Rachelle Milbradt hasn’t seen “Baby’s” fawn since the heat wave in June.
She’s realistic about it: the fawn is probably dead. But Milbradt was holding out hope that Baby’s sister, a doe she’s nicknamed “Liesl,” might still have a fawn. She didn’t like the idea of a fawn-less summer, especially for the two does she’s watched and photographed in her backyard for several years now.
By mid-July, weeks had passed without any sightings.
Milbradt saw Liesl often. The doe would pause in the sloping meadow behind Milbradt’s house and stare at a spot near the tree line. Maybe she was checking on a fawn hidden in the brush, Milbradt mused. Or maybe she was waiting for a fawn that wasn’t coming back.
Baby had moved on, now hanging out with Liesl’s older daughter, “Tulip.” She no longer exhibited the anxious watchfulness of a mother deer with a young fawn, but Liesl seemed distracted.
Milbradt snapped some photos.
On any given day in Astoria, someone somewhere is probably taking a picture of a deer.
They are everywhere, after all. They amble through yards. They dash down streets and pause in crosswalks. They haven’t met a deer-resistant plant they’re not willing to try once. They seem almost tame. They enchant and annoy their human neighbors and tourists in equal measure.
Probably no one takes as many pictures of them as Milbradt.
She started the Instagram account — @the.daily.deer — several years ago. It is — yes — an almost daily record of the comings and goings of deer through her backyard and the grassy city-owned lot she shares with her neighbors on top of a hill.
The Instagram account started as a way to share the deers’ antics with her husband when long work hours at a new job kept him away from home. The couple had been fascinated by the local urban deer ever since they toured the house they’d eventually buy and encountered a doe on the back deck.
The account draws people from all over. They ask questions or share their own deer anecdotes. For Milbradt, the regular observation and documentation of the backyard deer has been a calming, engaging activity, driving her to ask questions and look at everything a little more intently and purposefully.
At this point, she can recognize a number of individual deer by their appearances and, even more consistently, by their varied personalities and their behavior towards each other.
Milbradt and her husband have given their visitors descriptive names: “Bucky,” “The Stag,” “Betty,” “Mama,” “Spock,” “Heavy Breather.”
The lot behind their house makes for a unique viewing experience. The backyard falls away into a meadow that turns into a narrow strip of forested land.
This wooded area extends in both directions along the backs of the neighborhood’s houses, an old plat established by the city maybe 100 years ago to act as a natural kind of storm drainage and landslide prevention measure as people built on the slide-prone slopes. It is one of many such city-owned plats around Astoria and a retreat for deer as they dip in and out of neighborhoods.
Milbradt grew up around animals and her father was an occasional hunter. She may not be interested in eating venison anymore, but she is very clear on one point: The deer are not pets. They are wild animals.
“It is key to respect that they are wild animals, despite how domestic they appear,” Milbradt said.
The distinction is not always so obvious to other residents.
A city ordinance forbids the feeding of most wildlife, but police officers fielded multiple complaints in early July about a woman in a South Slope neighborhood who was reportedly feeding the deer near her house.
The woman denied it. She told officers they could take her to court or throw her in jail. She didn’t care.
“Obviously, we’re not taking people to jail for this,” Deputy Police Chief Eric Halverson said. “We’re just trying to navigate the neighborhood complaints. … We’d prefer to deal with these on the lowest possible level and not drag people to court.”
The woman was given a warning, no citations yet.
On average, Astoria police respond to fewer than 100 deer-related calls most years. Since the start of 2020 and into 2021, police have fielded roughly 110 deer calls to date. Many of the calls have to do with deer hit by cars.
There are usually only a handful of feeding complaints a year. When it comes to wildlife feeding complaints in general, police are more likely to hear about an issue involving raccoons rather than deer.
More common are calls in the early spring and summer from people worried about abandoned fawns.
Halverson knows from watching deer on his own property that fawns are rarely abandoned. A mother deer will leave her baby tucked away in different places sometimes for an entire day. She always seems to know where to find it again.
“They are certainly not abandoned and people shouldn’t be trying to pick them up or remove them,” Halverson said. “They should let them be and nature will do what nature does.”
The worst thing someone can do for a deer is to try to capture it, Milbradt agrees.
‘Privileged to observe that life cycle’
People who interact with Milbradt’s Instagram account sometimes post questions about injured or sick deer or fawns that appear to be abandoned. They care so much; they want to help.
There was a woman who worried about a doe with a broken front leg. Milbradt passed along what hunters had told her: The joke that all a deer needs is one good leg.
It seems to be true, though. Milbradt has seen deer weather rough injuries and somehow thrive.
But fawns do get hit by cars as they dash across streets. They get injured. They get sick. They are born at the wrong time — when a heat wave hits, maybe. They die.
“It’s kind of a hard lesson to learn, but we are also so privileged to observe that life cycle,” Milbradt said.
Milbradt was resigning herself to the sad side of this life cycle with Liesl. There just didn’t seem to be a fawn alive out there despite the doe’s behavior.
Then, on Wednesday, a lightly spotted fawn suddenly stepped into the meadow from the exact spot where Liesl had focused so much attention. Neck bobbing and tail wagging, it ventured across the lot and joined its mother.
Milbradt noticed a worrying white mark, possibly some kind of wound, on one of its eyes. It was similar to an injury she’d seen on a buck nicknamed “Willy.” He was one of the first deer that got Milbradt interested in researching the animals in more depth.
For Willy, the wound got progressively worse until the buck’s eye was bulging out of its socket. Willy lost weight and energy and finally disappeared for good in June 2020. It worries Milbradt to see a similar mark on Liesl’s fawn.
Still, watching the deer has taught her about resilience. She can’t help but be a little bit optimistic.