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The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons from the Natural World

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In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, the New York Times bestselling author of The Hidden Life of Dogs, turns her attention to wild deer, and the many lessons we can learn by observing nature. A narrative masterpiece and a naturalist’s delight, The Hidden Life of Deer is based on the twelve months Thomas, a renowned anthropologist, spent studying the local deer population near her home in New Hampshire.

256 pages, Hardcover

First published September 15, 2009

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About the author

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

53 books214 followers
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is the author of The Harmless People, a non fiction work about the Kung Bushmen of southwestern Africa, and of Reindeer Moon, a novel about the paleolithic hunter gatherers of Siberia, both of which were tremendous international successes. She lives in New Hampshire.

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Displaying 1 - 29 of 70 reviews
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
September 22, 2022
Stand very still. Breathe as softly as you can. See that little flicking movement? No, not over there, straight ahead, behind the bush. Keep looking. You will see it. I promise. There. Didn't I tell you? Cool, right? Isn’t she beautiful?
One of the foundations on which the study of nature is based is to be still and watch. Yes, there is a lot more to it, but you have to find some inner quiet, clear your mental and sensory palate, stop fidgeting, and allow the images, scents, sounds and feel of the world to cross your senses, settle in and register. There is plenty more of course. But watching, noticing, is an excellent place to start. In The Hidden Life of Deer, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has done just that. And she was able to learn a lot without having to look very far beyond her back door in Peterborough, NH.

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The author - image from her site

Usually oak trees spread acorns over the landscape every autumn, but in 2007, in Thomas’s neck of the woods, they seemed to be on strike. Reluctant to see the local whitetails endure the particular hardship of cold plus starvation, Thomas took it upon herself to provide something that might help, corn. Deer had been visible on her land forever, but the feeding assured that there would be plenty of deer to watch.
There is probably more written about deer than any other animal. I found 1.2 million websites, 80 books in print, many more out of print and about 100 articles on deer. I really think they are the most studied mammals in the world, but nobody cares about their social lives. They care about the bacteria in their gut in winter, and things related to hunting them — but not what they really are or do. I wanted to just watch them and learn who they are.- from the Mother Nature Network interview
Thompson takes us along with her as she struggles with figuring out how to identify individual animals, and observing the dynamics of interactions among deer groups. There are nuggets of information scattered throughout the book, material that will make you smile as you add it to your accumulated knowledge of the world. Why, for example, do deer nibble and move, nibble and move, instead of chomping down a bit farther in a given patch? Why is food that is ok for deer at one time of year, useless in another? How can deer scat help you determine what direction the critter was headed? How dangerous are antlered buck battles? How can you tell a place is a deer resting spot? How have deer adapted to ways in which people hunt them?
…a useful way to look at another life-form is to assume that whatever it may be doing—chewing bark, digging a tiny hole, wrapping itself in a leaf, sending up a sprout, turning its leaves to face the sunlight—it is trying to achieve a goal that you, in your way, would also want to achieve. In fact, you can be sure of that. The closer you are taxonomically to what you are looking at, the more likely you are to recognize what it’s goals might be, and the further you are, the less likely. Either way it’s fascinating.
Thompson does not fawn solely over deer for the entirety. There is plenty of subsidiary intel here on other forest dwellers. Turkeys come in for a considerable look and you will be thankful, I guarantee it. Bobcat scat (no not a form of feline singing) on a boulder has particular significance, and is not just evidence that the kittie could not make it to the usual dumping ground in time. (see, I managed not to conjure an image of the guy below leaving a deposit in the woods) In fact there is a whole section on varieties of woodland scat that you will not want to wipe from your memory. There is a description of oak behavior, yes behavior, that will make you wonder if Tolkien’s depiction of ents might have more truth to it than most have suspected.

