A researcher's life among the whitetail

Deer herds yield secrets of family life and power structure in the wild

March 05, 2000|By Ramona Smith | Ramona Smith,Knight Ridder/Tribune

PHILADELPHIA -- The deer moved silently in from the surrounding woods as Bill Lerner stood near the Greeting Tree, thumping a bucket full of corn.

Girl ambled up to him, a tawny doe he hand-fed as an orphan.

The deer he called Feisty paused, alert and aggressive, before advancing toward the scattered corn.

A dozen animals -- fawns, young bucks and does -- walked silently into the clearing around Lerner, an independent researcher who has studied the deer along the ridge in Upper Roxborough, Pa., for 17 years.

"Looker should be here by now," he said, worried about hunters nearby. But the fall rut was under way, and fine bucks like Looker were off chasing does.

Lerner, a 44-year-old naturalist and photographer, is a deer whisperer. He walks among the deer herd in the woods and fields of northwest Philadelphia every day, morning till sundown, year after year.

"I can't blame people for how they think about whitetails," Lerner said. "They're like ghosts to them, drifting through the forest. They don't realize that each is an individual, with their own likes and dislikes."

Lerner does not see ghosts. To him, the deer that he greets with a low, repetitive grunt -- a "comfort sound" -- are no mere shadows in the woods.

He can distinguish every deer at the 500-acre Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education by its appearance, its gait and its behavior.

He knows that Girl will crane her head to look at airplanes, and that Feisty is a good mother to her fawns, though she herself is just fawn-sized.

He knows the whitetails' family tree and their power structure, as part of his continuing study of how one doe replaces another as the family's dominant force.

"I'm like a member of the herd now," said Lerner, who lives in nearby Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County. To study and understand deer, no less than with gorillas and other exotic species, "you really have to live with them."

And live according to their rules, he added, as Chase, an eight-point buck, hunched along with one shoulder ahead of the other toward the corn.

"Yesterday, Chase put me up a tree, so he's lived up to his name," said Lerner. He said he stayed up in the crabapple tree for two hours, while Chase slammed his antlers into it a couple of times, then settled down.

Like any researcher, Lerner assigns official numbers to the animals in his study. He also gives them names because those are easier to remember.

The deer move toward him slowly but without fear. They know the Greeting Tree is where he sometimes brings strangers of his kind.

"They know I'm not a white-tail," Lerner said.

At first, he tried to fool them. That did not go well.

"When I first tried to get adopted by these deer, I had a rack," said Lerner, who wore phony antlers in his early days at the center on Hagys Mill Road. One buck "made me realize how ridiculous I was. He would come and knock the rack off my head."

After Lerner gave up the fake antlers, he played shoving games with Looker, then a six-pointer. Once, the buck got "a little aggressive pushing and I grabbed his rack with both hands ... and he lifted me up like I was a power bar."

Lerner abandoned that game, too. He's been punctured a couple of times by Looker's antlers and pursued by Chase. But with those two bucks, "it's half-hearted," Lerner said. The deer he looks out for is Brute, the third mature buck and a known threat to neighborhood dogs.

His worst injury, however, was inflicted by a doe -- Jimmy's Sister, the dominant animal in one of five deer families at the center. "She knocked me out for 10 or 15 minutes," said Lerner, who had looked up from a seat in the wooded lot to see her front hooves slamming down on his head.

Working independently of the center and organizations, Lerner has financed his research through photography, free-lance articles and occasional part-time jobs.

He is not an academic, but a persistent observer. He models himself after British game wardens, who know each animal and their power structure on the land.

"It's like the neighbor who has always been there," said Schuylkill Center Director Tracy Kay. "His 17 years of observation of the dynamics of the deer herd here gave him a knowledge base that helps us."

Kay says Lerner offers insights beyond the mere counting of deer.

After years of living almost like Thoreau in the woods -- but going home each night to a wife who listens to his adventures -- Lerner is drawing conclusions about how power passes among the does. He says a doe appears to earn, rather than inherit, a dominant role in the herd.

The future of the deer he studies at the Schuylkill Center and the rest of the urban area depends heavily on forces outside the animals' control.

At the center and in adjacent Fairmount Park, officials say the vegetation is being destroyed by too many deer. The center is considering whether to bring in a sharpshooter, like the one that blasted away whitetails in the park last spring.

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