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Staff Pick: The Hidden Lives of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I have always enjoyed reading about natural history. I have read so many books on tigers, bears, sharks and wolves that I have lost count. These large, powerful and dangerous animals are the rock stars of the natural history publishing scene. There are so many new books for each of these subjects published each year that an interested reader could easily just focus on them.

But there are obviously so many other players in the natural world, those animals who don’t get near as much glory. Animals who are fascinating in their own right.

For example: White-tail Deer.

I must admit that despite my interest in wildlife, I had never given very much thought to deer. I have seen hundreds of deer (and moose) but I have never really had any curiosity to find out more about them.

I have rectified this gap in my knowledge with The Hidden Lives of Deer: lessons from the natural world, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.

Thomas writes about the deer who live around her farmland property in New Hampshire. Her interest in studying deer is sparked by her decision to provide food to the deer during a tough winter in which the local acorn crop had failed. Through a year long’s worth of observation, Thomas reveals an incredible social structure among the deer. One that is very similar to that of wolves. A social structure with an obvious pecking order, one with an alpha individual at the top. Thomas follows several deer “families” throughout the winter, speculating as best she can as to their motives and their relationships with the other deer and predators.

Marshall writes from a place of compassion and curiosity, but also with a scientist’s eye for observation and objectivity (she is a trained anthropologist). She doesn’t gloss over the harsh reality of nature, that the competition among animals can be brutal and that survival can hinge on many factors and fateful choices. And unlike many wildlife advocates, Thomas doesn’t oppose hunting (and actually gets her hunting license). She also readily admits that her feeding actions may not be in the best long term interests of the deer. She struggles with this choice.

I particularly enjoyed learning about the intelligence and strength of these mammels. She recounts one event on her property where a deer was being pursued by a coyote. When the deer spots her, it actually runs directly towards her, effectively stopping the coyote’s pursuit. Smart deer!

I also became quite enamoured with the flock of wild turkeys who would also come by the farm each day for feed of corn. There is a touching scene described at the end of the book, where the wild turkeys seemingly come looking for her, peering in her window. This is a scene that still makes me smile and reaffirms my passion for reading about natural history.

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Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is also the author of The Social Lives of Dogs : the grace of canine company and The Hidden Lives of Dogs.

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