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Dance of the whitetails.

Nature choreographs an unforgettable performance for a box-seat observer.

LONG SHAFTS OF LOW SUNLIGHT begin to illuminate the hillside in front of my Montana mountain home. Water bubbles out of the earth, gurgling into the ditch my son Ben has dug as a pool for birds and other wildlife. Water striders skate across its surface. Frogs croak. The turtle Ben found in the river climbs out of the muddy bottom and onto the flat rock set in the pool's center as a sunning spot. Birds swoop down to drink and catch bugs, their calls sweetening the cool morning air.

A deer peers from the forest edge, then cautiously places a slender foot into the sunshine. She looks quickly to each side and then ahead toward the pool, and bites off pieces of tough, tangled weeds left over from winter as she moves slowly into the opening. Her ears radar back and forth as she listens and looks for danger.

Gaining confidence, the doe moves to the site of two wild apple trees, where she nips off the swelling buds, tasting the juicy new growth. Her coat is matted now, and clumps of old hair hang from her sides and hindquarters. She rubs against the bark of a tree, trying to shed them.

Finally she strides to the edge of the pool, which is lined by lush green spears of grass. Nibbling, swallowing, and then drinking her fill of cold spring water, she doesn't notice another deer come quietly out of the brush and make her way to center stage.

She is followed by another and another until the clearing is filled with whitetail deer. Like cousins at a family picnic, they shake and howdy and greet one another, blowing into noses, sniffing faces, rubbing against each other. Then, like rough-cast ballerinas, they begin pushing and shoving, gamboling and cavorting. Their movements resemble a dance routine, choreographed by nature's rhythms.

They leap and whirl and kick their rear feet as graceful as gazelles, racing about up and down the hillside as I watch unnoticed from the south-facing windows of my home.

Suddenly their playful antics cease. They flick their ears, raise their tails, and slowly move them from side to side, like southern belles at a grand ball fanning themselves with white handkerchiefs. Then they bow and back out of the way.

A large doe moves in with a confident stride, proclaiming her dominance. She's definitely the star performer of this troupe. Barking and coughing, she issues a warning to the doe at the trough: "I have arrived," she seems to be saying. "Step aside."

The young understudy does not acknowledge this lordly presence. Though there is ample space around the pool for all the deer in the clearing to drink, the big doe is apparently more interested in establishing the pecking order than in drinking.

The younger doe continues to eat and drink, either not hearing or choosing to ignore the audible challenges behind her. The cast of supporting players quickly pick up on this challenge and move in along the sidelines, waiting--as I am--to see how this performance will end.

The boss lady flicks her tail and cleans her nostrils with her tongue. Then she rubs her head on a small sapling, pressing it over onto the ground and breaking it in half. She chases away some onlookers that have come too close to the action. Then she snorts loudly. A nearly imperceptible shiver ripples down the younger doe's back. Still she does not leave the pool's edge.

The large doe makes her move: Placing her head firmly between the interloper's rear legs, she lies her up and pushes her head-first into the shallow water. The birds at the pool's edge fly up into the surrounding trees. The frogs dive. The turtle eases into the water.

Startled, the young doe jumps straight up, water dripping from her drenched hide. She circles the older doe, gaining an advantage by coming at her from above. They face off. feet planted firmly. I expect them to charge, to do battle with their heads, as I have seen bucks do.

But the does begin sparring like boxers, feinting around each other on their hind legs, feigning punches and then striking one another with quick, sharp hoof jabs. The other deer stand transfixed at first; then they too whirl across nature's stage, in concert with a partner or alone, racing, bounding, darting. They collide, nip, bite, and kick as though engaged in Tae Kwan Do. Their white tails lift and lower as they move, making the show seem much less threatening, more like a dance.

Then suddenly it's over. One of the deer barks an alarm, and all stop dancing and turn toward the signal. Then in unison they raise their white tail flags and dash to the security of the dense forest. All except Dame Deer, our star, who gives a haughty glance at the new intruder, a large, brown cow elk.

The elk puts her head down to nuzzle the dead grasses at the forest edge, then rushes at the doe, who quickly exits. Like a prima donna making a triumphant entrance, the cow walks confidently to the water's edge, seeming to nod to the departing doe as if to send her packing. As she drinks, a bird settles onto her back.

Beyond, the dark shapes of other elk move from the trees into the sunshine--nature's play repeating itself, though these animals are much larger, like full-grown quarterhorses.

And now I see elk dancing in front of my windows. How precious; how privileged I am to be here to begin my day with this command performance. I may never see it happen just this way again, but on this spring morning in the mountains of Montana, I am thoroughly grateful that I have had a front-row seat.

Jay Simons--lives with her family in a solar home built on a mountainside overlooking Noxon Reservoir in northwest Montana.
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Title Annotation:white-tailed deer
Author:Simons, Jay
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1995
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