Preaching to Deniers

Back in college, I had a friend that would believe pretty much anything nature-related I told him. I was the biologist-in-training, after all (I didn’t abuse that trust.  Honest).  When he asked if male white-tailed deer grew a new tine on their antlers every year, I explained how the bone of antlers is covered in fine fur and vascularized, growing from nubbins to full size in the space of half a year.  At that point, the soft tissue dries and is rubbed off, leaving the hard bone.  The antlers don’t grow any more, but stay on the deer’s head until well into winter, when they fall off.  Then the cycle starts anew, and the buck, now a year older, may well grow a larger set of antlers.

Fast forward a decade or so.  I was a biologist at some expo or another; the table was decked with bones, tortoise shells, snake skins, and other bits of natural detritus with which to engage the public in conversations about how cool nature is. A woman came by, looking with mild distaste at my display.  At last, she pointed at the shed antler I’d picked up in the woods.  “Did you kill that deer?” she demanded.  I launched into my spiel on the antler growth cycle with the enthusiasm of a young professional naturalist.  I ended my micro lecture with a verbal coda indicating how interesting I found the whole process.

“Uh-huh.”  Not the reaction I was expecting.  She clearly didn’t buy a word that I said, because I was certainly lying to cover up evidence of my Bambicide.  Nonplused, I showed her the burr, running my finger over the rough transitional surface where the antler detached from the pedicle on the buck’s head; it was obviously not sawn off a dead deer.  Still didn’t matter.  I felt the weight of her judging gaze as she proceeded to visit another table featuring less unsavory characters than government biologists like me.

Earlier this week, I was talking with someone about one aspect of my job: advocating for certain suites of native plant species, a process that often involves removing non-natives as well as native species of a different seral community.  I went on to say that forest thinning and regular regimes of prescribed burning are standard management tools in the southeastern US. Foresters and wildlife biologists are trying to create openings in forests to bring back endangered animals, but ironically those plans are halted by lawsuits from well-intentioned “nature lovers” who think all forests should be climax forests, and that any tree cutting was only for the profit of the timber industry.

My correspondent suggested, “Maybe the scientists could do some educational outreach and turn the nature lovers into volunteers. When folks understand the science, they become great advocates.”

Oh, one would believe so.  And don’t think we don’t do outreach.  Here’s a secret about biologists: we are often very knowledgeable introverts.  One of the things that draws us to a career in the outdoors is limited contact with people.  Further, a biologist often knows that a casual question from a visitor at a booth will have an answer that encompasses an hour’s lecture of foundational background, examples, and counter-examples.  They must mentally distill this into a 20-second soundbite that still sounds convincing to the layman. 

And even if we were all ecological advocates with the eloquence of Carl Sagan, delivery of the message is only half the battle.  The receiver still must accept it, and there are several barriers to overcome.

Let’s start with the power of emotion.  Emotion is immediate and viscerally satisfying, while one must be patient and discerning with facts.  I can point to a browse line and explain why humans must cull a deer herd, but weighed against a photo of a hunter-killed deer I may well lose the argument.  My coworkers can list the plant and animal species endemic to a longleaf savanna ecosystem, but can that compete with the image of the charred, barren forest floor that is periodically  necessary to preserve those species?

The next hurdle is the cognitive bias. Certain members of the public dismiss our voices, particularly in the last couple of decades.  Is it because they’ve been lied to by dishonest authorities? Because they’ve been trained by fringe news sources to assume anyone coming out of a university has a hidden agenda?  We can’t be certain of the reason, but the result – skepticism veering into denial – is evident.

Finally, there is the willingness to change.  This seems to be the highest hurdle.  The ability to change one’s opinion when presented with new facts seems as rare and as valuable as any superpower.  The shed-denier at the beginning of this essay is but one of many I’ve encountered in person or via social media. “I’m entitled to my opinion” is acceptable in matters of personal taste, but too many in today’s society take it to mean, “My ignorance is as valid as your specialized knowledge.”

If you are reading this, likely you are part of the choir I’m preaching to; you’re nodding because you’ve probably had run-ins with the arrogantly ignorant folks who believe their emotional opinion overrules your fact-based assertion. But if I am fortunate enough to capture a pair of fresh eyes linked to an open mind, please believe that I am not getting paid under the table by Big Timber.  My interest in nature began with reading about dinosaurs as a toddler and has never waned.  If I tell you something about the natural world, it’s what I believe to be true.

I have been around long enough to know there are no simple solutions.  Improving habitat for one species may be detrimental for another. One of the more difficult parts of a biologist’s job is to condense this knowledge into an elevator pitch that will enlighten someone who may be happier in the dark.


Have you ever heard of a Madstone? It’s a bit of old deer lore I was reminded of recently. 

Madstones, also called bezoars, beazlestones, or enteroliths, form in much the same way as pearls in shellfish (due to their rarity, some deer experts consider them even more valuable).  A foreign body, such as a coin, hairball, or even a clump of dirt, remains in the stomach rather than passing through the intestines.  Over time, mineral salts (particularly phosphates) and food particles coat the object.

Madstone from my Dad’s collection

Bezoars come in several different types.  The madstone-type is usually smooth and rounded like a river pebble.  Hairballs coated with minerals are called trichobezoars, and may be either soft and stringy or hard and urchin-like.  Balls of plant fibers form phytobezoars, and may be either smooth or knotty and rough.  A combination of hair and plant fiber may form phytotrichobezoars, which are often soft and velvety.  Size-wise, bezoars can run from smaller than a pea to nearly twenty pounds.  Bezoars are often found in the stomachs or throats of horses, occasionally found in ruminants such as deer, cattle, or goats, and rarely seen in cats, dogs, and even humans.  They don’t present a danger to the animals unless the bezoar blocks the intestine.

