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The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the…

The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

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In 2007, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas noticed that the oak trees around her home were not producing acorns. Worried that the local wildlife, espcially the deer and wild turkey, would be unable to survive a winter without this important food source, she began feeding them corn. During this season, she observed the behavior of the deer and learned a lot about them. I was hoping that I would learn a lot about them too by reading this book, unfortunately that was not the case. While her observations were interesting, often she strayed into assumptions and speculation as to why a deer was acting a certain way, not because it is what she observed but because that is how she would think if she was a deer. She also spent way too much time in the book justifying her reasons for feeding the wildlife despite the fact that the New Hampshire Fish and Wildlife agency strongly discourages the practice. I was disappointed that I did not learn more about the behavior and social structure of deer. I did not expect a scientific study or data, but I was hoping that the observations would be more than her guessing at the reasons they do something. I do have a background in wildlife biology, perhaps this book would be better for someone that loves animals that wants to read about someone else that loves animals and their enjoyment of viewing wildlife. ( )
  Cora-R | Jan 13, 2016 |
Unlike the rest of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's books, this one was very slight both in size and depth. In a way it was a postscript of life at home to [b:The Old Way: A Story of the First People|544855|The Old Way A Story of the First People|Elizabeth Marshall Thomas|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1312005141s/544855.jpg|17429294]. That was a wonderful book of the hunter/gatherers of the Kalahari that the author knew so well as 'home' herself, and written about in such depth. Deer might live the Old Way, but most people don't and this was the author living the 'new' way, in the USA.

It was also a long, well-thought out reply to the local Conservation Department's injunction not to feed deer (EMT likes feeding deer, a lot). I did enjoy it, I didn't learn as much as from her other books, but what I did learn was absolutely fascinating and sometimes quite funny. Her feminist, or at least female, sensibilities often give insights into animal behaviour that other ethologists have not written about, certainly we never see them in popular natural history documentaries.

Female deer, the does, might be chosen for breeding by a buck they don't particularly fancy in which case they will move away. However, if he is insistent, as soon as he's mounted and got his end away, she pushes him off and moves away sharply, leaving the poor, frustrated buck bellowing. But if that isn't successful and she does get bred, she has one trick left. She squats down right in front of the buck and squeezes out the semen. He might have got sex but she isn't letting him breed any babies on her. So much for the big bucks dominating the harem!

Originally reviewed 10 May 2011, rewritten 14 March 2012 ( )
  Petra.Xs | Apr 2, 2013 |
Marshall becomes interested in the deer on her property and begins to study them intently. Over a particularly harsh winter when her oak trees don't make acorns (they do this every now and then), she begins feeding the deer corn. As she watches them she finds ways to recognize them, by family groups, not as individuals, as each group exhibits different behavior, and, of course, she becomes quite attached to each group, the Alphas, Deltas and Taus and others. For almost the first half of the book, in between her observations and guesses as to reasons for different behaviors she is talking to herself, back and forth, about the wisdom of feeding wild animals. Later, when discussing predators, she includes us - as hunters and drivers of cars, speculating about how the deer are adjusting to the change in predator habits (say, hunting season only for a few weeks in November). I will add here, not Thomas, There is also a slowly spreading possibly rural legend (except I swear I saw it) of witnessing deer looking both ways before crossing the road. Coyotes have already got this figured out and probably the smarter foxes too ....

The last couple of chapters widen to include a grove of Black Gums on her property (a rarity this far north) and anecdotes about various home invasions by rats and mice as well as the story of a bear whose life she unequivocally saved when he was hit by a car and injured - the desire on the part of everyone else was to shoot him to put him 'out of his misery' . But it was her land and she succeeded in protecting him and he grew up to be a lame but very large bear doing just fine. She learns too, it may be all right to feed deer, but it is NOT all right to feed a bear.

