Full disclosure: I am a Pittsburgh transplant. And what most surprised me about this city wasn’t the highway spaghetti that passes for a road system here or the hills or the scarcity of sun.
It was the wild animals.
Trotting turkeys in the South Side Slopes. Brazen black bears in Highland Park. Risk-taking rabbits darting through the Strip District. That bobcat on the Gateway Clipper, the alligators … and the deer. Lots of deer.
From Homewood Cemetery to Allegheny Cemetery to Morningside to Mount Washington, deer are peppered across this city and, it turns out, just like us. They rubberneck at crime scenes. They make embarrassing and property-destroying mistakes. And they “lose track” of their kids.
It isn’t Nara, Japan, but Pittsburgh definitely has way more whitetail than I, an outsider, ever expected. And that realization came with some questions of its own.
Why are they here? How many are there? How well are we co-existing? And, perhaps most pressing of all: Where are all the bucks?
Because for all my sightings, faithfully documented on my Instagram account, I have never seen an antlered deer within Pittsburgh’s city limits. Not once.
Needing answers, I consulted published articles, reports, and experts at the Pittsburgh Zoo and Pennsylvania Game Commission. What I found was a testament to the tenacity of nature — and, some might argue, a cautionary tale.
Henry Kacprzyk of the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has also noticed an apparent dearth of antlered deer in Pittsburgh. Unlike me, Kacprzyk knows why.
“Bucks tend to be solitary or associating in loose male bands,” he explained by email. “Hierarchy dominance leads to displays and fighting among males, which leads to possible injury and therefore shorter life spans. If 50 percent of all fawns are male at birth, the percentage is greatly reduced as they get older. In summary, there are fewer adult males compared to females.”
So bucks live fast and die young. At the same time, females tend to be more active during daylight hours and they tend to travel in smaller groups, raising the likelihood that you’ll encounter one, Kacprzyk added.
It should be noted that none of this is unique to Pittsburgh.
Jeannine Tardiff Fleegle, a wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said deer populations have a naturally unbalanced sex ratio.
That’s because deer are polygynous, meaning a single male mates with multiple females, which means fewer males are needed to grow or maintain a population.
The Game Commission estimates there are two doe for every antlered buck in the wildlife management area in and around Pittsburgh. It’s also three antlerless deer — doe and fawn — for every antlered buck, meaning you’re that much more likely to spot them before a big boi with a headpiece.
As for why all these deer stick around, well, that’s pretty simple.
Home on the range
“Once a deer establishes their home range, they don’t leave,” Tardiff Fleegle said. “They have no idea (nor do they care) what is or is not on the other side of town.”
Truthfully, we find that kind of refreshing. And it seems deer, like Pittsburghers, won’t cross a bridge unless they have to.
But it’s also worth noting that as far as habitats go, inner-city Pittsburgh is no slouch.
We’ve got natural areas, greenways, parks that provide bedding areas, escape cover, and birth sites. There’s plenty of landscape planting and gardens for deer to feast on.
Deer can also get used to people quickly and, in Pittsburgh’s case, already have.
There are also fewer predators here — except for those on that highway spaghetti we call a road system. And deer can adapt to much smaller than normal ranges when necessary.
“Several studies have documented ranges of deer living in developed areas between 100-130 acres which is about 1/5 of the range size of deer found in rural environments,” Tardiff Fleegle added.
The Game Commission says it doesn’t know how many deer live in Pittsburgh, basing management decisions instead on the impacts of deer on themselves, the forest, and the people.
And that’s where Pittsburgh’s deer story gets a little more complicated — and a lot less cute and cuddly.
Deer populations are exploding in cities across the eastern U.S., in part because of a decline in recreational hunting, the loss of natural predators, and urban sprawl.
And that population growth has led to increased complaints about deer as garden-annihilating pests, the cause of motor vehicle collisions, and vectors of disease.
In Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette reported that road kills and social problems related to deer drew formal complaints in at least 24 city communities and eight city parks between 2013 and 2017. (This included Riverview Park and reports there of “an infestation of an aggressive invasive Asian worm” with an affinity for deer droppings — which the local deer were more than happy to supply.)
A 2010 report commissioned by the Pittsburgh Department of Parks and Recreation found evidence of “more deer than could be accommodated safely in the city’s public spaces.”
And with greater concentrations of deer comes a greater chance that illness will spread among them.
Chronic wasting disease — a mad cow-like illness known to kill or zombify Pennsylvania whitetail — has yet to be reported in the Pittsburgh area, but Tardiff Fleegle said “there is always a risk.” (The Game Commission recommends not feeding deer to avoid: the “neighborhood problems” associated with large, entrenched populations; the transmission of disease within and among those populations; the adverse health effects of overfeeding; and the attracting of unwanted visitors like rats and raccoons.)
Still, Pittsburgh lacks a deer management plan, and always has, despite calls for one.
But there’s also the question of how effective such plans can be without changes in the trends — listed in the first paragraph of this section — that are contributing to the growth of deer populations in the first place. (A controversial and years-long cull in Mt. Lebanon, for example, saw varying levels of success.) The environmental impact of deer is also hard to overstate, with populations too large having an adverse ecological impact and populations too small having the same. In short, it’s a delicate balance.
And with few viable options for deer control available, it’s a balance Pittsburgh can only hope to strike.
In the meantime, the city’s deer population will continue to be left to its own devices, roaming and grazing and crossing our paths in ways that are sometimes delightful and sometimes not.
I, for one, will continue to relish the sightings while continuing my search for that elusive first buck and covering my garden in kevlar netting.