11/20 What the Deer Don’t Eat…

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…is what thrives in this forest. Yes, it’s Browntail again, and her doe fawn. Day by day, their eating habits determine the future make-up of this forest, from tiny herbaceous plants to tall trees. They are the deciders. And what don’t they eat? It’s a very short list – which makes it awfully hard to encourage some “stuffing” to grow back back. We’d hoped for a revival of native plants after removing so much Bush honeysuckle, but it’s just not that simple.

This post is the sequel to “What Would a Bird Say?”, in which I described our forest as a place that’s losing its “stuffing”. We’ve been wonderful at killing invasive plants, such as this Privet patch…


…resulting in a persistent lack of tree seedlings, and shrubby cover for wildlife.


In the summertime these open areas turn into a sea of White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. Though a beautiful sight with masses of white blooms, the foliage is poisonous – a sign it has adapted to some serious herbivore pressure over the millenia. In the absence of competition, this aggressive native plant can quickly dominate the forest floor.

monoculture of White Snakeroot

As our growing deer population selects out the “good stuff” (young trees especially) the forest becomes what they don’t eat. Though there’s very little a starving deer won’t eat,  well-fed deer have definite preferences. This scenario is playing out in forests throughout the range of White-tailed Deer, and qualifies them as top-notch ecosystem engineers of the Anthropocene.

munching on cut Bush Honeysuckle

But some areas in the forest have responded very differently to invasive plant removal – and this is where the story gets better.


The pic above looks strikingly shrubby due to one plant alone – Spicebush, Lindera benzoin (with the yellow leaves). Another survivor of the ancient herbivore wars, this one isn’t poisonous, just “spicy”. All parts of the plant have a citrus-like odor and flavor that seems to offend deer palates. That’s not to say it’s never browsed, but when deer start eating Spicebush there’s likely little else left to eat. Fortunately it’s unmolested here.


There’s one time of year – when its leaves turn yellow in late October – that we can easily see where Spicebush is regenerating well. All the plants in the scene above are one to four years old, and sprang from the seed of a nearby “mother” plant. Only female Spicebush have berries, and mature plants in sunny spots produce the most. The places that have revived their shrubby cover best after invasive plant removal are, no surprise, close to existing large female Spicebush shrubs. In these areas, small Spicebush plants are so abundant we can transplant them to places that have none.


And one day, we hope, the fall forest will be ablaze all over with golden Spicebush leaves. As a replacement for Bush Honeysuckle, it’s ideal – a tall, much branched shrub, with loads of nutritious red berries. A mature Spicebush can nearly rival Bush Honeysuckle in height and spread, but doesn’t produce the heavy shade of the latter.


Spicebush is understandably one of the most widespread shrubs in Eastern forests. Though a few other native shrubs are found in this forest, for the most part they’re much less abundant.


Elderberry, Sambucus canadensis, comes to mind; starry flower clusters, fast growing, lots of berries, thicket forming – but thanks to it’s “deer preferred” status, you won’t see any over a few inches tall without protection. The few beleaguered patches that remain would be taken out if not barricaded all around with brush. Brush shelters are an idea of mine that resulted from the huge supply of cut Bush Honeysuckle we’ve generated. They can be spotted all over the forest, and if carefully constructed can deter deer browsing.


Brush shelter building is a creative activity, and a way of also giving back some habitat for birds and small mammals. The challenge is to make something that is structurally sound enough to not collapse under its own weight. The brush structure in the pic below used an existing framework of large fallen limbs as a foundation, then smaller limbs were carefully layered on. A well built brush shelter helps provide a protective space for some of the “stuffing” to grow in this forest.


Is a quickly growing deer population the biggest impediment to restoring a healthy diverse forest? Possibly. Invasive plants can be pulled up, cut down, killed with herbicide. But the deer of this forest have no checks on their numbers, unless you count getting hit by a car (which is happening more often). They’re also well fed in winter, oddly enough due to the widespread presence of the evergreen invasive vine Wintercreeper, Euonymus fortunei. It’s good browse; the season’s new growth gets clipped back through the cold season, giving a “mowed” appearance to areas of heavy infestation. Large moist pellet piles are also easily spotted in Wintercreeper patches.

Deer pellets produced by browsing  on Wintercreeper

Right now, the deer “rut” is in full swing, and due to their hormonal single-mindedness, large antlered bucks can be easily observed out in the open. A friend of mine observed a large buck at her bird feeder, in the aptly named Deer Park neighborhood yesterday morning.

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I spotted this large buck yesterday afternoon, standing behind a tiny Sugar Maple planted by UPS, just below the LNC parking area. Ironically it’s one of the few from this planting that has survived deer browsing!


This older buck has been noted by many visitors due to his impressive size and graying muzzle. I observed him at close range, as he seemed to be walking straight toward me. However he was just trying to pass me and stay on the scent of a doe. You can’t see it in the pic but he was literally drooling.


The Forest Stewards of BCSNP have a lot to do this winter, helping replace native habitat. We’ll be planting Spicebush, Arrowwood Viburnum, Silky Dogwood, Sycamore, and Red and Pin Oaks on a site previously dominated by a large Porcelainberry infestation. We need some help; if you’d like to spend an afternoon a week getting outside and digging planting holes with our friendly volunteers, please contact the Louisville Nature Center. Being a Forest Steward is it’s own reward, as year by year we see native habitat begin to revive. Deer watching is an added perk!





2 thoughts on “11/20 What the Deer Don’t Eat…

  1. Greg Sheehan

    I think I have a young buck living in my back yard. There is plenty to eat and there is a six foot privacy fence around the perimeter…except in a ten foot gap, He likes it here because of the privacy fence……there is plenty of volunteer plants to eat. I have seen him sleeping in a more private part of my back yard. This might be a good subject of one of your blogs. Get in touch…you could take some photos and get a feel of the atmosphere that makes it attractive.


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