Magical power has long been ascribed to these stones.  During the Middle Ages, for example, bezoars were thought to cure epilepsy in children, break fevers, prevent plague, cure rabies, and neutralize any poison from snakebite to arsenic (the word bezoar is derived from the Persian word padzahr, which means “expelling poison”).  Even in modern times, some people collect the stones for their reputed curative powers or for just plain good luck.

Beazlestones are also found in deerhunter’s lore.  Some local traditions say that white or piebald deer carry the stones in their throats, others say that any deer can have them.  According to the folktales, a wounded deer coughs up its madstone, bringing good fortune to the hunter that finds the pebble.  More likely, the stone is found in the rumen when the deer being dressed. In these times when most deer go through a commercial processor, I expect many madstones are never recovered. 

Finding a madstone is a bit of luck in itself. Whether or not they bring good luck is a question I leave to you.

What Does It Mean to Own Land?

I was on an online forum discussing ownership of property and how to manage the land. One participant, perhaps seeing this as a moment to remind me of my place in the ecosystem (and not knowing I revere Leopold), took the position that one cannot own land; that we are merely stewards of the land. 

In a sense, that’s true.  But whether I choose to nurture or exploit this pack of dirt is a matter of ethics; whether someone else believes I have treated the land well or poorly is determined by that individual’s personal philosophy.  And it wasn’t my point.

I can most definitely own land. I recognize that my ownership is fictive, species-specific, and overlaps uncounted other claims of ownership. The songbird claims territory, but only others of its species care. You can have several different species proclaiming dominion over the same tree, but ignoring each other.  Other critters, such as the white-tailed bucks who are pawing the ground and rubbing off the bark of saplings, have home ranges, but their defensible territory seems to be located within sensory distance of wherever they happen to be when another buck is in the vicinity.

I pounded in a stake to mark the invisible line through the woods. If I chose, there would be consequences for any human walking across that invisible boundary. On the other hand, a flock of turkeys can meander back and forth across the same line without any consequence.

So, in the human world, my claim to this acreage is power – the power to protect 20 acres from being turned into a housing development or an unofficial dump. But yes, that power lasts only as long as I maintain my claim– by guarding the border and paying the taxes. When I die, it’s out of my hands. But I can protect it while I’m here.  In theory, I can sign an easement to lock away the legal rights to turn the hardwood forest into anything other than a hardwood forest, but that protection is still a piece of paper, and in jeopardy if someone wants to cut or build badly enough.

But for now I am the owner of record, duly recorded in a deed book in the courthouse. And of course, my claim of ownership is irrelevant to the animals that dwell in the same space. But I feel better knowing that the land that has suffered two centuries of abuse can rest for a decade or three.

It’s Fawning Season

Now is the time of year when, as you wander through field or forest, you may be lucky enough to spy a reddish-brown lump peering up at you from the grass.  More likely, you’ll miss it and wander by.

In Georgia, late spring to late summer is fawning season for white-tailed deer.  A doe may give birth to one, two, or even three fawns, each weighing 4-8 pounds.  Fawns can stand soon after birth, but aren’t able to keep up with their mothers for a week or so.  Their best defense is in stealth.

For one thing, they have very little scent compared to an older whitetail. There is fawnredderenough for a doe to recognize her offspring, but not enough for her (or a coyote) to easily trail it.  Their second asset is their reddish-brown color.  That seems counterproductive until you realize that most predators don’t see well in the red range of the spectrum; like many color-blind humans, coyotes and bobcats cannot easily distinguish between red and green, so a reddish fawn in green grass is pretty unobtrusive.  Furthermore, they are dappled with white spots.  Perhaps it breaks up their visual pattern  further, or perhaps it mimics the dapples of sunlight filtering through the leaves.

But this camouflage only works if the fawn is absolutely still, even when danger is near.  A frightened fawn’s breathing becomes slow and shallow, and its heart rate plummets.  I’ve seen fawns so still I wasn’t sure they were alive; they wouldn’t move even when touched.

Does feed their fawns several times a day.  After each feeding, the fawn leaves the doe and curls up in grass, under bushes or in some other cover;  this way, the doe’s own scent won’t  draw a coyote or other predator to the fawn.  Until the mother calls for it, the fawn lays motionless and quiet, safely hidden in forest thicket, field, or even backyard — I once found a fawn hiding under my truck!

To come upon a fawn is a treat.  Unfortunately, many people who find one  assume the mother has abandoned it.  Too often, these well-meaning folks will carry the young deer home and either try to take care of it or call a zoo or nature center.  Either way, the doe has lost her fawn, and the fawn has lost any chance at a normal life.  “Rescuing” fawns that aren’t in trouble never ends well for the animal. It is very difficult to provide the right nutrition and attention for any infant, and even if the deer lives to adulthood it may lack the skills to survive in the wild.   In addition, requests for assistance with fawns overwhelm wildlife rehabilitators at this time of year, keeping them from helping animals in genuine trouble.  A couple of years ago I had to collect a fawn from someone who tried to be helpful but couldn’t support the animal.  With no rehabilitators to take it, I had to put it down.  I don’t want to have to do that again.

If you find a fawn, the best thing to do is walk away quietly.  If the animal is in a dangerous place – such as in a road or a field about to be plowed – it is okay to move it out of the way, preferably to a shady spot.  Touching a fawn briefly will not make the mother abandon it, but taking it home will!