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Deer: Adaptable survivors

June 12, 2010
By Garry Brandenburg

WHITETAIL DEER (Odocoileus virginianus) are survivors. Not so in the late 1880s, one hundred thirty years ago. The landscape of Iowa was changing rapidly with the onset of homesteaders. Land uses for farming altered the habitat in a major way. Deer can adapt to lots of habitats, however in the 1880s, there were other factors impacting deer, namely uncontrolled exploitation for food and hides. Deer were rare and to even see one was a milestone moment. In 1898, the deer season in Iowa was closed.

Deer numbers in Iowa in 1936 were estimated to be between 500 and 700. This is for the entire state! By the 1950s, deer were reported in every county and the population estimate was 10,000 animals. In a few locations, they were beginning to cause problems for landowners concerned about damaged crops.

The first modern day deer season for Iowa opened in 1953. Approximately 4,000 deer were killed. Iowa now has an estimated pre-season deer population of over 300,000. After last years seasons ended, reported deer kill numbers tallied about 140,000. Long term professional wildlife management strategies are paying off to bring overall deer numbers down. And deer being the adaptable animal they are, they are not evenly distributed. That is why in some places, deer numbers are higher than the habitat can support.

Article Photos

A very recently born fawn stands and looks curiously as I captured its image with a 300mm lens. When I stepped closer, it instinctively began to lie down. Once down, the fawn held its head low to the ground in order to “hide” from me. The only trouble was that the fawn had chosen an open spot along the shoulder of West Main Street Road where it was completely visible. When the photo excursion was over, I picked up the fawn and walked to the forest edge to release it. Its bleating cries were most certainly heard by its mother. I never did see the doe deer.

Forested areas are typically thought of as the places where deer live. They can survive along grassed waterways, along fencerows, in marshes, crop fields or our backyards in urban centers. If there is food, they will find it and use it. Deer health in Iowa, even in winter, is usually not an issue. If they can make it in northern Manitoba, Canada, where winter temperatures can commonly approach -60 F, then Iowa cold is easily dealt with. The hollow hairs of deer's winter coat equal the insulating qualities of the most sophisticated high-tech fibers mankind has ever invented.

The fawn deer of today's story made several bleating calls when I picked it up. The sound is similar to the 'baaaaa' sound from a sheep, only a bit higher in pitch. That call will get the attention of the doe, or any other deer within earshot of the fawn. A predator like a coyote could be faced with slashing front hooves of several adult doe deer as they attempt to protect the fawn. Scientists have noted about 15 distinct vocalizations made by deer as they communicate with each other. Some of the recordings have been obtained by neck collared deer. When the recorder is recovered and replayed to human ears, it becomes apparent that deer are not silent.

Deer eyes have a special capability to focus on nearby objects and things at a distance. While eating, they can keep a wary lookout for predators. Deer eyes are large, widely spaced on the skull which enables the critter to have a field of view almost completely around itself. This wide-angle vision capability is a great tool in its survival bag of tricks. Deer have some color vision too including portions of the light spectrum in the ultra-violet range.

Then there is the nose. Deer noses are a primary information gathering part of the anatomy. Air pulled through the long nose will pass by many thousands of nerve cell receptors that route odors to the brain. A deer can sniff a scent trail from another deer and follow it until they meet. Or they can cross a human scent path and turn to run away. A deer's ability to detect odors is at least 10 if not 100s of times more sensitive than a human nose. Deer can also analyze up to seven different odors simultaneously.

Hearing is another sensory attribute that is near the top of a deer's survival package. One can fool a deer's eyes if you do not move; you can fool their ears if you do not make a sound. However, the nose remains the one item that is hardest for mankind to overcome. Try as we might, we can come close but never achieve odorless conditions.

Add them all together and one has the whitetail deer. They can run fast, hide in minimal cover, see well, hear well and smell with excellent results. This big game animal of North America is an adaptable survivor. It lives on.


Iowa PHEASANTS are on a population downturn, primarily due to a loss of grassland habitats from expired cropland reserve program acres, intense cold and deep snowy winter weather and cold wet springs of past years. Can the pheasant rebound? Yes. Planning now and installing food plots next to good winter cover will help. But the trends in Iowa for habitat are closely aligned with USDA agricultural programs. It is a fact of life.

During the 2009 pheasant season, Iowa hunters took an estimated 271,000 roosters. This is the lowest on record and is at least 100,000 fewer birds taken than the 2008 season. Last year in Iowa, hunters from 43 different states came to Iowa to try to hunt pheasants. Pheasant reproduction is closely tied to warm and dry spring weather during the nesting season. Then in August, roadside counts will be made by biologists and wildlife managers to obtain data to help establish new trend lines for all areas of the state. Stay tuned.


The DNR and MCCB staff will band Canada geese at Green Castle during the week of June 21. If you'd like to help, call the MCCB at 752-5490 by June 14 to get your name on a list to be contacted. The round-up of geese takes place on fairly short notice when the DNR staff notifies the MCCB that they will be in the area.

The June hunter safety class will be held on June 17 and 19. This free 10 hour class is open to anyone 12 years of age or older. Pre-registration is required. To register go to to set up a student account and register for the class. The last class in Marshall County for this year will be held in August.

Interested in conserving water and using a free water source for your garden? The MCCB is offering a Rain Barrel Workshop on July 10 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Green Castle Recreation Area. Come and construct your own rain barrel to take home. Instruction and materials will be provided for $25. Pre-register and pay by July 1 by calling 752-5490.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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