Chapter 5: New Relationships Develop
From the first time we saw Biggie in October of 1991, we knew that we wanted to get to know him better.
Big Boy’s visits were not nearly as frequent as most of the others in “his” herd. There were at least 18 others and it was his herd because he was obviously the “alpha buck,” the “king,” the “unmistakable leader.” This was his territory and it was clearly understood by his “subjects,” and subtly displayed in the strut of his walk.
It seems that most of the Bucks hung around our neighborhood from about late November thru late June. After that they disappeared and we haven’t been able to determine where they went. I believe that after “rutting season” is when the bucks moved back into the neighborhood. The younger Bucks and the Does with their fawns were around when the older Bucks were gone, then they seemed to shift territories after the rutt. From our perspective, the Bucks seemed to live the “life of Riley.” Eat, sleep, fight, have sex, then eat and sleep until next year. Other than Missy Tags and Tags, we never again saw a Doe and a Buck hang around together. We’ve seen and heard Bucks grunting and sniffing while following Does, but we’ve never seen the act or couples being together in any way.
Big Boy’s occasional visits always caused a work stoppage around here. We couldn’t help but take the time to soak up his royal visits. Many times he parked himself just outside our shop window (the one we first saw him thru) and we couldn’t pull ourselves away.
Oh, he knew we were watching him, and he would sometimes tease us with a short glance of acknowledgement. I tried many times to coax Biggie to accept my offerings of apples. He just looked at the offerings and then at me with a look that said something to the effect that “why would I stoop to pick up YOUR puny offering when I can get all I want on my own?” Boy did those looks make me feel cheap. And if some other deer came over to take them when he wouldn’t, he looked at them with disdain but he never interfered.
One of the first close encounters I had with Biggie was when he had been acting like a “General.”
running at top speed from point to point through our yard and into two others, he was high-speed-chasing fawns, does and other bucks (namely tags) who had been lazing in the yard for hours one morning. It was as though he were saying something like “you lazy good-for-nothings, get moving.” Tags went into hiding behind some trees, and all the others were leaping over fences trying to elude Biggie’s charges. I was getting concerned that one of them might get hurt, so I placed myself close to the return path on one of his charges, fully ready to leap out of the way. To my surprise, as Biggie approached at top speed, he slammed on the brakes and came to a complete stop about 20 feet from my “ready to jump” body. I had put my hand out while in a moderate voice saying ” hey, you’re going to hurt someone, don’t you think that’s enough for now?” Like he could understand that? Admittedly that may have been a dumb thing to do, but it worked. He stopped the chasing and went about his business as if everything was fine. I could hear the others breathe a sigh of relief.
I must have tried offering apples to Biggie for 2 years. Then one day he did his usual snub routine, and then to my utter shock and surprise he actually walked over to the piece of apple I had rolled in his direction, sniffed it, looked up at me then bent back down and took it. Guilt feelings immediately rushed through my body, but at the same time I felt honored that he chose to accept my offering, because this was the first real sign that he was accepting me.
It probably took a month or two, but as I was able to draw Biggie closer and closer for his offerings I was finally able to get him to accept an offering from an extended hand. What a thrill that was, and at one point it seemed like we developed a new level of trust and acceptance. Slow movements were, and always would be necessary behavior around Biggie, but I gradually experimented with touching Biggie, first lightly on the nose or chin, almost as an accidental sort of thing with the feeding process. To my surprise, Biggie responded in a much different way than I had expected. The light “accidental” touches became an intentional chin scratch to which Biggie reacted by pushing his chin into the scratch as if to say, “that feels good, only scratch harder.” Then those events quickly developed into a tilting of the head such that he could lick my arm while I scratched. This was just too exciting……..this wild creature was actually being affectionate and responding with a “mutual grooming” behavior that we had often observed among the Bucks. The feelings I had were beyond words. With my heart pounding I sensed that Biggie could tell what I was feeling, and at the same instant I knew that his feelings were very similar to mine. We were in tune and we bonded. I was mush the rest of the day.
Mutual grooming was not particularly unusual to observe among the Bucks, but we only saw it once between a Buck and a Doe, and that was between Mr. & Mrs. Tags. I doubt that unless domesticated, that behavior between man and deer is often experienced.
In 1996 another younger and smaller Buck had begun hanging around with Biggie much of the time. This Buck sported asymmetrical antlers that were much smaller in size and spread than Biggie’s. But there were similarities in facial features that convinced us that this Buck was likely an offspring of Biggie’s. It is entirely possible that this younger buck could be “Cry Baby.” Biggie and Lillie had wide faces and noses, while all the other bucks that have been in this neighborhood had longer, narrower faces. We named this buck “Lillie Boy” because of his smaller size and more timid nature. Lillie Boy was spooked by the slightest of events and noises, things that Biggie wouldn’t even give a first look to. We kind of assumed that Biggie was not just Lillie’s father, but seemed to be his protector as well. Their relationship seemed just as close, perhaps even closer than Tags and Missy Tags. Biggie would tolerate Lillie’s close presence almost anytime, but when others got too close they would soon learn of Biggie’s displeasure. Biggie’s intolerance of others was sometimes met with slow but purposeful advances, which were clearly understood as a “get away from here” message. Other time Biggie would snort or hiss with a dropping of the ears, a raising of the fur and maybe an actual chasing from the yard. Fur raising was done at varying levels too. Sometimes just the fur on the back would raise. Other times the entire coat of fur would raise and fluff out, giving the whole body a much larger appearance. Biggie didn’t use the “whole body fluff” very often. His antlers were an amply intimidating sight.
