Chapter 7: 1997
Here we are in 1997 and Biggie is here much of the time now, 23 days for the month of January. Lillie Boy accompanies Biggie 11 of those days. On the 28th I experience, for the first time, a behavior that I rarely see in Biggie. He was very reluctant to accept apple pieces, and although he seemed to want them, he would only sniff them, then gum them a little, and then leave them alone. I could sense a frustration that he really wanted them but he just couldn’t quite take them. I wondered if the soap I had just washed my hands in was having some effect. Some soaps make effective deer repellants. But then this happened a few other times when I hadn’t had any contact with soap recently enough to be suspected as the problem. Very puzzling behavior indeed, but I’m relieved that it is only temporary and brief. Even more puzzling, and yet humorous, is the fact the Biggie wouldn’t allow Lillie Boy to have any apples either. I could almost hear Biggie thinking to himself, “if I’m not having any, neither is anyone else.” Any time Lillie would try to approach for apples, Biggie would run him away from the “feeding zone.” When Biggie was eating, he would allow Lillie to share, which in my observations is quite unusual. Normally the dominant bucks won’t allow any others to invade their “feeding zone,” a zone usually encompassing 2 to 4 yards within whatever the food source may be. “I guess you’re going to have to find something else, Lillie,” I would say. “Biggie doesn’t want any and he thinks you shouldn’t get any either.” I spent a lot of time talking to ALL the deer, whether they could understand me or not I guess I’ll never really know. I frequently sensed that there was at least a hint of understanding and sometimes even a mysterious, almost telepathic communication. I like to think they can though because many times they act like they do. An hour or two later the strange behavior was gone and feeding behaviors returns to normal.
During the first 2 weeks of January Lillie Boy is hanging around almost as frequently as Biggie. Several other bucks of various ages are also appearing often, if only briefly. There is some unspoken communication among the bucks and they all know that no harm will come to them here. On at least two occasions in the last couple of weeks Biggie has “snuck up” behind me and gently brushed his antlers against the backs of my legs. These episodes were a bit scary because I wasn’t sure what Biggie was doing and I was a bit startled by these advances. Biggie’s head would be tilted low to the ground, such that he would peer at me with one eye, just after brushing against my legs. With that one eye and some of the white showing it was a bit intimidating at first. I think it must have been on his third attempt that I finally understood what this ritual was to mean. I was thoroughly surprised and so very deeply honored that I had been invited to “spar” with my good friend Biggie. Words can’t describe the excitement I was feeling. I knew I mustn’t get careless either. My head and my heart were racing one another and I could barely compose myself. I knew that Biggie could sense the state I was in. I slowly reached for Biggie’s lowered antlers and I gently took the outer most tips in my hands. His antler spread was so wide that it was a stretch for my arms to reach them both. Biggie didn’t move much until I gave some signal that I was ready to spar. I know I was thinking to myself that I must be nuts…..this big boy could dispatch me in seconds….but I was so thrilled with the invitation I couldn’t refuse. Besides, Biggie and I had become good enough friends and our trust in each other was solid. I had to take this chance. As Biggie raised his head I slowly pushed, pulled and twisted on his enormous antlers, trying to emulate another buck sparring with him. It was easy to tell that he was letting me control the pace and force of the match……he was essentially letting me win, if you could call it that. I could feel Biggie’s submission to my unworthy sparring moves, but I could also sense the power that was available to Biggie should he wish to use it. Biggie was extremely gentle with me. This first sparring match of twisting and pushing lasted maybe 25 or 30 seconds, largely because I didn’t want to push my luck and I had to stop and relish the moment. I was transported to a totally different place and I didn’t think I could ever come off the high from that first sparring session. When we were through I thanked Biggie for inviting me into the brotherhood. I knew he understood as he turned and walked slowly and confidently over to one of his favorite spots, under the shade of “his” Maple tree. He took the rest of the day off. I must have worn him out with my powerful wrestling moves. And me, I was stuck in a dream state for a very long time as I pondered the whole chain of events and their special meaning. “How do you top that?” And how do you tell others what feelings you just experienced? Impossible” I thought to myself. This has to be among the rarest and most special of events between man and wild animal. We were now communicating on a new level and our relationship had been cemented forever.
