Black-Tailed Deer (Part 2 of a 2)
By Liz Ciocea
Deer are ruminants with complex digestive systems. Their stomachs are divided into four chambers containing microorganisms that break down the vegetable matter they eat.
Ruminants are prey animals so they are able to eat quickly, swallow and when threatened run for cover. When the threat passes they regurgitate their food and calmly chew the cud.
Forage quality changes seasonally influencing the growth and reproduction of deer and the deer respond to these changes by becoming more selective in their feeding. In winter and early spring black-tails feed on Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, red huckleberry, salal, deer fern, and lichens that grow on tress. Late spring to fall the menu consist of grasses, blackberry, fireweed, pearly everlasting, and many herbaceous plants as well as willows, maple, shrubs salal, and salmon-berry. All these plants are indigenous to Gabriola.
We actually do the deer a disservice by feeding them food, which is not natural to them. Their complex digestive systems are designed for the forage mentioned above and when something else is introduced it can change the dynamics of the rumen (first stomach chamber)- the microorganism's stop working the way they should, and the deer die.
Deer usually travel in small groups of three or four but the enticement of food creates artificial herds where infighting occurs.
If the food is on the other side of a busy road they will cross and the risk of motor vehicle strikes increases. If the food they are getting is not digested properly they can have a full stomach but be getting no minerals or nutrients.
Deer are preyed on by cougars, wolves, bear, and bobcat. On our island they are confronted by hunters, human activities, roving dogs and fences where tiny fawns sometimes become entangled.
When deer are chased or badly frightened increased muscular exertion and over-stimulation of the nervous system can cause a drastic hormonal change, which results in shock, then death.
In 2001 Imelda Cuthbertson of Gabriola Rod Gun and Conservation Club, under the guidance of the Ministry of Environment, headed up a team of islanders who conducted a year and a half long study of island Black-tails. Necropsies, fecal counts, carcasses, bones, and parasites were all collected and studied and an impressive report generated. While it found that island deer are in good shape, no-one knows how many there are, as it is too difficult to do a count.