The impact of man's interaction with nature can be clearly observed in the behaviors of Whitetail Deer on Bull Run Mountain. Hunters, in very large numbers, can be found in the woods from the first of October until the middle of January. In an effort to survive the hunting season, the natural behaviors of the whitetail deer change drastically. Luckily for the deer, Mother Nature is on their side. The whitetail is well equipped to outsmart the best hunter, even on his best day. Along with shrewd instinct, these animals are extremely agile. The whitetail's'senses of smell, hearing, and its ability to detect motion are so superior to ours, many a hunter, time and time again, goes home empty-handed. The observations in this essay are not the result of a few hours or even days spent in the woods, but countless outings over the past sixteen years with my grandfather to Bull Run Mountain.
There are three distinct hunting seasons, bow and arrow, black powder, and modern gun. Each occurs at a different time in the year and corresponds to different behaviors of the deer. Some of these behaviors are natural, while others are a result of the predator, man. Except for poachers -- people who who illegally hunt out of season -- hunters interact with deer in the woods from October first until the middle of Janaury. I am describing the whitetail's habits and survival tactics during just these phases of the year.
During the summer, save the occasional hiker, wild deer and others animals have Bull Run Mountain to themselves. The Whitetail live in herds, typically from twenty to fifty in number. They are relaxed and confident. When traveling by car, the deer will practially ignore people. We have taken some very good video of the herds during this time of year from the car. My grandfather and I have even stepped from the car and approached them on foot with the cameras rolling. In the summer the fawns are only a few months old and still wobbly. Once, after creeping through some tall grass to get a better camera angle, I surprised a doe (female deer), who started to make a high-pitched grunt and stomped the ground with her hoof. My suspicions proved right, for five feet away her fawn lay hiding in the grass. When the fawns are too young to run well, they hide, instinctually crouching, with their bony knees folding over, behind their neck. This protects their most vulnerable body part from attack. Unfortunately, these same young, first-year deer are the ones most often taken during hunting season Nondiscriminating hunters kill many young, inexperienced deer before these deer reach sixty pounds.
By August, a bucks antlers, which grow and fall off again every year, are covered in a beatuful velvet. As autumn apporaches, the bucks (male deer) will start to bunch up and restablish dominance and mating rites with the does in the herd. When walking through the woods this time of year, I have seen the bare wood of small trees where bucks have rubbed the bark off to shed the velvet coating on their horns. Once the bucks are in rut, (looking for a mate), we can see the scrapes of bare earth in the woods. The bucks drag their antlers back and forth to create a bare spot. The bigger the deer, usually the bigger the antlers, and hence a bigger scrape. This scrape marks their territory, and lets the female still traveling with the herd know where to find this buck. The female's hormones are active at this time of year, and they will urinate in the scrape to announce their presence to the buck. For the most part, mating season ends (somewhat artificially) when in October the bow hunters arrive.
A bow hunter doesn't stand much chance of killing a deer without a working knowledge of deer behavior. Whitetail bucks may still be checking their scrapes, walking through the woods looking for any late arrivals, to their neck of the woods. With this in mind, bow hunters will seek out signs of buck scrapes and use a tree stand to wait above these scrapes. The need for a tree stand is fruther testimony to the acute senses of the Whitetail, especially the males. A person must be off the ground, above the line of sight, up wind, and remain motionless to avoid detection. You need not look for deer in the direction the wind is blowing. I have never been approached by one walking into the wind, in my direction. I have also alerted many deer to my presence by turning my head too quickly to see them. Before we had tree stands, my gandfather and I always cleared away any leavs from our lookout, to avoid rustling which they can pick up with their sensitive hearing. For the most part, bow hunters are few in number and spend long hours quietly going unnoticed. The whitetails tend to travel in large family groups this time of year. The does and fawns travel together, with the bucks anywhere from 500 yards to half a mile behind.
