When one has a chance to observe wild animals over a period of several years, some interesting things come into view. A lot of the so-called “pecking order” information seems to be quite incomplete.
This photo would seem to indicate the existence of a “boy’s club” which excludes the doe in the background. Actually, the truth of the matter is quite different. The doe is the dominant figure in this group and she has been adding bucks to her group for two years!
This group of bucks is totally controlled by the doe. She determines when they arrive and leave, and she determines which feeder she will use and which one she leaves for their use. She will strike them with her hooves if they approach when she is eating. They get quite flustered when she threatens them, as you can see here. Click on image to enlarge
She allows her bucks to nuzzle her from time to time, but she obviously plays favorites. One of the bucks is rarely allowed to approach her, although he is mature and endowed with the largest antlers.
We have been observing the group dynamics exhibited by at least fifty white-tailed deer and have seen behavior patterns not documented elsewhere.
Contrary to what I had been taught, pecking order is not necessarily established on the basis of gender, physical endowment or size. Instead, my observations have led me to conclude that force of personality is the major factor in determining who leads a particular group of deer.
There is also an element of nurturing and affection between deer of all ages and both sexes. Many of the deer nuzzle each other frequently and groups of deer often eat with their muzzles almost touching.
The deer at Lake Monticello seem to have adopted a matriarchial society. There is an aggressive doe leading almost every herd that come to our back yard. These are the childbearing does, not the oldest and largest does. When there are bucks with a herd, they are kept on the outskirts of the group and are not allowed to feed until the does and fawns have eaten.
There are a few small groups of deer where a fawn is the most aggressive member of the group. In these groups, there seems to be no clear leader.
We also see lone spinster does who dominate other deer by force. These older does are larger than the usual run of deer and will strike out at any deer that doesn’t give way for them at the feed trough. They are mean-spirited animals and will attempt to harm fawns and young bucks if they get a chance. The most interesting point was that they rarely lead herds. It seems that the other deer avoid them.
Occasionally, we will see a full-grown stag in the yard. Possibly they feel out of their element, because they are more fearful and skittish than the does and fawns they move among.
The female deer and fawns seem to be more pragmatic about the situation in our back yard. The corn is plentiful, there is plenty of water and a salt lick, and the humans keep their distance. Small herds of does meet here daily and go through a reunion ritual of touching noses and examining each other’s fawns.
We may have stacked the deck in favor of the more enlightened deer who have been able to recognize our good will and absence of malice. These perceptive deer have grown faster, are more healthy, and have larger fawns than the deer who skulk in the forest and only slip into our yard in the dead of night when the corn is almost gone.
We have some third generation deer now, and we can easily recognize them by the difference in their physical condition and intelligence. They are alert to danger, but they are able to discriminate between potential threats and our comings and goings.
The more we watch them, the more aware we are of their personalities and how that affects their survival. Strong personalities that nurture other members of their group seem to stay healthy and do well. Deer that are less socially inclined seem to be scrawny and have more visible injuries.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this…