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Not to leave all the consideration to the critters, Thompson offers some observations on human selection and characteristics as well.
suppose we had evolved in the northern forests, rather than simply arriving there as an invasive species. We certainly wouldn’t be naked—we’d be permanently covered with dense fur—and when our pineal glands told us that the days were getting short, we’d do a lot more than simply feel gloomy—we‘d redouble our efforts to find food, and we’d start breeding so that nine months later our young would be born in the spring. Allegedly we do eat and breed a bit more in the autumn, but if we were truly a northern hemispheric species, we’d do it in grand style…The reason we don’t have thick fur and a breeding season is not because we’re superior beings, but because we evolved where such things were not needed.
She also goes into some unusual hunting rituals humans engage in, wondering if the practices in question might extend into pre-history. She refers to such learning, handed down from generation to generation, as The Old Way, ( a subject she explores in depth in her book of that title) whether it is the passing of information by ungulates or homo sap.

In fact Thomas, an anthrolopogist, as well as a naturalist, has spent considerable time in Africa, living with and studying the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari, writing about what she learned in The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen and The Old Way: A Story of the First People. She is best known for The Hidden Life of Dogs. She has also written about felines, in The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and their Culture

Thomas is very easy to read. You need not be concerned with getting lost in scientific jargon. She is very down to earth, and very accessible. There is a spare beauty to her prose. She has also written several novels, (Reindeer Moon and The Animal Wife most prominently) so she knows how to frame and tell a story.

For most of us, city-dwellers by and large, opportunities for wildlife observation are much more limited than they are for those living so much closer to actual wilderness. But we need not be starved for information, insight, lore and wisdom about the natural world. Just as Thompson provided corn for deer to help get them from one year to another, so she has offered, in The Hidden Life of Deer, knowledge and nourishment for the mind and the soul. You will learn a lot reading this, some of it very surprising. The book has been found by many readers since its publication in 2009. Do yourself a favor and hunt down a copy, then sit somewhere where no one can see you and read it very quietly. I advise against twitching your ears.


Review first posted – 9/5/14

Publication date – 2009



This review has also been posted on my site, Cootsreviews. Stop by and say Hi!

=============================EXTRA STUFF

The author's personal site

A PBS Nature Video – The Secret Life of Deer

The Quality Deer Management Association, a hunters site, yes, really has a lot of info on whitetails

A Lovely interview with the author on Mother Nature Network

A Publisher’s Weekly profile of Thomas, Rebel with a Cause

An interesting youtube vid of Thomas talking about The Old Way

There are six parts to this Daily Motion interview with Thomas. Here is a link to the first of those.
Profile Image for Petra X has her eye on the prize.
2,384 reviews33.9k followers
May 6, 2015
Unlike the rest of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's books, this one was very slight both in size and depth. In a way it was a postscript of life at home to The Old Way: A Story of the First People. That was a wonderful book of the hunter/gatherers of the Kalahari that the author knew so well as 'home' herself, and written about in such depth. Deer might live the Old Way, but most people don't and this was the author living the 'new' way, in the USA.

It was also a long, well-thought out reply to the local Conservation Department's injunction not to feed deer (EMT likes feeding deer, a lot). I did enjoy it, I didn't learn as much as from her other books, but what I did learn was absolutely fascinating and sometimes quite funny. Her feminist, or at least female, sensibilities often give insights into animal behaviour that other ethologists have not written about, certainly we never see them in popular natural history documentaries.

Female deer, the does, might be chosen for breeding by a buck they don't particularly fancy in which case they will move away. However, if he is insistent, as soon as he's mounted and got his end away, she pushes him off and moves away sharply, leaving the poor, frustrated buck bellowing. But if that isn't successful and she does get bred, she has one trick left. She squats down right in front of the buck and squeezes out the semen. He might have got sex but she isn't letting him breed any babies on her. So much for the big bucks dominating the harem!

