Feeding urban deer is not necessarily an act of kindness to nature

March 24, 1991|By John Husar | John Husar,Chicago Tribune

It was three hours before Monday's mellow sunset, and the deer were lined up and waiting.

A herd of 20 had emerged from the forest preserve near Bullfrog Pond. Only half an hour southwest of Chicago's Loop, these woods are full of wildlife. This herd congregated in brown winter stubble, scenting the foreign sweetness of old corn. Mostly, it milled and waited.

Cars stopped on the woodland lane. It's always a surprise to see that many deer so close to a road. But these deer were used to motorists. They stared intensely at newcomers, then lost interest if the people stayed in their cars. Some deer glanced expectantly down the road.

When the shiny blue Ford arrived, the deer perked up. They knew this car, and the couple inside. More deer pushed through brush and others crossed the road. They materialized from every direction. Soon 40 were staring at the blue Ford, tails down, relaxed, expectant.

The man got out, wearing a blue local union's jacket. He opened his trunk and shoveled corn into a plastic bucket. He moved toward the deer, and they moved toward him.

"Here, girls," he softly called. "Here, girls. Come and get it."

More shadows emerged from the woods, some with six- and eight-point racks. These weren't girls. Most bucks by now have shed their antlers, but many still wore their autumnal finery. Several does, already pregnant, had two or three of last year's fawns in tow. They opened a path for the man. Wherever he dumped a scoop of corn on the ground, deer would come to munch.

My wife had found this man a week ago on one of her swings through Pulaski Woods.

"He's really a sweet man," she said. "He thinks he's doing so much good. He told me he's been feeding the deer in the winter there for 10 years, and I believe it, because all the deer seem to know him."

The man has shining gray eyes and a beatific smile. He walks among the deer like St. Francis. He doesn't want his name known. He is retired and lives on the Southwest Side, spending )) $200 a month on corn for these deer. That amounts to 700 pounds a month. Sometimes strangers hand him money to help pay for the corn.

He makes two stops, at Pulaski Woods and Bullfrog Pond. The herd is larger at Pulaski, maybe 65. On this day, another fellow got there first. This stocky other man, whose beetle brows cover the tenderest of brown eyes, lives in Burbank and is named John.

John had been watching the first man for several months and now was starting on his own. He'd gone up a utility road where the deer were waiting. They decided he was all right. They let him meander among them, dropping little piles of corn every few yards.

"They're hungry," he explained. "There's nothing here for them to eat. Someone's got to help them or they'll die."

The man in the blue Ford arrived while John was holding court among six or seven vehicles. People had left their cars to stand around and watch. They spoke quietly and the deer ignored them, some within 20 yards.

The Ford man conferred with John and didn't mind the competition. "I just want to help the animals," he said. "I hope others will help, too. These deer are locked by waterways. They have no place to go. They'll die if we don't help."

Well, of course, that's not entirely true. While Cook County's woods do burst with deer -- estimates range above 4,000 -- only a few areas show extreme wear. The north side of Busse Woods is worst. "It looks like a hedge trimmer took everything from 4 feet down," said Chris Anchor, forest preserve game biologist.

Wherever urban deer become overpopulated, they eat all the plants they can reach. They devour shrubs, twigs, grasses and wildflowers. "They're especially hard on rare wildflowers," said Pete Dring of the Little Red Schoolhouse nature center. "All our rare ones are gone."

Overpopulated deer eventually intrude upon neighborhoods to gorge on hedges, evergreens and other ornamental plants. Without sufficient space, deer charge across roads. Of 12,000 deer-vehicle accidents in Illinois a year ago, 732 took place in metropolitan Cook County.

People who feed urban deer unwittingly contribute to the herd's demise. Deer are supposed to have a rough time in the winter. Their fall-built fat reserves must carry them when most food is no more than dried leaves and woody stems and twigs. Nature orders more to die in harsh winters and more to survive the mild. Here we have had five straight mild winters.

Low food and winter stress signal deer to produce fewer young. Starving does may give birth to a single fawn or none. When artificial feeding creates a sense of abundance, deer produce twins and triplets, further expanding the herd.

Also, when overpopulation leads to citizen complaints, sharpshooters thin the herds. Hundreds of deer have been removed from Busse Woods. Dozens are taken yearly from O'Hare Airport. Parts of the corn-strewn Palos Division now host 70 to 110 deer per square mile. Thinning there is only a matter of when.

"Most places can support no more than 18 or 20 deer per mile," Anchor said. "An area near farms might rise to 25 or 30. Busse and the Des Plaines River Valley, probably should have no more than seven to 10."

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