Change in the Woods

   If the woods seem a little quieter than they were 10 or 20 years ago, consider this: There may be fewer birds here because the white-tailed deer have all but eliminated the understory on which many species relied for food and cover. Some researchers say there are more white-tailed deer afoot in North America now than at European contact. This is an environmental crisis.
    Never mind what the herds have done to costly landscape plantings; those can be replaced. Instead, worry that deer have reshaped the woods across the Eastern United States. As this mild winter continues, experts say, stress on the herd will be at a minimum. As a result, many does will give birth to what are likely to be at least twins, and by May scores more of hungry quadrupeds will be on the rampage.
     Think back if you can to what Hither Woods looked like in, say, 1990 — a thick forest above with dense, almost impenetrable shrubs underneath — a haven for birds and small mammals. Open vistas under the trees now are probably supporting far less biodiversity — a profoundly worrying trend. Elsewhere, you can see the sea along roads that never afforded a view. This is charming perhaps, but it comes at an unacceptable cost.
    Birds thought to be directly affected by the deer’s propensity to eat every leaf and twig they can reach include the glorious-voiced wood thrush, eastern towhees, some species of warblers and wrens, catbirds, and brown thrashers.
    As homeowners encircle their yards with high, wire barriers, it is remarkable to realize that wild thickets remain on some of these large, well-fenced parcels, becoming havens for birds displaced by the deer’s depredations. Native wildflowers and other plants may one day survive only because of accidental protection within these enclosures. In anticipation of this, some organizations are already rushing to “bank” seeds so that our woodlands and natural grasslands can someday be restored, if it comes to that.
    The impact runs right up the food chain. Deer that remove ground-story habitat and eat much of the acorns and other nuts that fall can reduce populations of mice, but chipmunks and other small mammals that feed migrating hawks and owls are also affected negatively.
    Though some may differ, the only reasonable cure is in sharply reducing the number of deer, mostly by hunting or fencing off the woods. Some animal-rights activists obviously object to the former, favoring essentially unproven schemes involving contraceptives, and the latter would be wildly expensive if not impossible.
    It is a pity to think of wild lands in which a single animal breed reigns above all the rest, throwing all life out of balance. Something must be done to limit the herds — and soon.