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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Feb 20, 2014

evelynevandersande_mugIf you are very lucky, and you come early in the morning, you might see an occasional deer in Placerita Canyon State Park – but it does not happen that often.

In our case at the park, it really is true that the grass is greener on the other side. The property on the east side of the park is Disney ranch. They have meadows, they grow corn and fruit trees, they even have a tiny lake, and they irrigate their property so the deer have plenty of sweet and juicy plants to eat. Most of this landscaping is used for decor in the movie industry. The tiny lake becomes a raging ocean in a storm – you can do wonders with lights, large air blowers and a fake horizon.

From Placerita Canyon Road, you can see fronts that have been assembled to form a generic downtown so you have country and city scenes available. The grounds are large, and a little group of deer have made it their home for many years. Sometimes they grace us with a visit, but they return promptly to the other side of the fence when the school buses arrive and the noisy hikers take over the trails.

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Deer enjoy the vegetation of Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch, as seen here. Photo by Ron Kraus/SCVHistory.com | Click for more.

If you want to see one mule deer, you do not have to go far. Come to Hart Park. Behind the barnyard, there is a young one waiting for you (just behind the horse and the mule). Visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The deer found in Placerita are called mule deer because they have large ears like a mule. One other detail that tells you it is a mule deer is that the tip of the tail is black. Another thing to look at, if it is a buck, is the antlers. The antlers are bifurcated, meaning they grow like a fork; they do not grow from a single main beam. As a general rule, they lose (shed) their antlers around mid-February, and the new antlers start to grow right away.

Something else that is specific to mule deer: They run but sometimes they are seen stotting (another word is “pronking”). This means when they run fast, all four feet hit the ground at the same time.

That is so lovely to see, and I have had the pleasure to witness it. The deer run fast, and suddenly to escape immediate danger, there is a sequence in their running where they seem to fly off the ground with all four feet in the air. It is a graceful move to see; they are such gorgeous creatures.

I’ve read that stotting is also done by fawns, just for the sheer pleasure of playing. On the other hand, child’s play can be a way of learning behavior that can be useful later in life. Gazelles and lambs do also the stotting behavior.

I have not read any specific details about their eyes, so I am just basing this on personal observation: They have large eyes and you seem to be able to see their feelings and mood through those large eyes. I have seen fear and contentment, curiosity and mild annoyance – OK, I will stop there so as not to freak you out.

Deer Abby at Hart Park | Photo: Friends of Hart Park & Museum

Deer Abby at Hart Park | Photo: Friends of Hart Park & Museum

They eat more grass during winter, but it is only 10 percent of their diet. They prefer to munch on woody bushes. They like berries, twigs of deciduous trees, sage; they love acorns and apples, and they adapt well to eat about any plant in your garden.

In Ventura, we have the pleasure of observing deer in our garden on a regular basis, and we are still trying to find what plant they won’t eat. At this point – and after many trips to the garden center to replace what gets eaten – we can bravely announce that they do not eat oleander, birds of paradise, spiky cactus or bougainvillea. I thought they did not like the thorns on those last two, but they love roses and lemon trees that have plenty of thorns, so that can’t be the answer. Of course, that list could change at any time, because I’ve been fooled before. They seem to prefer hilly areas; oak woodlands are perfect, but they need to have a source of water available at about two miles of distance from their bedding area.

They can also eat California buckeye leaves, even though they are toxic to other animals. They eat poison oak with delight and without any problem (do not even think about trying that). Does and fawns eat together, and bucks stay on their own or with other bucks. They are usually more visible in the evening, but I have seen many in broad daylight. In agricultural areas, they sometimes come at night when they know nobody will be around.

Stotting.

Stotting.

They usually rest during the day in a protected area. If is it a place they use over and over, it will about the size of a bath tub and you can observe many scratches around the area. Otherwise it is just a space where the grass is flattened down.

The mating season starts in the fall. The gestation period is from 60 to 75 days. The fawns are born in the spring and spend the summer with mom. They are weaned after 60 to 75 days. The doe usually has two fawns, but if the food supply is small or if it is their first year, there will be only one birth.

As usual, a main predator for deer is human beings, plus coyotes and mountain lions. Bobcats and black bears usually attack fawns or sick animals or will eat a deer that died of natural causes.

Deer are among the most enchanting animals you can see on the trail. Their gracefulness is difficult to explain – the curve of their neck, those large expressive eyes, those fragile long legs, those big ears… I just hope at some point you stumble upon them in the light of the early morning or evening, when you can marvel at their beauty, and keep that image in your heart.

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 28 years. She lives in Newhall.

 

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