Thursday, December 10, 2009

White-tail Reasoning

Hunters of white-tail deer often tell tales of the "intelligence" of these animals, and of the many calculated, effective, reasoning ways they have of outsmarting hunters.

In a long lifetime of careful observance of wild birds and animals, I have seen many examples of white-tail trickery.

But nothing, by white-tail or other animal, that began to compare with the actions of one wily doe a couple of years back.

It was a glorious early November day. Bright, sunny, crisp, hardly a breath of wind.

I was working my way quietly along a large granite hogback ridge high in the Wolf Grove of Lanark County, Ontario. The Grove is a very large, rough area blanketed by mixed forest and networked with beaver ponds on the edge of the Canadian Shield.

Below the ridge a narrow, deep beaver pond stretched a mile or more.

To the west across the pond I could hear several hounds. They were on a trail, no doubt that of a white-tail. As I listened the sound alternately faded and swelled. The hounds were coming my way.

On a large, comfortable log with excellent open view of the pond and surrounding area I settled, my back to a birch tree, ready to observe whatever might happen.

Slowly the hounds drew closer. White-tails may be hunted with hounds in this part of Ontario, and good deer hounds move slowly with lots of noise.

These were good hounds.

After some time I was beginning to chill when a slight motion well up the pond to my right caught my attention. A white-tail doe had stepped quietly to the water's edge and paused to look behind her.

The dogs were still far away. Surely too far for her to be moving ahead of them.

For a few moments she stood, still as the granite ridge itself. Then she stepped carefully into the water and began swimming quietly down the pond toward me. She had no suspicion of my presence.

Looking back occasionally, she swam ever so slowly down the centre of the pond. Just below me near the far bank was a small island, a few willow shrubs and a few strands of sedge grass poking above a foot of water.

To this submerged islet the doe swam. Once there, she settled down quickly, lying in the water, shoulders and only a little of her back showing.

For a while she was motionless, both ears sharply cocked to hear the dogs. They were closer now, their voices quite loud.

The doe didn't move, all attention focused on the sounds of those dogs.

Within perhaps 100 yards of the pond's edge the dogs turned to the north, angling away from us. Parallel to the water they went, then across the beaver dam far up the pond, then back behind me to the east.

It was obvious by now the dogs were on the trail of a different deer. This was confirmed by the trail having gone along the pond and over the dam; a favourite escape route of the white-tails in this area.

Before long the sounds of the hound pack faded in the distance. Again the November quiet settled in. But the doe made no move to leave.

Instead, she confidently groomed herself, licking the hair over shoulders and back as would a large dog, then nibbling disinterestedly at the willows.

I was well chilled by now, and badly in need of a stretch. But my experience with wild things reminded me of the patience of wild things. She might be there for some time. But that water was cold, barely above freezing.

She had to be becoming cool herself, in spite of the heavy winter-ready coat. Surely she would make a move soon.

I determined to wait her out. This was much too interesting an experience to spoil with a casual move.

After what seemed an eternity, the doe did move.

Slowly rising to her feet, she stepped from the shallows into deeper water. Swimming back to the far shore from whence she had come, she stepped out onto dry land and, shaking herself for all the world like a big Labrador Retriever, disappeared in a great cloud of spray. Then she slowly walked out of sight back into the hemlocks, still without any awareness of my watching.

Back, no doubt, to the comfortable bed she had vacated earlier with an ounce of prevention.

I'm now ready to believe almost any story of whitetail reasoning.

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