Foot-Free Winter Thaw

It wasn’t expected. In fact, I was surprised … before I tossed it around and thought it out.

Oh yeah. That’s right. I forgot. Animals can’t reason. Hmmmm, really? Well, believe what you will. Myself, I have other views, give animals more credit than that, am convinced they are capable of thinking, understanding and forming judgments based on logic and buttressed by keen instincts.

When you think of it, that midday deer sighting — five of them in the bright 1 p.m. sunlight Tuesday, walking right down my neighbor’s driveway and across Colrain Road, forcing me to stop my truck and let them pass — was perfectly predictable. They, like me, had been immobilized by the frigid cold and were, on the first thaw in two or more weeks, off on a joyous caper the minute snow softened. Frankly, that was my precise reason for delaying a daily walk with the dogs. I was consciously awaiting snowmelt to start dripping off my slate roof before my departure.

Still, the sighting surprised me. Five deer strolling through my residential neighborhood in broad noontime daylight has never been a common sight. It occurred on my way home, not 100 yards from the southern tip of my property. I knew the deer, have been familiar with them since summer: two mature does, one with two fawns, the other with one. I knew they liked to travel together. From what I witnessed Tuesday, I’d say it’s a family unit composed of a grandma, her 2016 daughter and their fawns. I’d guess the older, larger doe had two fawns, her daughter one, but it could well have gone the other way around. Yes, perhaps the younger adult dropped two fawns to her mom’s one. Does it really matter? The fact is that there are two mature does and three fawns that have been enjoying each other’s company since June.

Why this extended-family hypothesis? Well, because of the way the larger of the two does seemed to be in charge during the Tuesday sighting. She crossed the road first, the other four close behind. Then, once she had safely crossed the road, she displayed her dominance by taking a couple of bounds 25 yards ahead, stopping in an angled forward pose looking back and waiting for her four companions to pass before following them into a small hayfield and toward a wooded brook lane. She was obviously the leader.

It didn’t take long to get additional information about the deer. By chance, as I was putting my dogs in their backyard kennel, I heard something, looked back and saw my neighbors, husband and wife, standing in the yard by a stone hitching post along the gabled south end of the barn. They wanted to chat.

I closed Lily and Chub-Chub into the kennel and walked toward my neighbors, him with a pair of cross-country skis in hand. They were headed up the closes Brook Road

“Did you see those five deer that just walked down Bernie’s driveway,” I asked.

“No, we missed ‘em.”

“Well, I didn’t really investigate closely but I had to stop and let them cross the road. I think they walked right down the driveway. Take a look. There’ll be tracks.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the ski-toting man. “The deer have been up on the hill behind the paddock for a couple of weeks. Alan logged off a piece and they’ve been feeding on the browse. There’s tracks everywhere back there. Plus, Bernie dumped a pile of pumpkins under his apple tree and they’ve been feeding on them regularly, too.”

“Makes sense,” I responded. “Plus, they get a lot of sun over on that sidehill. It’s been brutally cold.”

Deer are interesting critters. Smart, too. Never cease to amaze me. After two or three weeks feeding on browse and hanging tight where there was sun and feed, they were eliminating wide travels on slick, crunchy snow that places them in peril. Now, with a melt on, they were moving to familiar haunts through snow softened by the afternoon sun. They looked healthy, alert and agile, their coats dark and full. I was happy to see that all five of those deer that have been skirting me all summer and fall had survived hunting season. Not only that, but the small doe I was told got killed by a car on Plain Road in the greasy snowstorm falling on the final day of shotgun season eve had not been one of the fawns, as I had suspected. Given where it was hit, it was definitely one of the eight does a Plain Road couple had told me they often saw feeding in front of the home during deer season. Just not one of the fawns. I’m cool with that.

As for the trophy buck I’ve been watching, well, who knows his whereabouts these days? He may have rejoined those two bucks he traveled with all summer, if they survived deer season. Then again, maybe he’s off on his own, or traveling with other neighborhood bucks that have dropped their antlers on the forest floor. Come to think of it, he may have made his way to the well-known Leyden Glen deer yard on a steep southern exposure that’s been attracting dozens of migrant winter deer for decades. According to a deer biologist I queried, some of those deer likely travel 40 or 50 miles to that yard, then disburse to their home haunts when spring breaks.

If you want to see evidence, take a ride in March to the intersection of Greenfield’s Eunice Williams Drive and Leyden Road once the snow starts meting and see the spectacle of fields full of feeding deer for yourself. My sons used to count 60 or 70 in one field right off the road, calling me all excited on their cell phones encouraging me to hop in the car to take a look. They weren’t exaggerating. I’ve seen those deer with my own eyes, an impressive sight indeed, one you’d have a hard time believing without witnessing it.

Yes indeed, the deer in my Greenfield Meadows neighborhood seem to be multiplying rapidly these days. I shouldn’t be surprised. But apparently not everyone is experiencing similar phenomena. Just a week or two back an old friend called to chat from t’other side of Eaglebrook Hill, where many a big buck has been killed by hunters in my lifetime.

“Have they been killing any big bucks in your neck of the woods this year?” I asked.

“Nahhh,” he scoffed. “To be honest with you, there aren’t as many deer up here as there used to be, and hunting is dying. There used to be a lot of hunters up here years ago, their vehicles parked along the roads. Now it’s hard to find a hunter. Soon there will be none. The times they are a changin’.”

The man  knows. He’s a straight shooter.

By the way, he’s not saying the overall deer herd is down on Deerfield Mountain, just up on his plateau overlooking the Connecticut River. The deer aren’t far away, though. A bottomland farmer a mile or two up the road has told my friend his croplands are overrun with bold, nuisance deer eating his crops.

As fewer and fewer deer are killed by hunting, the state’s deer-management tool, this problem will spill over into residential gardens and home landscaping, like it already has in many suburban southern New England neighborhoods.


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