FOCUS: White-tailed deer are big animals and require a lot of food to survive, so they can have a profound impact on the forests in which they live, and on the many other inhabitants as well. As plant-eaters, seed-planters and sometimes food for large predators, deer are connected in countless ways to the other living things in their woodland homes.
Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about White-tailed Deer.
Give one item from the deer set to each small group of children. Ask children to take a close look at their object and write down one thing they notice and one thing they wonder.
Materials: Deer Set; paper or journals, pencils, magnifying lenses.
A CLOSER LOOK: DEER SETS
Objective: To think about the connections between a deer’s physical adaptations and its role in the forest ecosystem.
In small groups, give children a chance to hold and study different deer parts such as those listed below. Use the Deer Set Study guide questions to help children think about each part and how it relates to a deer’s life. Answers are provided on the Deer Set Study Guide Key. Consider the following topics:
Skull and Lower Jaw
- What do they notice about the size and location of the eyes and how might this be related to a deer’s life in the forest? (Large eyes, helpful in dim light of forest when foraging at dawn and dusk; side position helps to see all around.)
- What do they notice about the front teeth and upper jaw? (No upper incisors.)
- How can a deer eat with no upper front teeth? (Uses its lower teeth to scrape off bark, or bite off twigs against the hard upper palate.)
- How would the wide, rough molars help with its diet? (Grinding up tough, woody vegetation.) How can deer have good hearing with such small ear canals? (The outer ears are very large and can swivel around to funnel sounds to the ear canal.)
- How would the many partitions in the nose help a deer? (Lots of surface area for a keen sense of smell to detect predators and food sources.)
Nipped Twigs, Deer and Rabbit Skull Pictures
- What differences do they notice between the two browsed twigs? (One is ragged, one is neatly cut off.)
- What differences do they notice about the front teeth of rabbits and deer from the picture of deer and rabbit skulls? (Rabbits have upper and lower incisors, while deer have no upper incisors.)
- How can they tell which twig was browsed by a deer? (The ragged twig, because deer can’t make a neat cut without upper teeth.)
- What do the antlers feel like; what do they seem to be made of? (A special fast-growing bone, shed each year.)
- How does age affect antler size? (A yearling buck needs energy for bone growth and so can only grow spikes.)
- What could allow a buck to grow big, branched antlers? (Bucks with good nutrition can spare energy to grow big antlers.)
- Why might an older deer only grow small antlers? (Not enough healthy food, poor health.)
- How would this fur help deer to hide in winter? (Gray color blends in with bark of trees in winter.)
- How does their winter pelt help the deer stay warm? (Hollow hairs and two layers of fur trap warm air close to the deer’s body, insulating it.)
Deer Leg and White-tailed Deer Skeleton picture
- How many toes are there on the deer foot? (Two in the hoof and two above, called dew claws.)
- Looking at the Deer Skeleton picture, do deer walk on flat feet like us, or on their toes? (Toes.)
- How would this help a deer to run and jump? Have children try jumping in place, first with flat feet and then up on their toes. (Easier to run and jump if you’re already on your toes.)
- When are thin legs and small feet a disadvantage for such a heavy animal? (They may sink in deep snow and break through ice.)
- Measure out the distance a deer can leap while running (twenty-five feet) and the height a deer can clear from standing (eight feet) to help children visualize their jumping ability. Have children see how far or high they can jump for comparison. How would this ability help deer escape from predators? (Cover ground quickly; get over obstacles like shrubs, boulders.)
Materials: Deer Set including deer antlers, skull, pelt, leg; deer and rabbit browse; Deer and Rabbit Skull pictures, White-Tailed Deer Skeleton picture; tape measure or 25’ and 8’ lengths of yarn; Deer Set Study guide and Deer Set Study Guide Key; magnifying lenses.
TWIGS AND BUDS
Objective: To see how much food a deer needs each day to survive the winter.