All that day and into the afternoon, Biggie, Lillie and another younger buck stayed and lounged in the yard. The others watched Biggie and I interacting, and when I think back to Biggie’s previously misunderstood sparring invitations, there was always at least one other buck around. I can’t help wondering if that was intentional, as though some others from his herd had to be present for this initiation ritual to be valid. The excitement of the day came to an abrupt halt when a stray dog came into the yard and chased all my friends away. The deer could always escape by bounding over fences, but there was always the risk of injury from these hasty retreats. Deer run into traffic or get tangled up in fences or volley ball nets. We have seen far too many of these “injured by chase” deer. There was one incident in which a pair of German Shepards had cornered a doe in our yard. The poor thing was frozen in terror. I came to her rescue by chasing the dogs off, allowing her to escape in the opposite direction.
Another of my favorite interactions with Biggie is when, while feeding him apple pieces at the bottom of the steps from a deck, he would stretch his neck over my shoulder as I petted him. He would then rest his head on my shoulder and I could get in all the petting and hugging he had time for. Of course he had to be through eating before he partook in this activity. His antlers were so wide that he usually scraped the stair railings as he put his head on my shoulder. I had to be careful about ticks, but I rarely saw anything but engorged ticks which posed no immediate threat. These were moments of outward affection that I took advantage of as often as I could.
Feb. 1997, Biggie is here 24 of the 28 days. Lillie Boy and some other buck accompanies him on all but one of those days. Two does visit on one of the days that Biggie doesn’t show up. The most memorable day of the month was the 27th when Biggie dropped both antlers at once, and nearly at my feet. I was able to observe first hand just how traumatic the antler shedding can be, at least for an older buck. Normally one antler at a time drops off and bucks can be seen sporting the remaining antler for up to several days. Biggie went into what appeared to be a state of shock almost immediately. His eyes glazed over, he began shaking and his gums and tongue became very pale.
I felt so bad for Biggie. The only thing I could think of was “apples.” I cut up several apples and the instant Biggie saw those, he came right over, still shaking and shocky. Maybe the sugar in the apples helped, but whatever it was Biggie seemed to come out of the worst of his condition almost immediately. Blood oozes from the holes left where the antlers had been. The younger buck that was still in the yard knew that he now had the upper hand, and while Biggie was still not feeling well, he lowered his ears and snarled at the younger buck. Sorry Biggie, but the little guy would have none of it and he growled back at Biggie. That ended that. A personality change accompanies the antler shedding. The once dominant bucks suddenly fall into subjection to any buck still wearing his battle gear, and the shedee has to undergo a role reversal. I could sense a very real humiliated and emasculated behavior in Biggie when his symbols of “manhood” fell off. It must feel like a cruel trick of nature to be kicked off the throne so suddenly, and my heart saddened for Biggie’s sudden demotion. The younger bucks seemed to delight in their newfound power, and they could be frequently seen “lording it over” their former tormentors. Oddly, Lillie Boy never seemed interested in taking advantage of the situation, even though his younger antlers always came off later than Biggie’s. These pals were bonded in some special way.
Even the next day Biggie was still shaking a bit, and I am amazed at the severity of the trauma. Biggie left one or both antlers almost every year, as did Lillie and several other bucks. I think my yard has always been a shedding ground. We had a chandelier made from several of those sheddings and we installed it in the top of a 2 story, stonewalled stairway entry. What an appropriate and beautiful fixture it made.
March 3, 1997 Lillie Boy appears with one antler. Pretty Boy is now visiting on a regular basis. The March statistics show Biggie here 29 of the 31 days, Lillie 18 days, Pretty Boy 8 days and one or more others a half dozen times. By the end of March all antler shedding is done and the pecking order is back in place. Biggie seems much happier, and I do too. Neither of us enjoyed his role reversal episodes and we both felt better when things were back in their proper order.
