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Oh deer, Chicago has a PROBLEM. Let’s find a solution!

September 20, 2011
science and nature

Photos: Erika Hildegard Johnson

If you’re a Chicagoan looking for a break from your busy life, you’ll find a path to solitude at Chicago’s North Park Village Nature Center. It’s an oasis of calm in a busy, urban environment and a location where stressed-out Chicagoans can enjoy tranquility. When you visit the Nature Center expect to see squirrels nibbling on nuts, hear frogs croak, and listen to 195 species of birds chirp (as of March 2009). However, where people go to escape stress, nature is increasingly becoming stressed. The balance of nature in this unique Chicago ecosystem is tipping due to a high density of deer (they don’t use birth control) and they have exceeded their carrying capacity (the amount of organisms a biosphere can hold).

According to this report, on a plot of land the size of the Nature Center (46 acres, 1/16 mile) there is space and resources ideal for 1-2 deer. How many deer live here? 37!! Think of a holiday party where all your uncles, siblings, and cousins are present; the house is full of people. Now imagine this scenario 365 days a year. What words come to mind: crowded, restless, stressful? Over a long enough period of time, can you imagine the problems that arise? They become similar to the problems that  accompany our world population of 7 Billion—competition for space, food security, and managing biodiversity (the overall health of the group).

Let’s look at each of these issues as they pertain to the Nature Center:

happy cool science

Managing Biodiversity – As the population of the plant-eating deer rises, the population of pretty flowers and plants decline. This is followed by the insects who feed on & pollinate those plants and the animals who feed on the insects. Eventually, the entire food chain collapses forcing deer into our city streets searching for food.

Science and Nature

A mouthful of lilly

Food security – When I visit the Nature Center (NC), most of the time I see deer eating. They eat, and eat, and eat (about 7 lbs of plant material/day). Colorful plants & flowers are the #1 option on their food menu. This is evident while you walk around the NC; you’re canvassed in mostly green with a limited variety of colors. You’ll also see desirable native plants protected with a makeshift fence set up by NC employees.

Without the help of humans, this ecosystem simply cannot maintain a supply of colorful food sufficient for 37 deer. And since no one likes chewing on plain green leaves, the deer have been sighted in nearby neighborhoods feasting on Chicago resident’s gardens. It’s like ordering a product from Amazon which is backordered. Either you can wait for it to be shipped (delay your meal) or shop at a competitor. Deer are shopping at the competitor.

happy science

Competition for space – Not only are the deer competing with each other for the limited flowers & plants, they have begun overlapping into space designed for humans (neighborhoods, gardens, streets, etc.). Deer are finding innovative and athletic ways to bypass the 6 foot tall fence surrounding the NC. They jump the fence (surprisingly with little effort) or use their antlers to bend open a hole along the bottom of it (smart creatures).

happy cool science

The Chicago Park District has spent time & money repairing broken fences, protecting desirable native plants, and adding another 3 feet of height to the fence (notice the cables in the picture above). Deer are costing the city time & money. More importantly, the deer present a hazard to city residents; they have been seen on Lake Shore Drive and in Lakeview, and deer mating season can be dangerous for drivers when animals are especially active (Oct/Nov/Dec). What do we do before this ecosystem collapses?

happy science

That’s it for this post. Pictures were taken by my friend Erika Hildegard Johnson (except for the fence picture). For more of her work, visit She likes organic light, has a great smile, and is fun to work with. Thank you Erika. 🙂

My chief editor is scientist Dr. Aaron Place from Pharmacology at UIC. Thank you Aaron!

Thanks for reading. Let you be you!

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