Trails in the woods are a good indicator of the whitetail's feeding and traveling routine. To find a trail is easy. First I will driven around until I find signs of a crossing at a road. From there, in one direction may be one of the corn fields or apple orchards on Bull Run Mountain. The bedding area can be found in the other direction, usually close to where the deer were born. These animals make their homes in difficult to access places, usually deep within thickets of Mountain Laurel. Whitetail feel comfortable and safe in the immediate vicinity of where they grew up, and will go to great lengths, taking sizable risk to get there. Besides apples and corn, deer love acorns. Unfortunately, acorns are only abundant every three years. Acorns were in short supply this year on Bull Run, so the deer were traveling up to two miles every night to feed, and returning in the morning before daybreak. When I was young, I used to be amazed at the accuracy of my grandfather's predictions when the deer would arrive a ta road crossing or a power line. He would say, "Be alert because they cross here at 8:10 am" or "Look alive, they'll be coming through here in fifteen minutes." He was never off by more than five minutes. This was no trick, but the result of repeated, careful observation and a knowledge of the "lay of the land." By knowing where the corn fields are, with respect to the bedding grounds, we would approximate and follow the route the deer travel. We would then study the landscape, looking for the route that offerd the most cover, usually a thickly vegetated valley. Some of the most frequently traveled routes look like worn foot paths through a tunnel of vines and bushes. Whitetail start developing these feeding patterns on in spring and continue them until forced to break from their habits, and run for their lives.
On November first, the quiet solitude of Bulll Run Moutain is broken by the boom of long steel muskets and the smell of burning black powder. With gunfire in the forest, the whitetails become noticeably more cautious, and weary of people. After being shot at, herds break up into small groups of five or less and no longer walk their feeding trails, but run through the woods at a sprint. When startled, the whitetails earn their name by throwing their tails in the air, and revealing a bright white flag. During black powder season the deer will wait until dark to travel for food, and will return to their bedding areas earlier, before first light. Only when they are alerted to an apporaching hunter, will they stray from their bedding spot. Even then, they will usually circle around, behind the visitor, and back to their daytime hideout. Black powder season is a mixed blessing for the whitetail, for although these hunters tend to be few in number, they still help the deer against what is to come by letting the deer know they are no longer alone in the forest.
Come November 21st, Bull Run Mountain sounds like a battle ground. With so many hunters participating in rifle and shotgun season (rifles and shotguns make killing an animal easy), the woods are overrun with Rambos. By midseason, finding a whitetail on the mountain is difficult. The few stragglers you come across are usually alone, and seem confused to the point that they may even runt towards you when they are startled. This winter I was under the impression that the entire population had been all but wiped out. I guess I hadn't given the Whitetail enough credit. They are intelligent, and know where to go when the woods grow loud with the noise of modern guns and crowded with human beings. There are many large tracks of land that are posted as off-limits to hunting, and it seems the deer, given this chance, migrate to these sanctuaries. When the smoke clears and the predators leave, the whitetail deer gradually return to their cycle of life.
My grandfather and I, along with one of his hunting buddies, have made numerous trips to Bull Run Mountain. We have hunted during bow and arrow and black powder season. We also return to the forest during February to watch the deer once again begin to group into small herds of ten to twenty animals. Although they flee at first sight of our car, we have caught many glmpses of twenty or so tails boncing out of a field and into the woods. Over the month the herds number fifty strong, and the approach of a car doesn't seem to alarm them too much.
We often visit the wood in the later spring, and leave salt licks, corn, and apples on nearby mountains. This is part of an effort which we participate in with other hunters and nature-lovers; the idea is to encourage the deer to move to a less popular hunting area. By spring the acorn supply is long since gone, so the deer welcome 100 pound bags of feed corn, and bushels of old apples bought for a dollar at Giant. Patches of bare dirt can be found where once there was a salt lick. The rain dissolves the block, and the deer will dig for it until not a trace is left. The salt promotes good health and large antlers in the bucks. The first few times we left the food, the deer would not touch it for a week. Now they stand fifty yards away, and wait for us to leave. The feast begins as soon as we are out of sight. If the deer become comfortable on this mountain, they will not have to travel through the 'war zone' next season to feed. The younger, first dee will stand a better change of surviving long enough to reproduce.
