HomeScienceWildlifeSwimming deer spotted in bay is no surprise to wildlife experts

Swimming deer spotted in bay is no surprise to wildlife experts

A deer swims under the Verrazzano Bridge to Jamestown in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay in August. LIZ REINSANT-LATAILLE/FACEBOOK

It’s fall, watch out for deer. And that also applies to water sports enthusiasts.

The rut will arrive with the falling leaves as summer comes to an end, meaning the money will start mating.

The rut is often accompanied by road signs warning drivers of deer, and while motorists on the roads in Jamestown are trained to keep an eye out for deer, the same can be true for boaters in the bay.

An Aug. 29 post on a Jamestown Community Facebook page by Liz Reinsant-Lataille featured a photo of a deer swimming in the West Passage with the Verrazzano Bridge in the background.

“I saw this deer swim from the mainland to Jamestown last week,” she wrote. “There is a first for everything.”

The post received 260 likes, 27 shares and 59 comments, which is relatively popular for the community page. It also raises the question of whether deer are natural swimmers.

According to David Kalb, a supervising wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, white-tailed deer are good swimmers, swimming longer distances and in deeper waters than would be expected for a large land mammal.

“They’re not super fast in the water, but they can certainly cover great distances,” he said. “Deer have incredible stamina. They can go a long way before they get tired. Miles is not a question.”

Deer also swim as an escape route to avoid predators, and Kalb has seen them swim across waters to avoid aggressive bucks in mating season. In addition, deer swim to explore or move to another area for better habitat or food availability, which is probably how they got to Conanicut Island in the first place.

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Like dogs, deer use their front and back legs to swim, but their legs are narrow and they can’t swim as fast as a dog. Deer can swim up to 15 mph and up to 10 miles, according to Deer World, a website cited by PBS, National Geographic and the University of Michigan. While deer can be spotted in the summer, Kalb said it’s easier for them to swim in their gray winter coat as opposed to their russet summer coat.

“The winter coat is hollow, so there is air in the hair,” he said. “As a result, they have a very nice buoyancy. The hair isn’t as dense as, say, a beaver, where they don’t get wet, but it’s hollow and warm so they can get in, swim and out of the water and stay pretty comfortable.”

Some deer species swim better than the white-tailed deer found in Rhode Island, such as Japan’s sika deer, which are more sturdily built and live in wet, swampy environments.

Deer can be found on most islands of Narragansett Bay, including those that are not inhabited by humans such as Dutch, Gould, and Patience. Smaller islands in the bay, such as the Spar and Goat Islands, have no deer populations, officials said.

One island that deer are unlikely to reach by swimming is Block Island. The deer population there was introduced by humans in 1967 and they are now abundant in New Shoreham. Kalb said it would be difficult for them to swim that distance, which is at least 25 miles from mainland Rhode Island.

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Kalb said deer probably first reached the Narragansett Bay Islands by swimming or walking to them when the bay froze in winter.

Deer can be spotted in the bay year round. While the DEM receives reports from the public of deer swimming, they do not keep records of those sightings and it is unknown where they are most commonly seen in Rhode Island waters. Kalb said he hears about messages once every few years.

Kalb said anyone who sees deer swimming in the bay should give the animal space. The agency’s hunting rules prohibit hunting or chasing a deer while it swims in all Rhode Island waters. Deer are unlikely to be in distress while swimming, and a sick or injured deer is more likely to find a spot on land to rest rather than go into the water.

“If a deer goes into the water, it’s probably for a reason,” he said. “A deer in bad shape probably won’t get in the water knowing they’re going to have a hard time.”

Last year, a group of boaters found a deer swimming near the Ann Street Pier in Newport that appeared to them to be in distress. It was headed for an area where they thought it might drown. After getting the animal out of the water, they took it to Fort Adams State Park and released it.

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