April 97 was a very cold a snowy month, one storm dumping about 18 inches and producing temperatures in the single digits. Spring can be rough on the vegetation here too. We typically see very warm temperatures in the early spring, which coaxes vegetation to sprout leaves and flowers, only to have them frozen by an unkind cold front. This type of weather pattern is more the norm and we have to endure a lot of damage and late blooming. It is especially hard on the tender fruit trees. We feel lucky if we get a good peach crop in one out of 5 years, but when we get one they are sinfully delicious. The deer love peaches too, and we always marvel at how quickly they dispatched them. At first we thought they ate the seeds too, and we feared that they might be harmful. On closer observation we saw that they were very adept at spitting out the seeds and that the seeds were clean of any flesh. Biggie visits 26 days in April, Lillie 13 and Pretty Boy only 5. Our first hummer of the season appears on the 20th……happy day! The single most notable event involving the deer happened on the 29th. A group of 5 deer, including at least one Doe come into the yard. A younger buck (the nerve of some bucks) was growling at Biggie, whereupon Biggie stood on his haunches and boxed the young buck out of the yard. I had never seen that before. It became clear that Biggie wasn’t about to be pushed around by some impudent younger buck.
May 1997 was a sparse Biggie month, being here only the first 3 days along with his sidekick Lillie Boy. Typically the bucks disappear in the spring or early summer and don’t show up again until after the fall rutting season, usually late October and into December. I was never able to discover where the bucks’ summer and fall territory was, but I always felt that many of them went up into the foothills about a mile west of us. May is always one of the most unpredictable weather months. On the last day we saw Biggie, it had been 70 degrees during the day, then it dipped down to a chilly 28 degrees at night. This is not exactly favorable tomato growing weather. Biggie’s absence was tempered somewhat by the arrival or appearance of a wonderful and exciting variety of birds. Siskins, Housefinches and Gold Finches were plentiful. Hummingbirds were entertaining us daily. Others included the Stripe Headed Sparrow, Grossbeaks, Crossbills, Ruby Crowned Kinglets, Yellow Rumped Warblers, Rock Wrens, an Orange Oriole, a Lazuli Bunting, a Pine Grosbeak, and a Wilson’s Warbler. I may have missed a few.
June 5, 1997 is slightly over a month since I last saw Biggie and he’s back. He is sporting a large growth of some sort on his right ear, near the base, causing his ear to “flop”. He took apples right away but he seemed a bit timid. As was the usual case, whenever Biggie had been gone for some time, he always needed a little time to warm up to the same level he was when he left. We only see Biggie 9 days during June, but I note that he doesn’t seem to be feeling well and that he seems to have a cold and a lot of nasal drainage. I made a note on June 25 that I didn’t expect to see Biggie again, assuming that his illness would overcome him due to his age. Pretty Boy spends a couple of days hanging out, and a Doe or 2 pass by. Several Golden Eagle sightings somehow bring comfort to us. These magnificent birds always brighten an otherwise empty day.
July through October only gives us a few deer sightings, with Pretty Boy, a few Does and fawns and one or two other small bucks. I always worry so about Biggie until he returns, and when he appears on the 27th of October he looks marvelous! What was I worried about? He may have lost a step on the youth ladder but an Alpha Buck bulked up for the rut is a thing of beauty. Big Crooked Horn has apparently taken over the top rung. A very short battle with Biggie confirmed that. Biggie quickly conceded and bolted from the yard. I felt so bad for my aging friend, and I had to remind myself that this is just a prime example of the cycle of life, though much shorter in deer terms. On October 29, Biggie lets me remove several burrs stuck in his ears. I had to pull quite hard and it must have hurt but he let me complete the job without complaining. I am amazed at how good Biggie looks compared to how bad he looked before he left. Even his bad knee looks better. And this time he didn’t seem to need time to re-acquaint with me.
November 1997 yields absolutely no deer sightings. It isn’t until December 3 that I see Lillie Boy and on the 6th Biggie returns. His knee seems a bit more swollen but he looks good otherwise. I note some battle scars and broken tips of antlers. Biggie and Lillie are both here together the rest of the month with Pretty Boy making visits on 13 days. Biggie’s ear problem is still with him, as is his congestion. Who would have thought that deer would suffer from colds just like humans? On the 28th three “new” bucks enter the yard. Biggie and Pretty Boy team up and run two of them off, while allowing the third to stay. I wonder what criteria they use to determine who stays and who leaves, but there was apparently no doubt in “their” minds. It also remains a mystery what determines which bucks team up, but there almost always seems to be a “pairing”.
Next » Chapter 8: 1998