It never was easy for any species to survive, and the whitetail did not evolve in ways which would enable them to fight any other animal equipped with and able to shoot a modern gun. They are not yet an endangered species, and they are still survining in this suburban wilderness. One wonders what these human beings would do were some creature to come along with equipment which millions of years have not enabled them to cope with and slaughter them.
Since January, I have been trying to populate my new home, an apartment of my own, with plants. I love the beauty of plants; they are living beings which I find it pleasant to tend. They cannot do without me. Some I have bought; others have been gifts. One plant in particular I now like to refer to as my experiment. It is an Easter cactus, which started out as trimmings from a large plant. My mother mother gave me some of her trimmings from an Easter Cactus she owned, and said my plant would grow and even flourish.
I learned the transplantation method from my mother. It is very simple. You had to break a chain of leaves off the mother plant, and stick it into the new soil just as you wuld put candles into a birthday cake. You would keep doing this until the pot was full and resembled a normal plant. Then you have to give the new plant a good watering, provide plenty of sunlight, and watch it as it grows.
The mother plant remained in my mother's house and my child plant had to adapt to an entirely new environment. My house has different light and temperature patterns than my mother's house. These are factors that affect the growth of a plant. The plant also had to adjust to fresh or different dirt. I have seen mnay plants die because they could not adapt to fresh dirt. When you transplant anything, you can shock the plant. I had also to keep in mind that the plant's water supply was different because my tap water has a different chemical balance than the tap water at my mother's house.
These were the only factors that could cause the plant to fail. The way to handle them is to plant the trimmings slowly and gently and water them a little at a time. It takes time and care and attention. One can also see this kind of failure very early. I saw no sign of this as I took my child plant home. I know from experience that the trimmings were from a robust plant. The mother plant had been healthy for years. It flowered every spring. I was startling out with healthy trimmings and the child plant was at least healthy on day one.
On the second day, the plant seemed to have lost a little color. It was mildly droopy, and the dirt was dry. I gave it a second watering, soaking the plant in a shallow bowl of water for a few hours. This gave the trimmings time to pull the water in and distribute the water along the whole chain of leaves. This watering procedure is much lke putting a plant or tree cutting in a jar of water for a few weeks. After a few days inthe water, small root haris begin to develop. Within a couple of weeks, these root hairs develop into strong roots ready to be planted in a pot of soil. The Easter cactus experiment was my first attempt at performing the planting and root development simultaneously. My mother assured me it would work.
Within a few days the child plant was noticeably greener. The dirt was moist, and the leaves showed no signs of wilting. They appeared saturated with water -- actually fat. It was clear the leaves were stronger because they were no longer resting on the side of the pot; they were suspended a good centimeter above the pot.
For every day since, my child plant has appeared healthy and strong. It has not required any extra watering. I have no doubt that it will flower this spring and will grow as beautifuly as its mother plant has.
Clearly the plant adjusted with no or little trouble from the change in environment. If the new light and temperature patterns affected the plant at all, the effects were short term and the plant adapted quickly. It may have encountered some trouble getting used to the new dirt, but as the roots developed, these problems must have quickly dissipated since the plant began to flourish.
I think the most important factor in the success of my experiment was my adjustment of the amount of water I was giving my plant. The intial watering schedule wasn't working, so I tried soaking the plant. After this, the plant's progress took a turn for the better, and I was able to return to a normal watering schedule. Within days it became clear the transplant was thriving. Perhaps my child plant will one day provide trimings for a child plant of its own. If so, I will sue this same method of transplantation because I have shown it can work for the Easter Cactus.
I should add that there is more than one method of transplantation. The method you choose depends on the plant you are trying to reproduce and grow. Through experience or instructin you can learn which is the best method for your plant in the particular environment you can offer it. However, whatever the method, to succeed you need to take time, care, and to pay attention. The art is to work with nature to help nature succeed.