’Tis the birthing season for white-tailed deer. I was reminded of this when driving up the Witter Farm road at the University of Maine the other day.
A doe chased her yearling twins across the road, then turned heel and retreated toward a small copse of trees, bleating to her concealed newest offspring as she approached.
For sportsmen who dream of bagging “The Big One” come hunting season, it is poignant to consider that even a trophy buck starts off looking the same as any other baby deer. And the Marsh Island deer herd has produced some very big bucks in the 24 years I’ve been observing them.
Perhaps the largest was born on an early summer day back in 1991, and although he died in 2004, he was one in a million and quite unforgettable to those who knew him.
I first saw him in the winter of 2000. He was licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder out back that was too tall for any other deer to reach. He sported a huge, atypical set of antlers that looked more like tree branches stuck on his head, and he weighed about 280 pounds. (His heaviest weight at age 12 was about 320 pounds). He had the bearing of a great sachem or king, and thus we called him His Majesty, aka The Marsh Island Monarch.
In Maine, most bucks don’t live past their second year, but he survived against statistical odds because his home turf was designated a wildlife management area 60-odd years ago, eliminating hunting. No one remembers exactly why this was done; perhaps because the University of Maine campus and forests comprise much of the island, and the combination of ardent hunters with firearms mingling with hiking, biking and skiing students was deemed too risky.
Although many of the island’s bucks would have qualified as Boon and Crocket trophies, it’s unlikely any other reached the magnificent size and proportions of His Majesty.
Many people had the good fortune to see this deer and their stories about encounters with him are legendary. One man recounted an autumn day when he was driving past a field, where four bucks could be seen with their heads bent, grazing on the prolific clover. Three looked up at about the same time — and each was splendid. Then His Majesty lifted his head, and he towered over the other bucks, his antlers making them all seem suddenly inadequate.
Another time an Orono police officer responded to a noise complaint one moonless fall night, when someone had reported an animal crying in the woods off Park Street. The forest was thick and very dark, and as the officer advanced toward the source, another sound issued from somewhere between himself and that dying creature. The beam of his flashlight revealed a veritable monster: His Majesty in full antlered regalia, pawing the earth and snorting, and conveying without words that the intruder needed to retreat — now. Retreat he did, never learning what the huge buck was guarding.
A friend of mine caught a glimpse of His Majesty in late autumn 2003 down in a hollow near my home. It was a foggy day, and he stopped to get a picture. He was advancing toward the Monarch, when he realized there were two deer, and His Majesty was in the process of passing his genes on to the next generation.
My daughter Ann and I helped His Majesty in the spring of 2002. It had been a long winter with deeper snow accumulations than usual, and green-up was delayed. Deer everywhere were emaciated. During my forays into the woods I encountered enough carcasses to know that many were dying of starvation.
In late April, His Majesty — who no longer looked like a king — walked with great effort into our backyard, his gaunt family not far behind. He would have been unrecognizable but for his extra-large skeletal structure revealed beneath withered muscles and sagging fur-covered skin. He had remembered this as a place where he might find food, and he stood 15 feet from us, looking into our eyes with quiet dignity.
I know the official word from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife regarding feeding deer is “don’t!”, but it would take a hard heart to walk away from a starving animal and do nothing. Besides, in Native American tradition, mutual help between humans and animals is a given, and it’s understood that kindness extended to another is kindness that will someday be returned. Ann and I went inside and gathered everything we had in the cupboards and fridge that deer could eat, then we scattered it on the ground in front of the waiting deer.
When the last crumb was gone, they turned and slowly retreated into the forest. The next day, at Ann’s suggestion, we held an impromptu yard sale, raising money to purchase enough wildlife grain and corn to last until green-up arrived in our part of the state. His Majesty and family, as well as other deer, came every evening, until Mother Nature opened her salad bar for business — and they all survived. Many other deer in the state were less fortunate: About a third perished in those last weeks between winter and spring.
We never saw His Majesty during the summer or fall, but he always visited in early December. That year, he reappeared larger than ever, looking none-the-worse for wear after nearly succumbing to starvation the previous spring. In January, his massive shed antlers dropped four days apart: one somewhere off in the vast territory he patrolled — which was subsequently covered by a white blanket of snow until spring — and one in our backyard.
Later when the snow had melted, against all odds, Ann spotted the matching antler while we were walking the dogs about a mile from our home. The gift of these shed antlers from one of Maine’s largest bucks left no question that kindness given is kindness returned — and how those antlers helped us in a time of need is the subject of a children’s story I hope to publish someday.
A year later, on a bitter minus 30 degree January night, His Majesty died of apparent old age at 13, down by the Penobscot River. For years thereafter, his scattered bones bore mute testimony to the transience of even the most extraordinary representation of a species, and the fate that awaits all creatures, great and small.
I have not yet seen another buck to rival His Majesty, but with each new birthing season, the potential of inheritance awaits revelation in the next generation of deer.