Originally reviewed 10 May 2011, rewritten 14 March 2012
Profile Image for Chrisl.
607 reviews87 followers
Read
November 21, 2020
Have trouble staying on EMT wavelength. Think this is third time I've skimmed the library's copy. Also have tried most of Thomas' other books. Wanted to re-read 'deer' sections, the chapter on fawns.
***
Random thoughts induced by Thomas book topics:

Call my property the "Fawns Nursery." About the first of June, the delights of baby deer come here.
Usually have two ridge dominant does with two fawns each devoting time to my ridge side with irrigated pasture and watering holes. One year (shown on one of the pictures on my profile page,) there was a triplet set, making for a cinco-some, fun to watch, particularly when doing their wind sprints and chases. Watching them learn to jump to board fences.

The last few weeks, observed five bucks hunting for doe scent, chasing and mounting action, sharpening antlers on small juniper trees, threatening the younger, smaller males ...

Don't feed them. Have quit trying to grow flowers they eat. (In recent years they have overcome their distaste for blue flax, to my disappoint.) Have fed them alfalfa bales at the end of snow season. And a couple deep snow winters.

Buy the hay at winter's first snow for truck bed ballast. Tarp needs to be secure to keep them from nibbling ...
Have also inadvertently fed them birdseed more than I'd like. Called one dominant doe 'Ms-Seed-Nose' for the residue she scraped when finding freshly ground spread small bird and quail food.

Over the years I've named many deer a variation of Ren and Len, because they have notched their ears on barbed wire, branches, whatever, this 'right ear notch' or 'left ear notch. Did have a couple years when the Fawns Nursery had professional name tags providing by Oregon Fish and Wildlife. Some of the deer had a mange like condition, and I assume the folks at state 'fishies and beasties were tracking them.

If you have never heard the thud of a doe kicking a dog, it it a memorable sound. Next came the 80 pound dog running for the house door with doe in pursuit. (The maple shaded berm on the north side of the house was that doe's launching pad.) When dog-sitting, I've learned ... that a not 'hidden' face of deer can be dog-intimidation.
Profile Image for Jason.
171 reviews1 follower
October 23, 2009
The last hundred years, in the eastern United States, have seen a recovery almost unimagined of various mammal species. The Whitetail Deer was down to about half a million around the year 1900. Today, due to a variety of factors, including Resource Game management, the population of this variety of deer has grown to over 20 million. As a result, lots of Americans are seeing more and more deer crossing through and stopping on their property, and people are trying to understand the ecology of these quiet animals. The Hidden Life of Deer is not the book for the interested laymen, who are curious about the life of deer. It is a rambling account of one naturalists observations, philosophies, and attempts to understand her role in the local ecosystem.

Thomas has made a career of studying the social systems of dogs, cats, elephants and other animals. In this book of about 200 pages, she attempts to bring that same level of observation and analysis to the wildlife on her wooded family property in New Hampshire. The hook, or crisis of this book is her awareness that the acorn crop in the fall of 2006, was far below normal, and that the deer in the area would suffer from hunger as the New England winter came on. Her naturalist instinct would be to just watch what would happen as the wild deer struggle to find other food sources. Instead, Thomas began a corn feeding program on her property. For the rest of the book, she attempts to justify why she began this feeding program, while decrying how mankind, locally and historically, has intervened in the lives of wild animals, to the animals’ detriment.

Unfortunately, the actual hidden life of deer, as observed by a trained naturalist, takes up far less of this book than it should. The author rambles on about mice, bears, Indian primates, local birds and insects and takes a lot of inconsistent stands on a host of issues. While observing a hunt with someone she hails as a great animal tracker, she ends up lying to state game officials about killing an animal she did not kill, so her hunter friend could chase a larger buck. The last chapter is a rambling account of her guilt over poisoning rodents that ended up in her home, murders she called them.

