The evolution of the urban deer

Discussions about urban deer usually revolve around whether we want them in our gardens.

By Barbara Julian

Discussions about urban deer usually revolve around whether we want them in our gardens, some seeing them as a gorgeous addition and others as a threat to plants. We seldom ask, where do they think they are, when in our gardens?

Deer map their world and recognize territory through smell, not vision. We see them in the road and wonder why they don’t get out of the way, but cars don’t emit the pheromones that carry information for deer (the tiny molecules that carry odors from one object or body to another).

Deer must wonder why we don’t warn them we’re coming. Vision is of limited help to them; their eyes see best in the half-light of dawn and dusk, and poorly in bright light or darkness. They respond to sound and body language however, and are often visibly uncertain whether to trust the tall two-legged ones -— us — to walk on by, or whether this will be one of the times they will start shouting and waving their arms.

Biologist Roger Caras called pheromones the “fundamental source of communication” among living things, antecedent to the evolution of voices, ears and eyes. These molecules float in air and water and cling to everything, yet we are unaware of the trails of scent they create that criss-cross our gardens, parks and streets. For deer, they map the landscape. We and deer live in different worlds.

Deer use pheromones to communicate among themselves, revealing whose territory is here and whose rutting dip over there. They emit pheromones from glands in their hind legs, on their foreheads, under their eyes, between their toes and near their tails. When you see a buck rubbing his head and antlers against a tree he is not scratching an itch, he is sending a message to his fellows. When a doe is looking for a safe place to leave her fawns during an evening of browsing, she must often be confused by the acres of pavement, tall buildings and glass windows that don’t emit usable signals or disclose the paths her relatives have made.

Even the plants which deer eat send and receive chemicals and scents that brim with meaning. In his recent book What a Plant Knows, David Chamovitz tells us that plants too detect volatile compounds in air and produce a physiological response: they may close or open up, wilt or emit a toxic substance in turn, depending on whether they are dealing with a predator, a pollinator or a symbiont. 

The deer who visit our gardens are experiencing a vigorous exchange of information with the plants that grow there, which we’re not even privy to. Deer consume plant matter but they also stimulate growth by pruning, and by fertilizing soil with manure. If they did to their native forests what some people fear they might do to the urban landscape -— strip it bare — there would have been no coastal temperate forest at all. In fact plants and animals co-evolve in complex ecosystems, and we must learn to preserve that as much as possible within cities if we want them to remain a living rather than an artificial environment.

Plants, insects, birds and animals co-exist for mutual benefit, and we urban dwellers can get more pleasure from fitting in with than from fighting our co-residents. Peaceful co-existence in any relationship, whether human-to-human or human-to-animal, always comes down to gauging the other participant’s point of view — or of smell.

 

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Jerry Dyck plans to purchase a new RV to drive across Canada in, once it’s safe to travel again. (Courtesy BCLC)
Victoria man plans post-pandemic cross-Canada RV trip after $2M lottery win

Retired electrician bought the winning ticket in Duncan

(Black Press Media file photo)
Saanich police, GVERT arrest suspect in West Shore investigation

Man arrested near Rutledge Park early Saturday morning

Saanich council approves of a five-story multi-family development at 300 Gorge Road West and 2900 Tillicum Road. (Rendering via Alan Lowe Architect Inc.)
Saanich approves five-storey, mixed-use development for Tillicum area

Plans include 53 residential units, three commercial units at Tillicum Road, Gorge Road West

The fine for changing lanes or merging over a solid line costs drivers $109 and two penalty points in B.C. (Screenshot via Google Street View)
B.C. drivers caught crossing, merging over solid white lines face hefty fine

Ticket for $109, two penalty points issued under Motor Vehicle Act for crossing solid lines

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

Local musician and artist Daisy Melville created a watercolour portrait of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from the recent American inauguration, and with help from her mom, is now selling t-shirts and more with funds going to the Comox Valley Food Bank. Image submitted
Island artist turns Sanders inauguration meme into art for good

All proceeds from the sale of shirts, sweaters and more will go to the Comox Valley Food Bank

A Kelowna couple welcomed their Nooner baby in December. (Flytographer)
Kelowna couple welcomes baby girl from Hotel Zed Nooner campaign

Nicole and Alex will now have 18 years of free stays at the hotel

Kyrell Sopotyk was drafted by the Kamloops Blazers in 2016 and played two seasons with the Western Hockey League club. (Photograph By ALLEN DOUGLAS/KTW)
Kamloops Blazer paralyzed in snowboarding accident sparks fundraiser for family

As of Jan. 24, more than $68,000 had been raised to help Kamloops Blazers’ forward Kyrell Sopotyk

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

(Pixhere photo)
B.C. dentists argue for COVID-19 vaccine priority after ‘disappointing’ exclusion from plan

Vaccines are essential for dentists as patients cannot wear masks during treatment, argues BCDA

A registered nurse prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Halifax on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. Yukon’s Minister of Community Services, John Streiker, says he’s outraged that a couple from outside the territory travelled to a remote community this week and received doses of COVID-19 vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan-POOL
Couple charged after travelling to Yukon to get COVID-19 vaccine

The maximum fine under the emergency measures act is $500, and up to six months in jail

Metis Nation of B.C. President Clara Morin Dal Col poses in this undated handout photo. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. The Metis Nation of B.C. says Dal Col has been suspended from her role as president. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Metis Nation of B.C. *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Metis Nation of B.C. suspends president, citing ‘breach’ of policies, procedures

Vice-president Lissa Smith is stepping in to fill the position on an acting basis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

Former governors general are entitled to a pension and also get a regular income paid to them for the rest of their lives

Most Read