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Living with suburban deer

Photo: Alabama Department of ConservationFrom the Alabama Dept. of Conservation & Natural Resources

-- One benefit of living outside of the confined spaces of an urban setting is the opportunity to encounter the many wildlife species that live in suburban landscapes. While animals such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums and many bird species are common even in the most highly developed urban areas, larger animals, such as white-tailed deer, often are much less common.

Conversely, deer numbers can be quite high in many suburban settings. As a result, homeowners and drivers in these areas must learn how to handle sharing their yards and roads with these creatures.

The white-tailed deer is one of the most adaptable large mammals in the United States. Deer are as equally at home in the most rural settings as they are in highly developed areas along the fringes of the most densely populated urban areas. In the majority of rural settings, most deer-human interactions are positive.

The ratio of positive to negative deer-human interactions quickly declines as the amount of development and the human population increase. The initial delight suburban residents have at the first sighting of deer feeding in the yard or standing along the road can quickly turn to contempt as deer numbers grow and the associated problems become more apparent and frequent. Developing an understanding of how to live with deer and knowing how to minimize potential problems is the most logical way of handling these incidents.

Perhaps the most frustrating and common problem associated with suburban deer is their love of a variety of plants commonly used in landscaping.

Thousands of dollars in landscaping can be wiped out overnight by just a couple of feeding deer. Deer are selective feeders and tend to try nearly every species of plant available at some point. For months or years there may only be a few leaves or stems bitten off certain plant species, but then for some often unknown reason, those same plants become targets for deer. Time of year, stage of development, nutritional content, and a deer’s tastes all dictate when and what types of plants it eats.

Numerous deer repellants are available, but homeowners need to be skeptical of many products’ claims. Some can be very effective for a short time, but deer quickly become accustomed to most of these products. Home remedies such as bags of human hair, bath soap, or containers of human urine rarely work on suburban or urban deer accustomed to living among humans. The new smell or taste of the repellant becomes only a nuisance and deer soon resume feeding in the treated areas or on the treated plants.

While it is unlikely any species of plant is completely deer-proof, there are many deer-resistant ornamental plant species available. Most deer-resistant plants have one or more of the following characteristics: strongly aromatic, hairy/bristly leaves, bitter taste, or milky/sticky sap. Outside of erecting a deer-proof fence, the use of these plants appears to be the best way to deal with nibbling deer. Deer-resistant plants also help hide less resistant plant species from nibbling deer.

Deer collisions with vehicles are the biggest threat to human life and property damage associated with urban and suburban deer. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there are approximately 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year in the United States resulting in damage losses of around $1.5 billion annually. In 2004, deer-vehicle collisions were directly linked to 150 human deaths in the U.S. The likelihood of deer-vehicle collisions is increased in areas with many cars and many deer – which describes many urban and suburban settings.

Drivers should be extra cautious in areas where deer are regularly encountered. Deer-vehicle collisions are more frequent along certain stretches of road. Many of these crossings are marked with deer crossing signs. Deer are much more active at dawn, dusk and night. Deer also are more active in the fall and winter due to a lack of food and increased activity associated with the breeding season. Drivers should take extra precautions when driving in these areas and during these times.

Slowing down and using high beam headlights when possible can increase the amount of time drivers have to react to deer in the road. Drivers should brake firmly and stay on the road if a deer is encountered. Swerving can cause a driver to lose control of the car, leave the road, or crash into another vehicle, which often causes more damage and serious injuries than hitting the deer.

Lyme disease is a potential problem often mistakenly associated with deer. This disease actually is a tick-borne disease caused by the spirochete bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. If left untreated, Lyme disease can lead to neurologic impairment, cardiac problems or arthritis.

The deer tick, Ixodes scapularis, is the most important tick vector for the disease in the Southeast. These ticks feed on a variety of host animals, including small and large mammals, lizards, and birds, throughout the three stages of their life cycle. The likelihood of exposure to the Lyme disease-causing bacteria is greatest in areas with an increased number of human-deer tick interactions, such as wooded areas in urban and suburban settings.

Eliminating the disease vector, the deer tick, is not a practical approach to controlling the disease, but other preventative measures can lessen the chances of exposure. The best tactic is to avoid tick-infested areas whenever possible. If going into an area where exposure to deer ticks is likely, it is wise to use insect or tick repellants and to tuck pants legs into socks before entering. Search for and remove ticks frequently while in these areas and perform a thorough search for ticks afterward.

White-tailed deer densities continue to grow in much of Alabama, in particular many suburban and urban areas. The potential problems associated with the increased number of deer and human interactions in these areas range from the mere aggravation of damaged landscaping to potentially life-threatening encounters along the roads and highways.

Controlling deer numbers, primarily through hunting, is the most practical approach to lessening negative deer-human interactions, but understanding ways to deal with or avoid the inevitable problems associated with deer makes living with them much more tolerable.

To learn more about ADCNR visit www.outdooralabama.com.

-- By ChrisCook, Certified Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries
-- Photo Credit: Alabama Department of Conservation

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