In between, Thomas asserts a mixed bag of naturalism philosophy, references to mother earth Gaia and other truth claims that really have no business in a book that should be about educating the uninformed reader about the life of the native mammal in the eastern United States. As a result, a book with an interesting premise rests a lot on the author’s guilt, needless philosophical claims and ramblings that have little to do with the point of her main theses. In the end, she really has a hard time justifying why she continues to feed deer, even after a better acorn harvest the following autumn.
Profile Image for Anne Hamilton.
Author 35 books145 followers
June 11, 2015
A curious book. While reading it I felt it was a masterpiece of beauty and lyricism. But when I got to the end, I felt deflated rather than uplifted. It was strangely hollow and unsatisfying but I can't quite put my finger on why.

It was nonetheless a book full of small and fascinating details.

I discovered the both haemoglobin and chlorophyll have a complex structure with almost exactly the same formula - the iron of haemoglobin is replaced by magnesium in chlorophyll.

I also discovered that fawns have no odour. And that their mothers take great care to keep them from smelling as well as encouraging them not to move in order to protect them from predators.

Profile Image for Lize.
48 reviews26 followers
August 9, 2012
The author, who lives a short distance from me in New Hampshire, started out with a bird feeder by her back door. Then she noticed wild turkeys on her property, and she put out a little corn for them, and soon she was feeding a whole flock of turkeys during the winter. Then, in 2007, the acorn crop that deer and other animals depend on through the winter failed, and a herd of deer began eating the turkeys' corn, giving the author a fascinating opportunity to observe deer behavior first hand through the window of her home office. This book is about what she discovered, as well as a lot of interesting things about bears, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats, trees (it turns out that oak trees under-produce from time to time on purpose, to cut down on their predators), how to ‘read scat’ in the forest (something I’ve already been out trying) and how people fit into it all:

“At least to me, it gave a sense of our place on the planet. I saw that animals were important. I saw that plants are even more important. I was to learn that compared to many of the other species, we weren’t important at all except for the damage we do. We do not rule the natural world, despite our conspicuous position in it. On the contrary, it is our lifeline, and we do well to try to understand its rules.”

The author is a fierce and formidable force of nature herself, and some of the stories she tells made me chuckle (like ordering a police officer in pursuit of an injured bear off her property—“come back with a warrant—go find a judge,” she snapped.) She’s lived a very interesting (and to me, enviable) life, starting with spending her late teens and early twenties in the Kalahari Desert in Africa, and she has a lively curiosity and engagement with the natural world that has lasted into her eighties. Fascinating lady, delightful book.
Profile Image for Brian.
4 reviews
September 10, 2015
The book a hidden life of deer is a great book that I recommend to anyone who is a fan of animals and how intelligent they are. E.M.T did a amazing job in showing us how deer really think and how society has the wrong idea of them. My favorite part of the book was when she talks about how deer know about microclimates and how they use them for there advantage with hiding and keeping warm. I loved this book and defiantly give it a five star.
Profile Image for Whoof.
209 reviews
February 15, 2013
I read this book in order to learn something about deer. I still don't know anything about deer! This is a dopey and unscientific book that should be renamed "Why I Ignore Posted Warnings and Feed Deer Corn During Winter." Basically, the author feeds deer because the natural process of nature (some deer dying during the harsh winters) makes her sad.
Profile Image for Jimmy.
Author 5 books199 followers
May 18, 2010
Is actually about other animals as well as deer. Author's main point is to defend her practice of feeding animals. Worth reading if you love studying wild animals.
Profile Image for Lily.
9 reviews
November 19, 2013
I'll never look at the deer that come into our back yard the same way again. Now I'm wondering who is mother, sister, aunt, grandchild, etc. This is a very interesting book.
1,122 reviews6 followers
August 13, 2020
While the book focuses on the lives of the deer Thomas encountered the winter she began feeding them, it is so much more. She not only makes you care for the deer but for all the living creatures she encounters including a caterpillar, trees, and rats (okay, I didn't care for the rats!). She does acknowledge the Fish and Wildlife recommendations that people not feed the deer in her area but addresses each of their concerns and why she opted to do otherwise. I want to experience this appreciation of nature in all forms. Good read! And if there is an audiobook read by the author I will be listening to this as well!
Profile Image for Rosa Schwank.
9 reviews1 follower
September 23, 2021
2.5 I was expecting scientific research and facts about deer, but this is merely the author's amateur observations of deer and nature. There are some interesting facts sprinkled in some chapters, but this book is mostly just an explanation of the author's personal experiences and beliefs.
13 reviews1 follower
April 7, 2010
Brilliant satire!

