Last week I found myself picking acorns for our orphaned fawn, Tukker, from an oak tree near the old river channel. We have a good number of oak trees on our property, but it just was not a great production year for acorns. I had been picking from this particular tree for a couple of weeks, and it was clear I had gotten about as high on the ladder as I could get, which left me to crawl around on the ground looking for fallen acorns. In a way, this was the most fair way of harvesting. I was competing with the wild animals for my share. I did not have the keen olfactory system of a deer to locate acorns, but I could see them as the sun cast a bit of a shine on the shells, and I could feel their hardness beneath my hands and knees. It was evident from scat in the area beneath the tree that raccoons, deer, and squirrels had harvested ahead of me. But nature provides plenty for all and by the time I returned to the house late that morning, I had a small bagful gathered that should get Tukker through the next cold snap. I knew when the Arctic front hit later in the evening, I would not be out and about foraging until warmer weather returned.
We had been fortunate to be able to do plenty of foraging for Tukker in late summer and during the autumn months. In deciding what to harvest, I was relying on information I had gained during the years I followed Daisy deer through the woods, observing her eating habits and knowing her favorite plants. When we raised Emma and Ronnie deer back in 2016, these same plants and browse got them through the first seven months of their lives in the deer pen, helping them to grow strong and healthy and ready to be freed after hunting season ended in mid January. But Tukker had been different all along. Since we expanded the deer pen, Tukker was able to forage for many plants on his own. Some I had never seen our other fawns eat. He even ate Bermuda grass! But Tukker was picky about elm. He wouldn’t touch the Siberian Elm that we have plenty of on our property, and he didn’t care for big elm leaves. He preferred the tender, newer leaf shoots from the native elm trees. So I grabbed my pole saw each morning and went into the woods to fetch slender branches with new growth. Tukker loved Hackberry and Redbud tree leaves too. He managed to trim every tree sapling we had in the deer pen. He foraged on dandelion greens and other unidentified greens and plants. I watched him often, needing to know more about what all his species ate, so that I would know for future reference. Cat brier had been a favorite of our other deer kids, but Tukker did not seem to care for it much. He might nibble a leaf or two, but most vines of it were left to wither and die in the sun. That was fine by me, as I was happy if I never had to handle that wicked thorny vine ever again! I still bring it to him on occasion though, thinking maybe some day he will enjoy it.
Nature seemed to bring us all that we needed for Tukker this year. I have seen many mammals eat dirt, which benefits their digestive systems. Tukker ate a lot of dirt, and so for the first time ever, I found myself thankful for the many gophers digging out their mounds this fall and winter. From the gopher mounds,Tukker had plenty of fresh dirt to eat each morning! With all of the rain we had this spring and summer, there were plenty of weeds around for Tukker to feast on in his pen. As I attempted to dig weeds in the vegetable garden next to Tukker’s pen, he benefited from the plant and vegetable discards that I tossed over the fence. I managed to put in a small food plot for grazing – casting a “Throw and Gro” mixture of seed in Tukker’s pen, then covering it with branches to allow growth without Tukker bothering it too much. It produced a nice grazing patch for him early this autumn. This year we also enjoyed the best fruit and berry crop we’ve ever had, so persimmon, apples, pears, apricots, peaches, blackberries, and currants were plentiful. Foraging for Tukker had been a walk in the park, until recently.
Winter arrived in late October this year instead of the usual January and February months. The most recent Arctic system brought 50 mph winds that stripped leaves from the trees. Yesterday, in the bitter cold, I walked around wondering what on earth I would do now that our tree leaves were gone. I found a couple of Hackberry trees with a few scraggly, yellowed leaves hanging on small limbs and sawed them down. What I did not know is that deer LOVE hackberries! Tukker immediately went to nibbling the tiny, red berries, pulling at them gently with his capable lips. After a few, quick crunches, he downed them and went on to the next cluster of berries. Those two small branches were cleaned from leaves and berries in no time! As I walked around the pasture, I found many dandelion greens that had survived the recent nights of freezing temperatures. I found clover in an old plot we’d always kept for Daisy. There were still freeze-tolerant plants I could rely on if I took the time to look around. Of course, we will continue to supplement his diet with Purina’s AntlerMax deer feed, and some good alfalfa hay.
Tukker is doing very well and has been easy to raise. I attribute much of our success to the expansion of the deer pen, which opened a larger area with more plant cover. At the age of four months, he is quite independent and content in his environment. I feel good about the job we have done in raising him. It might seem like an uphill struggle to do as the deer do and forage for food during these winter months, but I would not have it any other way. I understand that those uphill struggles are often the most rewarding, where we are challenged and often surprise ourselves at how resilient and persevering we can be. Tukker will have a healthy start and be well-prepared for life in the wild come mid-January when we release him. Perhaps he will allow me to tag along with him as our other deer have, so that I can learn more about foraging in the wild.
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