Mating season puts deer on collision course with cars

Posted: November 19, 2013

The Winchester Star

Traffic passes by a deer skull lying along Berryville Pike in January 2012. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)
A tractor-trailer drives by a deer carcass on Valley Pike (U.S. 11) south of Stephens City.

WINCHESTER — Drivers beware.

A variety of circumstances make this the most dangerous time of year for deer-vehicle collisions.

Virginia ranked sixth out of the 50 states in total deer-vehicle crashes in 2011-12, according to figures compiled by State Farm Insurance Co., based on its claims and extrapolated for market share.

The Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) uses State Farm’s totals for its official estimates of deer collisions, according to Lee Walker, outreach coordinator for the agency.

Last winter, that estimate was 56,759 crashes, compared to an eight-year high of 61,141 in 2007-08.

While deer generally get the worst of such collisions, the effect on people isn’t limited to a bill for car repairs.

Already this fall, one person in Virginia — riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle — has been killed after striking a deer on the highway, according to Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the Mid-Atlantic region for the American Automobile Association.

That crash took place in October.

“Two-thirds of all the deer crashes happen in October, November and December,” Walker said.

That’s because it is mating season for white-tailed deer, with the Virginia population of those animals estimated at 1 million by the DGIF.

Hunters take about a quarter of a million each year, which is one way to keep the deer population in check. DGIF estimates deer could double their numbers in five years, without hunting.

Those numbers mean many will end up on a highway somewhere.

“They are moving around now,” said Walker, adding that deer are nocturnal, meaning most of their activity takes place at night.

And, now that daylight saving time is over, he added, there’s more “night” for them to move about. Sunrise is now about 7 a.m. and sunset just before 5 p.m., both close to peak “drive times” for humans.

And, Walker said, there is a final factor to consider.

This year, the crop of acorns, or “mast” that deer feed on, is very low in the forests.

“There are fewer acorns in the woods,” he said, so deer are seeking other food in fields, meadows and yards.

When the acorn crop is light, deer as well as bear, wild turkey and even squirrels must roam farther to find alternative foods.

“They are spending more time in our environment rather than in their environment,” Walker said.

Oaks are the most common hardwood tree in Virginia, but acorn production varies from year to year, in cycles of two to seven years, and there’s no one reason why the crop is so scarce this year.

But it is a factor drivers should consider as the sun sets, Walker said.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com