Have the children gather around a sheet or small tarp on which you have piled up a mound of small twigs and buds (the kind of food that deer eat in winter). Explain that in winter a deer needs to eat about two and a half pounds of food a day, just to stay alive. Provide a kitchen scale for the children to weigh out a one-day portion of food. Have each child put a handful of twigs into the grocery bag on the scale until the correct weight is reached. This will usually fill a whole grocery bag, depending on how dry the twigs are. Is it easy for deer to find enough food in winter? (It depends on the richness of the habitat, snow depth, and how many other deer are there.) Note: This could be done as part of the antler station in the deer set activity above.
Materials: kitchen scale, cloth sheet or tarp, at least 3 lbs. of small twigs (twigs lose weight as they dry out), paper grocery bag.
FEAST OR FAMINE
Objective: To see how the food supply regulates the size of the deer population in an area.
Have children pretend to be deer and assign them to small herds of two to four individuals. Place a small plate in front of each “herd,” explaining that it will hold all the food that is in each group’s home range that winter. Place eight tokens (such as pennies, cards, beads) on each plate. One token represents enough food for a deer to live for a month. Each time you say the name of a month, the “deer” must take one token. Deer cannot share or divide their food with others. Explain that if a deer doesn’t get any food, it must hold its belly as if hungry. If it goes two months without food it can lie down as if dead. Begin by saying “December,” then “January” and so on, through March.
Which groups fared the best? (The smallest groups.) What happens to deer when there are too many of them for the amount of food in an area? (Some will die of starvation in the winter.)
Materials: 4 plates; tokens such as pennies, cards, or beads, 8-10 for each plate.
PUPPET SHOW “A Couple of Bucks”
Objective: To learn about some ways that deer and the other inhabitants of the forest depend upon each other.
Perform the puppet show, or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. What do deer eat? (Plants.)
What level are they in the food chain? (Herbivores.) Review how deer are important to trees (provide fertilizer), to squirrels (provide calcium, compete for nuts), to predators (provide food, make predators fast and cunning). In what ways are the other animals and plants in a forest important to deer? (Plants give them food, predators keep them fast, squirrels plant nut trees, crows warn them of danger.)
Materials: puppets, script, stage.
DEER FLAG TAG
Objective: To experience and model how living in a herd provides safety from predators.
Explain that half of the children will be trees and the others will be deer. The deer need to graze for food while looking out for predators. Have the “trees” stand with arms outstretched. Give each of the deer a small cup in which to collect food, and a white “tail” (tissue or piece of cloth) to wave if a predator is spotted. Mark off a Safety Zone some yards away from the children with gym cones or a sign. Sprinkle popcorn or sunflower seeds on the ground among the “trees.” At your signal to begin, deer must collect food, one piece at a time, and put it in their cups, while keeping a lookout for predators. Secretly hand a predator mask to one of the trees. That person becomes the predator and tries to sneak up and tag a deer. When a deer catches sight of the predator, it must wave its white tail and run to the safety zone. All the other deer should follow, waving their tails as well. Any deer tagged before reaching safety is caught. Now have the children switch roles so that the trees become deer and vice versa. Repeat as above.
After the game, ask the children how it felt to try to get food, knowing that a predator was lying in wait. How is the deer’s digestive system designed for this eat-and-run strategy? (Deer chew and swallow food quickly; later they regurgitate and chew their cud when resting.) How does it help deer to live in a group? (More eyes, ears, and noses to detect predators.)
(On rainy days, play this in a gym, with the food in bowls. Be sure to sweep up afterwards.)
Materials: for half the children: small containers like yogurt cups; pieces of white fabric about 1’x2” wide or a white tissue; popcorn, sunflower seeds, or other food tokens to be scattered on the ground; a half-mask with pointy ears and narrow eyes; gym cones or sign for Safety Zone.
Objective: To see how the population of deer in an area varies with changes in available resources.
