Nature Notes: Is There a Deer Heaven?

Which species is the most famous for preying on its own?
Deer at the Nature Trail in East Hampton Village. While they are ubiquitous on the South Fork, there is much we do not know about these complex creatures. Dell Cullum

Of all of the many thousands of vertebrate species, fish being the most numerous, which one is the most famous for preying on its own? 

Why, Homo sapiens, of course. We kill one another with abandon and en masse as in the widely used term “genocide.” We very, very rarely engage in genocide for food, which is the main reason other vertebrates kill their own. While it has become extremely rare, cannibalism in humans still occurs here and there.

A kind of genocide practiced by a political entity in which thousands are slaughtered in a relatively short span of time is known as “democide,” a term refined by the late R.J. Rummel. A few primate species, of which we are one, from time to time kill a bunch of their own kind, but all other vertebrates to my knowledge practice neither genocide nor democide, but such a generalization needs a final proof. The killing of millions of Jews and others during World War II by Hitler and the Nazis is surely a case of such democide.

Wild vertebrates of one species kill vertebrates of another species in predator-prey relationships, culminating in the predator feeding on the prey. Cheetahs run down antelopes, lions run down wildebeests, wolves run down caribous, and so on. 

Our white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, are invariably a prey species. They are not meat eaters. When deer and other large prey species such as wild pigs, antelopes, wild horses, and the like don’t have predators other than humans to catch and feed on them, they reproduce prodigiously.

Such is the case on Long Island, which once had wolves, wild cats, and perhaps a mountain lion or two, all killed off soon after Caucasians settled here. Even after all of the natural predators were exterminated, deer remained in low numbers because the colonists fed on them rapaciously. For a long time deer were their only source of large meat.

Then came suburbanization, along with removal of forests for land to be settled, planted, and built on, all accelerated by railroad and then automobiles. As a boy in Mattituck on Long Island’s North Fork in the 1940s and 1950s, I might see a deer or two every other year. When I left the Army and came back to New York from the West Coast in 1961, deer had already become quite common. Indeed, on my way back to finish my degree at Cornell University in February of that year, I hit one on Route 25 a little beyond Riverhead while driving a station wagon I had borrowed from my brother. The deer died, the station wagon was almost totaled, and I found another car and started out again. This time I was much more circumspect and made it without incident.

The deer population continued to swell despite the attempts by farmers and others with special permits to keep them from damaging crops. Upstate, there had always been a hunting season for deer run by the Department of Environmental Conservation, and I tried it a couple of times unsuccessfully. Finally, the state began deer hunting seasons on Long Island, both shotgun (but not rifle) and bow and arrow. While the archery season was set in the fall, the shotgun season began every year in January. Eventually, does and then fawns were included in the annual licensed take.

Upstate the deer-hunting season always began in the fall, before the bucks had shed their antlers. When you saw an antlered buck, you knew you weren’t shooting at a doe, which was not allowed. However, come Long Island’s January season, following the molting of many antlers, you didn’t know which sex you were shooting at. Shotgun hunters began to take stags, does, and fawns. Over a three-week span in March and April 2005, an experienced deer counting team from upstate counted about 3,200 or so deer in East Hampton Town (including East Hampton Village).

Today, the deer population is probably still close to that number. To control the deer herd in the village, a team of vivisectionists was hired a few years back. They ran down adult female deer, removed their ovaries (a very ghastly process indeed), and tagged and numbered them. It went badly in at least three deer, notwithstanding efforts by Dell Cullum to stop the whole thing. 

In one case, Dell removed two dead fawns from one of the spayed does while she died in the arms of his wife. That form of birth control was rightfully put aside the following year, but as of this writing is being considered for this year.

Before adopting that method of reducing the herd, the village considered night sniper sharpshooters with automatic rifles and infrared spotting scopes from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Deer societies are matriarchal, just like elephant societies. If something happens to a mother raising a fawn or two, another female will take the motherless young into her care. Deer are not stupid. In terms of evolution, deer have been around for at least five million years, that is at least five times longer than us humans. There is much we don’t know about them; think how little we knew about dolphins before Cousteau and other marine biologists began to elucidate us. Deer are very complex, competent, and sentient creatures.

After watching deer observe a Long Island Rail Road train passing through Hither Woods, Russell Stein, who helped create East Hampton Town’s Natural Resources Department, once pondered whether deer believe in some kind of higher spirit the way humans do. Does are very protective of their fawns, just as human mothers are very protective of their infants. More than once, I’ve watched does keep their fawns on the side of a road until a vehicle passes.

I have nothing against fishing and hunting, but I do respect deer. I would prefer some kind of painless birth control, the kind we humans practice, rather than trying to reduce their population size with buckshot and arrows.

At the very least, why not have the shotgun season moved to the fall, as it is scheduled upstate each year, and make it bucks only? That way many bucks would not be able to inseminate does, which in the long term would lead to a smaller herd.

As far as the deer destroying the understory, one should drive along the back roads of Southampton and East Hampton and take a gander at the extent of coverage by huckleberries and blueberries in the woodlands on either side.


Larry Penny can be reached via email at