Bayou-Diversity (15 September 2019) Here on this property where we live and that we call Heartwood, there is an unwritten game law. It is “thou shall not hunt within a quarter-mile of the house.” The doe that browses just outside my home office window at noon has tempted me on occasion to propose an amendment to this family statute. She and several of her kin are well aware that they are relatively safe here in this small sanctuary, but even like free people around the world they tend to push and test the boundaries of liberty. My binoculars pull in her physical details as she is only fifty feet away. Body size and a long head with a roman nose indicate that she is an older doe, probably more than two years old. Except for a gray muzzle, she has the typical summer coat of reddish-brown hair. A full udder reveals that she is lactating and most likely has a fawn or perhaps twins hidden nearby. They should be about three months old now. She seems to be in good shape for this time of year but is not fat by any means. Late summer is the most physiologically stressful season for deer in bayou country. Food plants have become rank and lost much of their nutritional value. Critical hard mast foods like acorns are not yet available. Internal and external parasite loads are highest now. Does are further burdened with the strain of supporting fawns, and bucks are growing nutritionally demanding antlers.
On this day I can make out that the doe is purposefully selecting poison ivy to browse – and technically she is browsing. Cows graze. Poison ivy is a favored food, and deer apparently are immune to it. Not so for wildlife biologists who naively collect deer stomach samples during routine herd health checks. Nowhere on earth is the poison ivy toxin, urushiol, more concentrated than in a deer’s stomach. That I can personally vouch for. My complaint with the resident white-tails is they don’t restrict their diets to the common native plants in my yard. They insist on munching the flower buds from wild azaleas native to the Appalachians that I have otherwise nurtured with tender care, and my vegetable garden resembles a minimum-security prison. On occasion I have declared to them in a loud voice that the law can be changed, but they seem to know who holds power on the Heartwood Supreme Court. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)