The Hidden Life of Deer deftly skewers the vanity of self-styled animal rescuers who prefer to depend upon their own emotions rather than the hard facts of nature and conservation work. In the great tradition of Christopher Buckley, the author sets up her characters in a series of increasingly ridiculous situations, to which insanity they themselves are unconscious. Written from a purportedly autobiographical viewpoint, Thomas begins the story with the conspiracy of trees in the local forest to withhold their acorns, a sort of union strike against the forces of evil corporate fauna greed. Setting out to rescue the deer (though not the squirrels) from the resulting shortage of preferred food, Thomas decides to cross the goddess Gaia's picket lines and throw out buckets and buckets of corn. The resulting encounters with game management, knowledgeable neighbors, and a wounded bear serve to expose the self-contradictory rationalizations and self-congratulatory moral justifications that take primacy over what is actually in the best interest of animal populations. Although the book is primarily about the deer, one of the best stories in the book has to do with the debate over whether to bring her mother's "pet" squirrels and doves along for the move to New Hampshire -- a hysterical discussion that makes a serious point about the consequences of making wild animals dependent upon humans for food. Ultimately, Thomas instead chooses to make pets out of the rats that infest her house and leave their droppings on her desk, having reached the logical extremes of her devotion to Gaia and novel interpretations of the way animals think.
8 reviews
March 1, 2011
I stumbled upon this book in the rustic and charming Henry Miller library at Big Sur, California. If you have not been there, I highly recommend a visit.

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book is not a simple recitation of the behaviors of the deer on her New Hampshire land. The book is significantly more. It is a lesson on “expanded seeing” and a meditation on humans in a shared territory with the “wild other”. She takes us on a journey through her own experience and teaches us how to witness and learn from direct observation and the perspective of a “shared intent” to propagate and survive.

Although I felt I came to the book with an already heightened empathy, after completing the book, I have an even more profound respect for the other-than-human and their highly tuned, innate environmental intelligence.
Profile Image for Charlie.
1,056 reviews
June 25, 2017
There a lot of wonderfully observant details about deer behavior. I'm sure a lot of layperson animal lovers find delight here. But I found Thomas' constant rationalization for doing something she said she shouldn't be doing to be both annoying and self-righteous. I also feel the same about her continual disdain for and digs at the wildlife management professionals. You can't have it both ways. You can't believe you should "protect" nature by artificially altering it's ways either by feeding to keep an overpopulation alive, or by "harvesting" to keep numbers down. The natural world takes care of itself quite well if only we would get out of the way.
Profile Image for Mary Robinson.
647 reviews6 followers
September 16, 2010
Found this when I was looking for books to identify deer bones and was very intrigued. But the book turned out to be more about the author and her rational for feeding the deers at her home, dealing with hunting authorities and some other goofier stuff. She certainly knows deers but I would have liked to learn more about them too.

Profile Image for Cheri.
1,688 reviews2,242 followers
December 2, 2015

"A good way to look at other life-forms is to view them all as something like yourself."