During apple time, Biggie would not always be tolerant of Lillie’s advances when Lillie would try to see what he might be missing out on. Though timid, Lillie was always very curious and would skittishly approach any single person in the yard, just to see what they were doing. Biggie would sometimes ward off Lillie’s advances by “pawing” at him, and if that didn’t suffice he would lower his head and “antler” him out of the “zone.” Sometimes a “growl” was used along with a raising of the fur and a lowering of the ears, especially when antlers has been shed or were not yet out of velvet. Other times Biggie would just rare up and jump on Lillie. In spite of all Biggie’s efforts, his behavior gradually shifted more towards allowing Lillie to share his meals and to be in the feeding zone. That tolerance alone was a rare thing. Most of the dominant Bucks we have ever seen would always partake of their meals and the choicest parts, alone and within a clearly defined “feeding zone.” Get too close and get run off, simple as that. If there is anything left, help yourselves but only after the dominant buck has exited the feeding zone. The feeding zone was variable depending on the food and the buck, but it could be anything from 4-5 feet to 10-12 feet. When Lillie was allowed to share meals, I was always careful to make sure that Biggie got the larger share. I am certain that Biggie was aware of this portioning. Lillie was too and I could almost hear him complaining, “hey, no fair.”
I couldn’t touch Lillie for a long time, and when I did, it was just brief and not at all response inducing, other than to “pull back” in a “don’t touch me” sort of way. Biggie almost seemed amused at my attempts to touch Lillie, and I always wondered whether Biggie had somehow communicated with Lillie that touching was okay between Biggie and I, but not okay with others. I’m speculating that more likely it’s just a personality type thing, but deer communicate in so many different and often silent ways.
I learned that making or avoiding eye contact was an important communicating system. I still don’t fully understand how it works, but it seems that there is an “eye contact zone” whose framework seems to be close range and has variable meanings. In the case of humans and deer, not making eye contact while in close proximity seems to have a calming effect on the deer. That’s why on numerous occasions I have nearly stepped on deer that I didn’t see. The minute eye contact is made however, the close by deer will become wary and will rise to their feet, ready to take flight.
Ignore them, and they remain calm. Deer have excellent senses, but sometimes they will be in another zone and I always approached these situations by talking softly and moving slowly to avoid sending them into flight. Although it’s part of the nature of things, I always hated to see deer get frightened and take flight. When a deer bolts its can be disastrous, especially in residential areas where cars are one of their worst enemies. Several times over the years we have seen car mangled deer with shattered legs or huge wounds limp into the yard and have to be put down. The worst we ever saw was a Doe who had been hit in the hind leg which had a huge gash in it. She had been thrown into birthing her now dead fawn, and she got horribly bound up. Very sad to see such things and be so totally helpless.
Dogs are the only other real enemies that the “city” deer have. Years ago our city passed an ordinance requiring all dogs to be fenced or leashed and not running loose. A few dog owners are something less than responsible and when a dog gets away it will frequently find and chase the deer. Once they get a taste for it, it seems to become more important. Deer being chased by dogs are likely candidates for injury by darting into traffic or getting tangled in fences and other obstacles. Oddly enough, deer living in this more “protected environment” are losing ground in their numbers, due to loose dogs and cars.
On two occasions, over a 3-year span, Biggie showed up with all or parts of volley ball netting tangled up in his antlers. He was obviously not happy with either situation, but he came to me and allowed me to untangle and remove them. I was honored that he would allow me to help, and it made me feel so special. Lillie showed up one year with someone’s Christmas lights all tangled up in his antlers, with about twenty feet more trailing along behind. This would be trickier because Lillie was still so timid by himself. I was able to coax Lillie to get close enough by feeding Biggie and drawing Lillie in for an apple or 2. Lillie seemed a little less afraid of my handling his antlers this time, but he still was not allowing me the freedom I needed to get the job done easily. I think he knew I was trying to help. It took several minutes of feeding Biggie and Lillie, and in between apple slices trying to untangle a little more mess. I had to move slow enough to avoid scaring Lillie away, yet fast enough between bites to get a few more seconds of untangling done. After several minutes of this excitement I finally got the mess off Lillie’s head. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief. Somebody out there probably wonders who the “tree light vandals” were. I won’t tell on ya, Lillie.
Next » Chapter 6: 1996