” Morris notes in Bay Nature, “whereas wild deer inhabit territories that extend for several miles.”
While mountain lions, and occasionally bobcats and coyotes, prey on deer, the biggest threat to West Marin’s blacktails are motor vehicles. In fact, being struck by automobiles is the biggest killer of deer nationwide: more than one million a year.
Connecticut alone reported that between 1995 and 2000, the number of deer struck by cars in that state tripled while the number struck by airplanes nationwide has averaged almost one a week for the past 10 years. Or so says Benner’s Gardens, which makes deer-fencing systems.
A young buck on his hind legs nibbles on my honeysuckle while his mother watches.
Here’s a final bit of deer nomenclature for those still puzzled by the Golden Hind. The Encyclopedia Americana notes, “The male deer is usually called buck, but the male red deer of Europe is a stag, or when mature a hart. The female is called a hind or doe.”