"Perhaps our planet isn't much in the general scheme of things -- just a mote of interstellar dust on the far edge of the Milky Way, circling a tiny star that must be smaller than a pinprick in the eyes of god -- but it's our mother."
44 reviews
July 20, 2021
I thought this would be a boring book - in fact I picked it for that reason. I was hoping for a light read to explore in between intense study sessions and the weather was just a touch too cold for camping or comfortable outdoor time and this book seemed to offer a glimpse into a wildness I could not yet experience. I was not disappointed. Marshall Thomas delivers excellent prose (especially for a book written about the common white tail deer). Her sensitivity and proximity to her subject gives us a view of deer and their behavior that most of us have never seen before. She paints a picture of deer that is as exotic as dessert antelope and we begin to feel a sense of gratitude that these creatures still exist despite years of hunting and scientific transplant mishaps. Deer are part of the family Cervidae, which includes elk and moose - and they are found one almost every continent and locale. For this reason, Marshall Thomas explains, deer were once quite plentiful and diverse with multiple different species occupying different regions of North America. Most of them were hunted out and even the common white tail almost went extinct in the early 1900s. Marshall Thomas presents for us a sensitive and delicate view of an animal most of us think of as food or nuisance, and highlights something we can learn from the humble deer - being quiet and paying attention. In a time when scientists are predicting a sixth extinction event and noticing the decline of multiple important species including the white tail deer (which are quietly struggling with chronic wasting disease), this book comes at a relevant time. We make take white tail deer for granted - but they may not always be with us.
Profile Image for Diane.
932 reviews
July 16, 2018
I was drawn to this title as I was always curious about the deer that show up in our yard. Would I like to learn about their "hidden life"? You bet! But this book was a little "all over the place." The author is pretty well-intentioned but she didn't really tell me much I didn't know. She rambles a bit and went on for pages about rats in her house and a random milkweed in her fields. She calls herself a naturalist and I was reminded of some of Diane Ackerman's writings about nature. Ackerman also goes off on tangents but Thomas lacks Diane Ackerman's poetic bent so I found my mind wandering.
Just a so-so read.
July 25, 2017
Fascinating look at the secret lives of deer and much more!

A wonderful look at nature surrounding us and revealing so much new information, comparing the many similarities between humans and other animals, including deer. I liked her total honesty and ability to see way beyond the clear and obvious. Her training, family background, and highly developed curiosity showed me the very intelligent ways deer manage their surroundings, and especially humans. A really good read!
519 reviews3 followers
September 27, 2017
Quite an interesting read

This is less a scientific treatise and more an odd to naturalism. The author is a self-proclaimed tree hugger and I suspect her political views and mine are far apart. But she displays such open appreciation of the natural world , along with an ability to be open to other viewpoints such as the place of hunting in that world, that the reader also puts aside preconceptions and enjoys the observation.
Profile Image for Louise.
4 reviews
October 4, 2017
Fascinating information. Elizabeth has me analyzing my resident deer behavior, recognizing the individual, two groups that visit us daily. I have now learned that the one deer I named "magnificent" is an alpha deer because her behavior and how the others treat her.

I read a lot about animal behavior and found the content a little shallow but good. Great info the which I can build on the understanding of this ungulate family.
Profile Image for Tim.
54 reviews1 follower
December 31, 2019
I once lived in Peterborough and can picture the environment Thomas describes. I love how she uses her own observation skills to learn so much. Made me want to pay greater attention to the outdoors, and especially to the deer that frequent our yard and nearby woods.
Profile Image for Chef Pepito.
19 reviews
March 11, 2020
I learned more about Thomas herself than I did about deer, quite frankly. The later chunk of the book is more about bears, bugs, rats and trees—which im happy to read about— that being said, they are simply tangents in this context.
Profile Image for Mandy Rempel.
6 reviews
February 12, 2021
I was looking forward to learning about the hidden life of deer as the title suggested. Instead this is page after page of one persons observations of watching deer eat corn in her yard. There is nothing about the hidden life of deer in the wild in this book.
Profile Image for Susan.
781 reviews40 followers
October 24, 2022
Fascinating book about white tail deer which I see regularly grazing in my front yard and worry about hitting one with my car driving down country roads at night. Well worth reading if you are at all interested in deer.
Profile Image for Clayton Brannon.
657 reviews22 followers
December 4, 2017
A very enjoyable read about the life of deer from the view point of a person loves the natural world.
Displaying 1 - 29 of 70 reviews

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