Most of us know the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Siblings abandoned in the forest and seduced with sugary treats by a cannibalistic witch. Sounds like a perfect bedtime story for impressionable young children.

Hansel and Gretel were pretty resourceful. On their father’s first attempt to dump them, Hansel left a trail of white pebbles so they could find their way home. I guess they didn’t get the message they weren’t welcome there anymore. On his second attempt to lose his kids, dad made sure Hansel’s pockets were empty. The poor kid tried breadcrumbs but ended up just feeding wildlife. Not good for anyone in this case. 

It’s hard to find your way through the woods. Especially on an unmarked path…that is, unless you’re a deer. 

This is the tale of Gretel, a deer that was not abandoned in the woods but ventured off into them. We met Gretel (aka Female 16476) on February 13 (captured and collared) and again on February 22, 2018 (recaptured). She was collared as an adult (at least 2 years old) on the Northern study area. She did deer things all summer and mapped her home range for us. 

Then after Thanksgiving, perhaps to beat the holiday rush, Gretel headed out early Saturday morning going south. A week later she was over 11 miles from her known home range. (Daytime locations are in Yellow; Nighttime locations are in Black; Previous locations are in Gray)

Then she turned around and headed home. It took her 18 days to return but it appears half of the trip was completed in a day.

On 12/18, she is located back in her original home range by early afternoon. 

There are many questions here but two are most prominent for me. 

First, why did she decide to go exploring during the most dangerous time of year?

Gretel started her trip 2 days before the opening day of gun season. Hunting is the #1 cause of mortality for deer in Pennsylvania and she was presumably cavorting on a new and mysterious landscape. She was on the move for the entire 2 weeks! Also, adult females aren’t known for leaving their home range during that time of year or any time of year really. But GPS locations don’t lie. 

Second, she retraced her path exactly. HOW? She didn’t have Hansel dropping white pebbles along the way. She didn’t have a compass. And while she was wearing a GPS collar, it certainly wasn’t Siri providing turn by turn directions. 

We know from other research on cervids that migration routes are learned and followed almost exactly every year (check out Deer 255). Did Gretel learn this route earlier in her life from her mother or aunt? Maybe, but why? Deer in Pennsylvania don’t migrate and if they did, they don’t do it for 3 weeks in the middle of winter and hunting season. 

Another mystery revealed to us by research and the magic of GPS. We don’t know if Gretel made this trip annually as she was found dead February 28, 2019, just over a year after her capture. It was determined to be a bobcat kill. A rare predation event of an adult deer. 

Do other deer take the same tour during deer season? Did our Gretel leave a trail for them to follow? Maybe someday if we are lucky we’ll catch and collar Hansel. 

-Jeannine Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist
PGC Deer and Elk Section

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