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Gumming it

Gumming it

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Young deer like adults need to gum their food. They do not have upper incisor teeth on the jaw. When they bite a branch, their lower front teeth grip the twig and begin to cut into it. The lower jaw pushes it against the upper toothless gum where it is necessary to pull on the twig to rip it completely freely. 

When one looks at the remaining bitten twig, it can be seen that the teeth cut into the bottom and the top has small strips of bark or wood that were not cleanly cut. Once the eaten portion is in their mouth, premolar and molar teeth with flattened tops, like ours, grind the food.
They do not have a dentist to tell them to chew the food well before swallowing. They quickly swallow poorly chewed food and gather more. Soon they wander to a safe place to lay and chew their cud that was hurriedly swallowed. Deer, like cows, are ruminants and after swallowing food to their upper digestive track, they regurgitate it back up for more complete grinding. 

While lying in a secure location, they are mostly still and quiet while they eat with pleasure and keep watch for predators. Because they are still, they do not draw attention. It is only the moving jaw and occasional head movement that might be seen. Their odor could announce their presence, but they have long slim legs if they need to jump up and bound away. I recall one time a deer jumped up about 15 feet in front me, where it was hidden in bracken ferns. It nearly stopped my heart. By the time I recovered from being startled, it had disappeared into thick woods.

Unlike deer, rabbits and hares called lagomorphs have both upper and lower incisors that cleanly cut twigs. Not only are the front teeth sharp for cutting, one set is directly behind the other. We have four incisor teeth in a row next to each other. By having two incisor teeth directly behind another set, it creates excellent snippers. 

After chewing food, it is swallowed and quickly passes through the digestive tract without adequate digestion. The lagomorphs return to eat their feces and are able to better extract more nutrition from the partially digested vegetation. The nature niche advantage of quickly eating and moving on allows them to consume a large amount of food quickly and return to eat rabbit pellets later. They can quietly keep watch for danger while gathering already eaten food. 

There are no hares in the local area. It is necessary to travel farther north to find snowshoe hares. They are larger than cottontail rabbits, with larger feet that aid them in moving on top of snow instead sinking in. Cottontails remain brown in winter, but snowshoe hares change to a white winter coat that helps them camouflage in snow covered surroundings. 

Both rabbits and hares have restricted home ranges they know well. Hiding locations and shelters are readily accessible. When startled, they flee but make a broad circle in order to remain in known territory. 

Follow tracks when they are obvious during the beautiful snowy season. They will lead to interesting places. Along the way you will get to see where branches were sharply snipped. If a deer path crosses, you might diverge to follow it to where you can find a twig that was gummed and ripped instead of being cut. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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