Autumn is here, watch out for deer. And that also applies to boaters.
The rut will arrive with the fall of the leaves at the end of the summer, which means that the males will begin to mate.
The rut is usually accompanied by road signs warning drivers of deer, and although motorists on Jamestown roads have been trained to keep an eye out for deer, so are boaters in the bay.
An August 29 post on a Jamestown community Facebook page by Liz Reinsant-Lataille included a photo of a deer swimming in the West Passage with the Verrazzano Bridge in the background.
“I saw this deer swimming from the mainland to Jamestown last week,” she wrote. “There is a first for everything.”
The post received 260 likes, 27 shares and 59 comments, which is relatively popular for the community page. It also raises the question of whether deer are natural swimmers.
According to David Kalb, supervising wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, white-tailed deer are strong swimmers and swim longer distances and in deeper water than you might expect for a large terrestrial mammal.
“They’re not super fast in the water, but they’re definitely able to move long distances,” he said. “Deer have incredible stamina. They can go a long way before they tire. Miles is not a question.
Deer also swim as a means of escape to avoid predators, and Kalb has seen does swimming across bodies of water to avoid aggressive bucks during mating season. Also, deer swim to explore or move to another area for better habitat or food availability, which is likely how they got to Conanicut Island in the first place.
Like dogs, deer use their front and hind legs to swim, but their legs are narrow and they cannot swim as fast as a canine. Deer can swim up to 15 mph and up to 10 miles, according to Deer World, a website cited by PBS, National Geographic and the University of Michigan. While deer can be spotted swimming in the summer, Kalb said it’s easier for them to swim in their gray winter coats than in their reddish-brown summer fur.
“The winter coat is hollow, so the hair has air inside it,” he said. “Because of that, they have a very good buoyancy factor. The bristles aren’t as dense as say a beaver where they won’t get wet, but they are hollow and warm so they can get in the water, swim in and out and stay quite comfortable.
Some species of deer can swim better than the white-tailed deer found in Rhode Island, such as the Japanese sika deer, which has a stockier build and lives in a wet, swampy environment.
Deer can be found on most islands in Narragansett Bay, including those not populated by humans, such as Dutch, Gould, and Patience. Small islands in the bay, such as Spar and Goat Islands, do not have deer populations, officials said.
An island that deer are unlikely to reach by swimming is Block Island. The deer population was introduced there by humans in 1967, and there is now an overabundance of them in New Shoreham. Kalb said it would be difficult for them to swim that distance, which is at least 15 miles from the Rhode Island mainland.
Kalb said the deer likely first reached the islands in Narragansett Bay, either swimming or walking when the bay froze over in winter.
Deer can be spotted swimming in the bay all year round. Although the DEM receives reports from the public of deer swimming, they do not keep records of such sightings and it is unknown where they are most commonly spotted in Rhode Island waters. Kalb said he hears reports every few years.
Kalb said anyone seeing deer swimming in the bay should give the animal their space. According to agency hunting regulations, hunting or pursuing a deer while swimming is prohibited in all Rhode Island waters. Deer are unlikely to be in distress while swimming, and a sick or injured deer is more likely to find a place on land to rest instead of entering the water.
“If a deer goes into the water, they probably have a reason to,” he said. “A deer in bad shape is probably not going to go into the water knowing it’s going to struggle.”
Last year a group of boaters found a deer swimming near Ann Street Pier in Newport which they thought was in distress. He was heading towards an area where they thought he might drown. After removing the animal from the water, they brought it to Fort Adams State Park and released it.
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