Oh, Deer

More white-tailed deer are choosing suburbia

September 14, 2012

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a white-tailed deer! With a sprint that tops 30 miles per hour, a capacity to leap as high as 10 feet, and a knack for bounding some 30 feet from launch to landing, Odocoileus virginianus boasts prodigious athletic superpowers.

The state animal of Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin is no less impressive when it comes to cash accounting. Americans spend $7 billion annually—on equipment, travel, taxes, and licenses—to hunt and photograph the country’s most common large mammal. Meanwhile, farmers bemoan losses of more than $100 million each year in crop damage. Naturalists wail, too: In the mid-1990s, one scientist credited the ruminant herbivores with $367 million in damages annually through their destruction of emerging seedlings in Pennsylvania forests. For home gardeners—simultaneously enchanted by a frolicking fawn and driven to agony by the voracious appetites of a creature that consumes 4 to 6 pounds of plant material daily—the benefits and costs can’t be calculated.


Unregulated hunting throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century nearly extirpated deer from much of the United States. By 1930, just 300,000 remained. Today their number hovers at 15 million, a credit to hunting regulations that promoted the rebound, aided by the growth of the suburbs. Deer thrive in such transition spaces as subdivisions and office parks that afford both cover and delicious plant diversity, absent the natural predators—wolves, alligators, large cats, and the like—that once thinned sickly animals from the herd.

While deer nibble everything from mushrooms and lichens to tree bark and twigs, cacti, nuts, foliage, and an array of agricultural crops, their tastes shift seasonally to favor easily digestible new growth. Fawns learn browsing patterns from their mothers much as young brides once inherited prized family recipes.


Deer pressure is highest in early fall as bucks prepare for a demanding mating season. Not only do they nosh on high-calorie nuts and use their racks to strip succulent bark from saplings, but their antler polishing can also girdle a sturdy tree and shred anything smaller. In early to midspring, both does and bucks increase their calorie consumption to replenish the fat reserves they burned during the lean months of winter.

Fences, foul-smelling repellents, patrol dogs on duty day and night, scare tactics (pyrotechnics and strobe lights, among others), and hunters minimize agricultural losses. Homeowners can protect their landscapes with creative fencing, repellents, and motion-activated sprinklers, as well as political action to promote effective regional management.

To keep deer out, a fence must be at least 8 feet tall. If the fence creates a solid visual barrier, 6 feet is sufficient; deer won’t leap if they can’t see where they’ll land. The most effective repellents mimic the scent of putrescent egg, but take care: Few weather well, and new growth isn’t protected until it’s been coated. When replacing damaged specimens, get a list of native plants deer rarely damage from your local Cooperative Extension or garden club; not all herds share the same tastes. Lastly, since herds roam freely among farm fields and suburbs—on a home range of some 500 acres, more during the fall breeding season—pay attention to your state’s management plan and share your views on hunting regulations with elected officials in your town and those nearby. The pressure of growing herds pushes deer ever deeper into the suburbs, promotes bolder browsing, and transforms plants deer might normally avoid into tempting treats.

Photo: Geir Olaf Gjerden\Almay