Fall is here, watch out for deer. And that goes for boaters too.
The rut comes with the falling leaves as summer draws to a close, meaning the bucks begin mating.
The rut is usually accompanied by road signs warning motorists of deer, and while motorists on the streets of Jamestown have been trained to look out for deer, the same might be true for boaters on the bay.
An Aug. 29 post on a Jamestown community Facebook page by Liz Reinsant-Lataille included a picture of a deer swimming in the West Passage with the Verrazzano Bridge in the background.
“I saw this deer swim from the mainland to Jamestown last week,” she wrote. “There’s a first for everything.”
The post received 260 likes, 27 shares and 59 comments, which is relatively popular for the community site. There is also the question of whether deer are natural swimmers.
According to David Kalb, a senior wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, white-tailed deer are good swimmers, swimming longer distances and in deeper water than one would expect for a large land mammal.
“They’re not super fast in water, but they can definitely move long distances,” he said. “Deer have incredible stamina. They can go a long way before they get tired. Miles are not a question.”
Deer also swim as an escape route to avoid predators, and Kalb has seen deer swim across bodies of water to avoid aggressive bucks in mating season. Deer also swim to explore or move to another area for better habitat or food availability, which is likely what brought them to Conanicut Island in the first place.
Similar to dogs, deer use their front and back legs to swim, but their legs are narrow and they cannot swim as fast as a dog. Deer can swim up to 15 miles per hour 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 says they find it easier to swim in their gray winter coat than their reddish-brown summer fur.
“The winter coat is hollow, so the hair actually has air in it,” he said. “Because of that, they have a really nice buoyancy factor. The hair isn’t as thick as, say, a beaver where they don’t get wet, but it’s hollow and warm so they can get in, swim, and get out of the water and be quite comfortable.”
Some deer species are better swimmers than the white-tailed deer found in Rhode Island, such as the Japanese sika deer, which has a stockier build and lives in a humid, swampy environment.
Deer can be found on most of Narragansett Bay’s islands, including those not inhabited by humans such as Dutch, Gould, and Patience. Smaller islands in the bay, like Spar and Goat Islands, do not have deer populations, officials said.
One island that deer are unlikely to swim to is Block Island. The deer population there was introduced by humans in 1967, and there is now an abundance of them in New Shoreham. Kalb said it would be difficult for her to swim that distance, which is at least 15 miles from mainland Rhode Island.
Kalb said deer probably first reached the islands of Narragansett Bay, either by swimming or walking to them, when the bay froze over in winter.
Deer can swim in the bay year-round. Although the DEM receives reports from the public of deer swimming, it does not keep a record of these 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 who sees deer swimming in the bay should give the animal its place. Under the agency’s hunting regulations, hunting or tracking a deer while it is aquatic in all Rhode Island waters is prohibited. Deer are unlikely to get into distress while swimming, and a sick or injured deer is more likely to find a place on land to rest than into the water.
“If a deer goes into the water, it probably has a reason,” he said. “A deer in poor condition is unlikely to enter the water if it knows it will fight.”
Last year, near Ann Street Pier in Newport, a group of boaters found a deer swimming in what they thought was distressed. It was moving towards an area where they thought it might drown. After retrieving the animal from the water, they took it to Fort Adams State Park and released it.