Divide the group into two uneven teams with a quarter of the students representing deer and three-quarters representing the habitat. Have the teams form two lines, facing each other and at least ten feet apart. Explain that in each round of the game, the children in both groups will be selecting a habitat component. Children on the habitat team will pick the component they wish to represent; the deer will pick the component they wish to obtain. To indicate which component they have chosen they will make one of three signs:
Shelter: hands on head
Water: hands cupped under mouth
Food: hands on stomach
Demonstrate these motions and have the children practice making each one. Stress that once they have made a choice, they may not change it until the next round.
Explain that at the start of each round, all of the children will indicate their component choice by making the appropriate sign. The habitat children will remain in place, while each deer will run to a “habitat” child who is displaying the habitat component that it (the deer) is seeking.
If a deer is able to find a match, it returns to its original “deer” line, bringing its match along. Both are now deer. In this way the deer population grows when resources are plentiful. If a deer is unable to find a match, it remains with the habitat group, indicating that it didn’t survive. Thus the deer population decreases when there’s a lack of resources.
Once everyone understands the rules, have the two lines face away from each other, choose their habitat component, and make the associated motion. When you say “go,” the teams will turn to face each other and the deer will run to find their matches. Play several rounds of the game, recording the number of deer after each round. Ask the children to look for patterns and then make predictions about how the numbers might change in each round. Note how the amount of resources affects the population and how the number of deer fluctuates over time. Try graphing the results. When does the deer population increase? (When there are lots of resources.) When does it decrease? (When there are lots of deer but few resources.)
*This activity is adapted from a similar game called “Oh Deer” in Project Wild.
Materials: optional: clipboard, pencil, paper or graph paper.
Objective: To learn how deer visit different parts of their home ranges as their needs change over the year.
Show slides or pictures to illustrate deer tracks and sign, and learn how their needs and habitats change during different seasons and different parts of their life cycle (courtship, rearing young). Afterward, with students, generate a list of deer sign to look for outdoors that would be evidence that deer are present near the school or near the students’ homes.
Materials: Deer Slide Show or photos of deer through the year, Slide Show Script, projector, screen.
A DAY IN THE LIFE MURALS
Objective: To review basic needs and imagine a day in the life of a deer in different seasons.
Provide each small group of children with a large sheet of paper and pencils, crayons, or markers for drawing. Assign each team a season and ask them to make a mural showing where deer might be at that time of year, and where they would find food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. Use deer-track stamps to show a deer’s movements within the habitat over the course of a day. Afterwards, have each group present its mural to the class, pointing out the main features.
Materials: mural paper, pencils, markers, crayons or paint; deer-track stamps, stamp pads, ink; optional: track stamps of coyote, bobcat, or bear.
JOURNAL ACTIVITY and CLOSING THOUGHTS
Objective: To share personal experiences with seeing deer.
Have children complete this sentence in their journals: “Once I saw a deer and then…” Provide track stamps for children to make a hoof print in their journals. Have them share their stories in small groups.
Materials: track stamps and stamp pads, journals or paper, pencils.
UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Deer Yards in Your Town (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use significant wildlife habitat maps to locate nearby deer yards.
Working in small groups with a leader, have students gather around a Significant Wildlife Habitat map for their town. Using the map key, have students find roads, buildings, rivers, and wetlands. Find and highlight the town boundaries. Help students find the approximate location of their homes, as well as the school and town center. Circle any deer wintering areas in the town. Students may use the map scale to measure the distance from their homes or the school to the nearest deer yard. Ask students to mark places on the map where they have seen deer or deer tracks. What sign of deer might you find in a deer yard? (Deer prints, trails, browse, beds.) What’s the best thing to do if you find yourself in a deer yard in winter? (Leave quietly and stay away until spring.)
Materials: Significant Wildlife Habitat map for your town (enough copies so students can work in small groups), marker pens, rulers; optional: clear sheet protectors so maps can be reused.