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Posted: April 4, 2013 8:11 a.m.

All God’s critters big and small

As a city-bred person, I always thought that life in the country would be idyllic: scenic, slow paced, clean air, healthy living, strong sense of community and more. Well, much of this is true; however, what I didn’t know anything about was critters! We have critters here that are like an unending plague. We can control them — but rarely, if ever, get rid of them.

First on my list of critters, and by far the largest, are deer. Many of you will remember the story of Bambi portrayed in a film of the same name as a “fawn…who will one day take over the position of Great Prince of the Forest, a title currently held by Bambi’s father, who guards the woodland creatures from the dangers of hunters.” It is ironic that hunters are more likely to protect our properties and natural habitats from deer than the other way around.

According to the Department of Natural Resources deer harvest guidelines, “Hunting is the primary tool for managing white-tailed deer and hunting has successfully reduced the statewide deer population from 1.4 million deer in the 1990s to close to 1 million today. This reduction decreased or stabilized the deer population across much of the state resulting in improved habitat conditions, healthier deer, and substantial increases in antler quality.” DNR biologist Don McGowan estimates that the present deer population in this area is approximately 30-35 per square mile, considered healthy by current standards.

I learned from Daniel Schay, park manager at Hard Labor Creek State Park, that all state parks schedule a two-day Quota Hunt to thin out their deer populations. The main purpose of the Quota Hunts is to keep the deer herd healthy and peripherally to protect more drivers in the area from deer collisions. This is the only time that deer may be hunted in the parks. At Hard Labor Creek State Park, there is a quota of 250 hunters who only may participate in the event by applying for a permit through an online quota system. Selected hunters have a two-deer limit, but there is no limit for feral hogs which also may be hunted at the site at the same time.

Other “deer facts” I learned from DNR biologist Don McGowan were that deer loose their depth perception at night and that deer are blinded by light. Also:

•Poachers use this characteristic as a means of immobilizing their intended prey

•Killing deer out of season, e.g. late summer, may lead to an increase in disease spreading insects and ticks

•Killing pregnant deer may also orphan their fawns

•Deer will not attack humans except to protect their young, and their kicks may cause considerable damage.

In fact, we know of one person who was actually lamed by a doe when he got too closely to her fawn. My dog Rosie, loved to chase deer but on one occasion, she was actually chased by a deer, no doubt for the same reason.

In my research, I learned that deer populations are not spread equally across our area. Some residents are hardly bothered at all by deer intrusions or own dogs that keep deer at bay. In my neighborhood, we must slow down to about 20 mph on certain sections of our street to avoid being hit.

There are several ways Social Circle area residents protect their ornamental plants and gardens from poaching by deer. The most effective ways, according to master gardener Hilda Chilton, are to construct a high fence (in her case it’s a 12-footer) and to keep a dog.

At our house, we use a deer repellent to keep them away from our roses and shrubs. Business owner Katie Weesner told me that some of her hair salon customers ask for hair clippings to put around garden plants to deter deer with their human scent. Marigolds and other aromatic plants are also known to deter deer from grazing on plants.

Other critters which rank equally as a scourge upon our property are Canadian geese. We like to believe that Canadian geese belong in Canada. However, according to the Humane Society of America, “People may be surprised to hear that birds learn to migrate from their parents and [their] flock — they don’t hatch with this complex knowledge. So released geese never learned to fly north and instead took up local residence year-round. We’ve provided food and safety right here in our cities and suburbs. The geese have no reason to go elsewhere, so they settle in and raise families.”

The loud honking of the geese in late winter and early spring alerts us to a familiar problem — their search for places to nest. A choice nesting place is the small lake on our property which had apparently hosted a number of goose families before we arrived and fully realized the challenge caused by their presence. Their droppings pollute our land and make it impossible for us to walk around the lake unencumbered by slimy, unsavory stuff on the ground. Our neighbors with a swimming pool were unable to enjoy its benefits for the same reason.

In 2004, we paid $868.22 to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the removal of six geese, a pair and their four goslings that, incidentally, were hatched on a neighboring lake and just wandered over.

So now, when we hear honking, my husband Jim, arms himself with whistlers, bird bombs, and/or cracker shells and rushes down to the lake to scare the geese away. The residents in our neighborhood have united in a war on these birds and use whatever pyrotechnic materials at their disposal to keep them moving. Jim recently attempted to restock his supply of cracker shells and encountered a tightening of federal regulations regarding explosive pest control devices. He now needs a permit and the permitting process will take approximately three months. We hope his existing supply is sufficient to get us through the current nesting season.

I recently learned that our neighbor Tim Lemonds, has encountered another critter problem — buzzards.

Buzzards are migratory birds which follow the same path each year on their journey north. That path leads them to Tim’s backyard where they roost and have a menacing presence. According to Wikipedia, buzzards (also known as Turkey buzzards in Georgia) are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 and therefore you cannot kill them.

Their description is not very complimentary. Buzzards are scavengers and feed exclusively on carrion (flesh of dead animals) and they can harm or kill trees and other vegetation. Their primary defense is regurgitating semi-digested meat — a foul smelling substance. They roost in large community groups. Tim scared them off with cracker shells with initial success, but they keep on coming back.

Next on the list of Social Circle critters and one of the most elusive is the fox. I have only seen one, slinking across our driveway toward the nearby woods. I actually only caught a glimpse of what looked like a big dog with a red tail. This occurred during a time when golf balls were disappearing from what my husband calls our “cow pasture” golf course. We have three rough “putting greens” on the course and our family uses the one closest to the house to practice hitting balls.

One day, about three or four months ago, Jim hit approximately 30 or 40 balls across the pond which separates the “greens.” Normally, he picks up the balls after practice sessions, but on that day he decided to let it go until the next morning. Well, in the morning all the balls were gone. We were baffled, suspecting someone was prowling around our pasture at night. But why would anyone do that? Jim decided to put out a few more golf balls the next day and, sure enough, in the morning they were gone. After the third occurrence, we decided to look for answers other than human intervention.

Finally, on the Internet, I learned that foxes had been stealing golf balls at several golf courses in the U.S. and we have concluded that was what was happening here.

Our grandchildren are fascinated with the idea of finding the location of the “stolen” golf balls, but despite their search under logs, crevices in the ground, etc., they have not been able to locate the first one. It remains a mystery. Our DNR contacts suggested we install a field camera, but since we have not had any recurrences, that idea will remain on the back burner for future consideration.

The last critter under discussion in this column is the beaver. Wikipedia has a lot to say about damage caused by beavers. They fell smaller trees but can also harm even larger trees by stripping off the tree bark (called “girdling”). Even if the beaver fails to girdle the trunk’s circumference completely, the damaged tree may still die or fail to thrive.

They build dams which cause flooding that can remove pastures and crops from production and drown stands of trees. The beavers that have invaded our small lake have threatened the stability of our dams by building dens in their walls. Therefore, on three occasions, we’ve had to bring in a professional trapper to eliminate the problem.
Other critters we have encountered that have eaten or damaged our plants and scrubs include rabbits, squirrels and Japanese beetles.

Their destruction, however, is not confined to the open spaces and forested land, but they are worthy of mention since they add to the mix of our critter concerns.

Country living does have its challenges. But our exposure to critters also has its advantages. We have a front row seat in our own personal zoo and a close look at nature in its purest form. Living in Georgia’s greatest little town for a city-bred person like me has been both challenging and fascinating, at the very least.

Madeline Burgess is an active volunteer in Social Circle and the wife of former Mayor Jim Burgess.

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