The Deer Counter, Biologist Hank Birdsall

Hank Birdsall has come full circle. Born and raised in Rye, he has returned to spearhead the preliminary work needed before a long-awaited deer management program can be implemented. If anyone can horn in on the burgeoning White-tailed Deer population, it’s Birdsall, a wildlife biologist. He’s been asked to compile the requisite baseline data by…

Published December 4, 2015 1:42 PM
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Hank-Birdsall-THHank Birdsall has come full circle. Born and raised in Rye, he has returned to spearhead the preliminary work needed before a long-awaited deer management program can be implemented. If anyone can horn in on the burgeoning White-tailed Deer population, it’s Birdsall, a wildlife biologist. He’s been asked to compile the requisite baseline data by May.

By Janice Llanes Fabry

Hank-BirdsallHank Birdsall has come full circle. Born and raised in Rye, he has returned to spearhead the preliminary work needed before a long-awaited deer management program can be implemented. If anyone can horn in on the burgeoning White-tailed Deer population, it’s Birdsall, a wildlife biologist. He’s been asked to compile the requisite baseline data by May.

“I am the perfect person to help with the program,” he said. “This is my area of expertise and I know Rye well.”

In between playing on the Rye High School football team and in the school band, Birdsall, who graduated in 2004, spent much of his time in the great outdoors. “I wasn’t allowed to have video games growing up, so I was outside all the time, playing street hockey, climbing trees, and exploring the local wood lots. I also went to camps at Rye Nature Center,” recalled Birdsall, whose parents still live near Oakland Beach. “Rye was a great place to grow up.”

One thing missing from his childhood besides PlayStation or Xbox was the now ubiquitous deer, which rarely came into view two decades ago. He clearly remembers, however, seeing a buck at the Marshlands Conservancy and thinking, “it was cooler than being at the zoo.”

Today, Birdsall is a staunch conservationist and a hunter, which are not mutually exclusive.

“Hunters are the backbone of American conservation. Pittman-Robertson created an excise hunting tax that provides funds to each state to support conservation initiatives and protect endangered species,” explained Birdsall, referring to the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act sponsored by Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Virginia Congressman Absalom Willis Robertson.

Before realizing where his true passions lay, however, Birdsall earned a Bachelor’s degree in Finance and Marketing at Boston College, enrolling in the School of Natural Sciences at SUNY Purchase immediately after. In addition to attaining a B.S. in Biology, with a concentration in evolutionary and behavioral biology, he led an independent study on none other than Movements of White-tailed Deer in a Suburban Ecosystem.

“During my independent study, I became acquainted with the behaviors of the deer population in the Marshlands, Jay, Greenhaven area. The most interesting discovery was that the matrix of suburban backyards contained everything a deer needed to live and reproduce,” Birdsall observed.

After graduating, he headed to Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and earned a Master’s degree in Range and Wildlife Management. This year, he completed his thesis on the Management of White-tailed Deer Within the Cattle Fever Tick Permanent Quarantine Area of Zapata County. Subsequently, he returned to Westchester and acquired a part-time position with the County Parks department, assisting with its adaptive deer management program.

Naturally, when Rye resident Anne Dooley of the City’s Deer Study Group tapped Birdsall for the part-time wildlife biologist job, the City hired him. It seems professing he’s the “perfect person” for the position might be an understatement.

“The first step before implementing a deer management program, if necessary, is collecting baseline data and generating a deer population estimate,” he noted.

Having been involved in a number of deer counts, from spotlight and mark resight surveys to helicopter counts with and without forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR), he determined that pellet counting is Rye’s best alternative.

“Pellet counts assess the relative density of the overwintering deer population in a given area and it’s the most cost-effective option,” explained Birdsall, who will conduct this leg of the analysis after the snowmelt in April.

He has already begun conducting walking counts, which he will do wherever deer congregate — Marshlands Conservancy, Jay Heritage Center, Rye Golf Club, Greenhaven, Rye Nature Center, Edith Read Sanctuary, and Greenwood Union Cemetery. All of those organizations are ready to collaborate with him.

How on earth does one keep track and avoid double counting deer? That’s where Birdsall’s expertise comes in, as he painstakingly studies the dynamics of any given herd.

 

“Deer don’t move fast while walking or foraging. Immediately, one notes the bucks with the unique antlers, then the fawns and does,” he remarked. “They generally tend to congregate in family groups, though bucks will hang out in bachelor groups.”

The biologist will also work with Rye’s Police Department and Public Works departments to catalog and quantify the number of deer struck by vehicles in the area over time.

Birdsall feels that putting a hard number on capping a deer population within a square mile is unrealistic. “The long-term goal is to gauge whether we have too many deer in Rye by putting the science and data behind it,” he offered. “It depends on how many the community will tolerate. The goal is not to wipe out deer.”

 

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