Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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White-Tailed Deer
Nature Bulletin No. 208-A   November 27, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In October, 1621, the Pilgrims decreed a harvest festival -- a holiday so that all might "after a more special manner, rejoice together". They had a good yield from the 20 acres of "Indian corn" which Squanto, the friendly Patuxet redskin had showed them how to plant in little mounds properly spaced and tended -- each fertilized with three herring placed like the spokes of a wheel, with the heads toward the center. They invited Massasoit, chief of the neighboring tribes, but when he arrived with 90 hungry braves, it was necessary for some of these to go out and kill five deer.

Then, for three days, between games of skill and chance, and a military review staged by Captain Myles Standish, the Pilgrims and their guests gorged themselves on venison, roasted wild ducks and geese, eels, clams, "sallet herbes" such as wild leeks and watercress, wild plums and berries -- all washed down with wild grape wine "very sweet and strong". There is no mention, in their chronicle, of the wild "Turkies" nor of cranberries, both abundant there. Venison was the main dish at the first Thanksgiving feast.

At that time, the White-tailed Deer, or Virginia Deer, was common or extremely abundant in this country from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains. Venison was staple food for the Indian, and he used every part of the animal: buckskin for clothing, bedding, and to cover his teepee; sinews for fish lines, sewing, and stitching together his bark canoes; deer brains for bleaching and tanning hides; bones for needles, awls, scrapers and ornaments.

Deer were equally important to the early white men, especially to the explorers, trappers and pioneer settlers, both for food and clothing. From colonial times until long after the Civil War, venison was sold in public markets. Even in 1880, buckskin was still a common article of commerce. Most of the expert riflemen of the Continental Army and the War of 1812 acquired their woodcraft and their skill as marksmen while hunting deer.

The deer continues to be our most important large game animal. Today, approximately 375,000 are killed each year by hunters and the meat alone is valued at more than 11 million dollars. But they continue to increase. In some states, notably Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, there are so many deer that there is not enough winter food and many thousands die of starvation. Never a creature of the big forests, the removal of millions of acres of the original forests, followed by a mixed second growth, created ideal conditions for the white-tailed deer. Many years of absolute protection permitted them to increase enormously, partly because the yearling doe bears one, and the older does usually two fawns -- frequently three -- each May or June. These she hides, each in a separate place, returning 5 or 6 times daily to nurse them. By winter they are weaned and have changed their white-spotted reddish-brown coats. When yearlings, they are almost full-grown.

The bucks have antlers -- not horns -- solid, bony projections which are shed each winter and grow again during the following spring and summer. This is true of other male members of the deer family which includes the Mule Deer and Black-tailed Deer of the far west, the elk and the moose. Most of the millions of stately antlers shed each year are eaten by rodents such as porcupines, squirrels, rabbits and mice, or weathered away by sunshine and rain.

"Squanto, we thank thee for our corn. "

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