One day each autumn, Audubon House empties out so that staffers can troop off to the Audubon center 45 minutes away in Greenwich, Connecticut, for the annual company picnic. Sprung from our desks in lower Manhattan, we're able to stretch our legs on the center's 522 acres of woodland, wetland, and meadow habitat. At this time of year the forest is ablaze with vivid reds and oranges, and the center's Quaker Ridge provides the perfect vantage point for watching the aerial feats of migrating red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. Over the years more than 900 species of ferns and flowering plants and 160 species of birds have been recorded at the Greenwich center.

The contrast between this nature sanctuary and lower Manhattan, where nature is often a weed poking through the pavement, is enough to revivify even the most hardened New Yorker. But if you look closely at the ground while walking the trails at the Greenwich center, you'll notice that something's missing. "To my eye, and to everyone else's, the understory has been decimated," says Marilyn Smith, center manager. "Four years ago, when I moved from Ohio, I expected most things to be lush and to see spring wildflowers. But there are very few here." Lots of other vegetation has been wiped out, too. In fact, pretty much all that's left growing below waist level is garlic, mustard leek, and ferns. The only reason these plants survive is that the deer don't like them.

Like six-year-olds with ice cream cones, the deer are making quick work of much of the local vegetation. One eminent botanist who did a survey of these woods in the early 1970s returned a few years ago and was floored to see how degraded the forest had become. A 1998 census of birds that nest on the ground or in shrubs indicated that black-and-white warblers, ovenbirds, and rufous-sided towhees had disappeared during the same period.
As Ted Williams shows in this issue's powerful Incite, "Wanted: More Hunters" (page 42), the exploding population of white-tailed deer nationwide has helped drive a number of bird species onto Audubon's WatchList, a system that identifies at-risk bird species before they become endangered. Solving the deer problem is a major challenge. Scientists say that an effective and affordable means of contraception is still some years away. Nor does it seem practical to reintroduce the deer's natural predators, like wolves and mountain lions, in Greenwich and other suburbs.

When it comes to deer, I admit that, as a longtime member of animal-welfare groups, I'm emotionally conflicted. But today, because of their record numbers, deer are dying painfully, from starvation and from collisions with their main predator--cars. Look at it this way: What's sadder than an innocent animal taking a bullet for the conservation cause? Extinction that causes forests in spring to turn silent and barren for want of songbirds and wildflowers.



© 2002  NASI

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More Deer Coverage

Wanted: More Hunters

Another View
Birth Control for Deer?

Editor's Note
Wildlife Crisis at an Audubon Center