There is much in here that people who fall on both sides of the equation (don't be sentimental versus hard-core sentimental) will find to criticize as the book is not either hard science or a chirpy book about the darlings in your back yard. For me, it was a delightful easy read about one person's experience, about allowing herself to become immersed, feeling doubt and concern and joy -- above all -- connection with everything around her. ( )
2 vote sibyx | Mar 11, 2012 |
The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World is Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s description of what she observed about the wild animals, particularly the deer, in her backyard. It wasn’t what the title led me to expect. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading that she often did what I do and thought what I think about the wildlife, particularly the deer, in my own backyard.

I thought this book was going to be an authoritative explanation of the lives of the deer we see in our backyards every day. Instead, she mostly describes what she observes, which turned out to be more than I see because I don’t look for as long as she does. And through her observations, I learned what deer do when I’m not looking at them in my backyard or when they are hidden in trees and bushes. It made me want to watch more and more carefully. I want to see what she sees.

Elizabeth Thomas and I think alike about wildlife in general. For instance, a big issue for me is the guilt I feel when my husband puts corn in our backyard for the deer. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says it’s bad to feed wild animals for various reasons. But Keith and I (and Elizabeth Thomas) always thought, everyone feeds birds; so what do they have against larger wild animals? And when they’re literally starving, why is it OK to watch them starve?

So the most welcome part of this book for me was the chapter having to do with feeding wild animals.

Elizabeth Thomas lives in New Hampshire. Every year New Hampshire Fish and Game gives residents pamphlets citing reasons (the same reasons given by HSUS) that they should not feed larger wild animals. For each reason Elizabeth Thomas explains how it does not apply to her specific case, which is similar to our case. Then she comes to the last reason, and she can’t entirely negate it, although she tries. It’s the one I worry about, too: if the deer are crowding each other as they eat the corn we put out for them, they may be spreading diseases among themselves and to other wild animals (such as turkeys) eating with them. But we try to justify our actions: they’re hungry in the rough winters in New Hampshire and Michigan (where we live with our wild animals), so we feed them corn. Besides, in our backyard in Michigan, we have never seen more than 12 deer at once, usually fewer than 6, and then they are spread out, not crowding each other for the food.

I learned much more from this book, the best being the explanations for deer behavior that we’ve observed but could only guess about. Of course, sometimes she was guessing, too, about their motivations, but her guesses were more educated than ours.

One reader review of The Hidden Life of Deer on goodreads.com calls this book a satire. One of us is misunderstanding. ( )
  techeditor | Oct 24, 2011 |
I found this book mostly charming and intriguing, but occasionally irritating. The author, an anthropologist by profession, closely observed white-tailed deer on her New Hampshire farm after she started feeding them corn during a winter in which the oaks had not dropped any acorns. First they seemed to just be an undifferentiated mass, but then she was able to identify consistent family groupings. Marshall uses this as a springboard into learning and writing about deer behavior and social interactions, all of which I found fascinating as someone who has been looking at deer all my life. She branches off into hunting traditions and the lives of people who have passed on ancestral wisdom for centuries, and eventually into the value of close observation of all living things, plants included.

Although Marshall is rigorous in her observations, and generally in her respect for science, what I found irritating was the way she sometimes verged into anthropomorphism. She in fact discusses this very issue late in the book, arguing that the "extreme caution" of scientists and editors about anything that seems anthropomorphic is really a fear of acknowledging that we are more similar to other species than we would like to think. I found this thought-provoking, but am not completely convinced.
1 vote rebeccanyc | May 29, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
In this slim and amiable book Ms. Thomas gathers a pile of small, not uninteresting observations about deer, and in doing so she subtly alters the way you look at them in a forest or from a window.
If anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a chip on her shoulder (impatience with self-aggrandizing humans), she wears it with style, one reason why The Hidden Life of Deer is such testy fun.
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The author describes the vast hidden world she discovered after she observed deer as they fought through a rough winter, bred fawns in the spring, fended off predators and hunters, and made it to the next fall.

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