Nature in many shades

Posted 9/29/22

REGION — The beauty of nature surrounds us here in the Upper Delaware River region of New York and Pennsylvania. The diversity of plants and animals can provide a lifetime of wonderment, …

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Nature in many shades


REGION — The beauty of nature surrounds us here in the Upper Delaware River region of New York and Pennsylvania. The diversity of plants and animals can provide a lifetime of wonderment, enjoyment and a chance to learn about our environment.

Whether it be out on a hike in the forest, traveling down the river on a float trip, fishing in one of the many lakes, or even in your own backyard, you are guaranteed to come across something that will broaden your knowledge in the ways of the wild.

I’ve spent countless hours over the years enjoying the bounty provided by Mother Nature, both as a hunter/gatherer and a nature photographer.  Lately, I have enjoyed photographing the whitetail bucks with their antlers—which grow quickly—in the velvet stage, as well as the many does and what seems to be a banner number of fawns all over the area.

Recently a friend of mine mentioned seeing a “piebald” fawn while out mowing lawns in the vicinity of Narrowsburg. I haven’t seen this abnormal coloring in quite a few years, so I ventured out to see if I could capture some images.

On the third visit, I finally got a glimpse of this stunning animal, and did capture a few clicks on the sensor, but not really anything presentable. On my fourth visit the doe came out early, accompanied  by her twin fawns, one of which is partially white. It was a special encounter and I came away with a bunch of photos for my efforts.

A deer of a different color

“Piebald” is the term, passed down through generations, describing deer that have blotches of white fur mixed in with their normal tones of reddish-brown or gray-brown fur, depending on the season. The biological term for this condition is leucism, and the condition is caused by a genetic mutation, injury or disease.

In order for a fawn to display the trait, both of the parents need to carry the mutation in their DNA, and even so, because it is a recessive gene, the trait can skip over generations of offspring. Leucistic animals differ from true albino animals, which lack all pigmentation and have pink/blue eyes and pink noses.

Besides the obvious impact to the deer’s natural camouflage, piebald deer can be afflicted with skeletal deformities of the backbone and legs, and they have rounded noses.  Many are never seen, as they don’t survive long after birth. Leucistic deer make up less than one percent of the whitetail population, so if you get a chance to see one, consider yourself very lucky.

A couple of days after seeing this beautiful creature in Narrowsburg, I was traveling in Damascus Township, PA two or three miles from Narrowsburg. I saw another piebald fawn in a neighborhood yard.

The homeowner saw me stopped in front of his house, with my large lens poking out the window, and told me about two others that he knew of a mile or so from his house. I headed down the road, and although it was too late for good photos, I was rewarded by seeing both of them down the road, up under the apple trees.

The other, normal-looking, deer in the small groups at each sighting, did not display any out-of-the-ordinary behavior toward the leucistic members of the group. I did hear from another nature-photographer friend, who has photographed whitetails in a breeding facility, that a breeder buck had killed a piebald offspring while occupying the same pen. I couldn’t find any other information about this happening in the wild.

One of the highest concentrations of piebald deer is located at the now-closed Seneca army depot in upstate New York. The depot was surrounded by a fence in 1941, essentially creating a 10,600-acre deer preserve that contained a population in which some deer carried the gene causing leucism. Hunting was allowed by the members of the military, and in 1951 the depot commander established a rule restricting the taking of the white deer. Today 200 to 300 of the estimated 800 whitetail deer on the property are leucistic. The Nature Conservancy is involved in discussions on what will become of the deer and other wildlife on this highly desirable piece of property.

In both New York and Pennsylvania, leucistic/albino deer are legal game and are open to harvest by credentialed hunters. Folklore from many local hunting camps has passed down through generations that the killing of a white deer would bring the shooter a long string of bad luck, including possibly never bagging a deer again. Native Americans considered the white deer mystical and held them in high esteem.

Leucism affects many other mammals, reptiles, birds, plants and even crustaceans, but not humans. I was very fortunate to see and photograph a leucistic chipmunk earlier in the spring while walking a trail on Pennsylvania game lands along the Delaware River. It was the first one I’ve seen in my 67 years.

The opposite end of the spectrum

Having spent some time on the River Flats trail in Narrowsburg, I have seen and photographed many gray squirrels that exhibited a trait known as melanism. I wondered why there were so many, which led me to a little bit of research.

Melanism is also a genetic condition, which presents as black or dark-brown coloration in affected species. Because a melanistic animal’s offspring have an increased chance of being melanistic, under certain conditions entire populations of darker individuals may appear. This phenomenon is known as adaptive melanism. The dark coloring could increase the squirrels’ ability to hide, increasing their survival and ability to pass on the gene to their offspring.

A few years ago I had an opportunity to photograph a melanistic woodchuck on several occasions over the span of two summers. It was located along Route 6 just east of Hawley, PA, and was living underneath a sporadically occupied cabin with its family, which were all covered in the normal brown fur.

The next time you’re out and about in the great outdoors, do yourself a favor and slow down, relax, sit a while and let nature come to you. You will be rewarded, mentally, spiritually and emotionally. And when you go home, perhaps you can look at your fellow humans who are different from you, just as you see that beautiful, “different,” piebald deer.

Upper Delaware River, piebald, leucistic deer, melanism


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