Organizing Theory & Artistry

Garden Predators: Deer and Rabbits and Birds, Oh My!

Sometimes it is a hard thing to remember that we share our garden spaces with all of nature, including wildlife who may treat our gardens with what we consider to be appalling manners. Consider this raccoon, for example, who used to empty our birdfeeder every two days, until we caught him on film and figured out the source of our problem and ultimately got rid of the feeder.

One of the favorite discussion topics of gardeners in my neighborhood is how to prevent the deer from eating all the plants. Many neighbors have horror stories about walking out to their gardens to find all the new plants devoured and the trees completely denuded of their foliage. It seems that some gardens are yummier than others to the deer and the very best gardeners seem to be disproportionately affected.

Facebook friends have recently posted similar questions about rabbits and birds. What’s a novice gardener to do? Below are some hints for controlling garden predators.


Signs of deer damage

  • Foliage, buds, flowers eaten
  • Plants trampled
  • Tree bark damaged due to antler rubbing
  • Ragged bite patterns

Favorite garden foods for deer

  • Azaleas
  • Rhododendrons
  • Atlantic white cedar
  • Hollyhocks
  • Impatiens
  • Daylillies
  • Hosta
  • Tulips
  • and many more!

Most Effective Deer Deterrent

  • Woven wire fencing at least 8 feet in height

Other Deer Deterrents

  • Single wire fencing configurations
  • Electrified fencing
  • Natural repellants (bags of human hair, animal feces, soap, etc.)
  • Commercial deer repellants (Liquid Fence is often mentioned in our neighborhood)
  • Dogs
  • Hunting
  • Choosing plants less tasty to deer (See an extensive list here but note that “when natural, preferred foods become scarce, there are relatively few species that deer will not eat”

Interesting Deer Facts

  • White-tailed deer were considered threatened in the early 1900’s numbering 500,000 or less. Today the species numbers more than 15 million!
  • Deer are polygamous.
  • Deer lack upper front incisors and tear plants to eat them.
  • Deer prefer to go under or through a fence rather than jump over it.
  • Deer mate in October and November and fawns are born in May or June.



Eastern Cottontail. Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Signs of Rabbit Damage

  • stripped bark on trees (especially fruit trees and conifers)
  • 45 degree angled bite marks on branches
  • sharp, clean bites on foliage

Favorite Garden Foods for Rabbits

  • Impatiens
  • Crocus
  • Purple coneflower
  • Pansy
  • Black-Eyed Susan
  • tree plantings
  • vegetables
  • herbs

Most Effective Rabbit Deterrent

  • Fencing (esp. narrow-gauge chicken wire fencing buried 6 inches below the ground to prevent digging under the fence)

Other Rabbit Deterrents

  • Commercial repellants (especially Hinder)
  • Electric fencing
  • Plastic netting
  • “used kitty litter from a cat that hunts and kills wildlife in and around the garden”
  • removing brush piles, weed patches, dumps, stone piles, and other debris where rabbits live and hide
  • Encourage the rabbit’s natural enemies, including hawks, owls, foxes, mink, weasels, and snakes
  • Cats
  • Selecting plants rarely damaged by rabbits. (See a list here.)
  • Hunting and Trapping

Interesting Rabbit Facts

  • Rabbit breeding season typically lasts from mid-February through September. A female rabbit can produce 1 to 9 young per litter and can have as many as eight litters per year!
  • Some rabbits carry tularemia (“rabbit fever”). The disease can be transferred to humans through insect bites (esp. ticks and deer flies), handling infected animals, eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water. Symptoms of tularemia infection in humans include skin ulcers and flu-like symptoms. Fortunately, tularemia can be treated with antibiotics and vaccines are available for high-risk groups.



Red-winged blackbird (male). Photo by hart_curt. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
Red-winged blackbird (female). Photo by goingslo. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
Starling of the Sidewalk. Photo by sultry. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Signs of bird damage

  • Berries and food crops are eaten just prior to ripening
  • Holes in the lawn where the birds scratch for insects, worms or seeds

Favorite garden foods for birds

  • Birds are great in many ways for the garden because they eat weed seeds and many insects. Berries, fruits and vegetables, however, are irresistible to some birds, especially starlings and blackbirds. Red-winged blackbirds cause extensive damage to commercial rice and sunflower crops.

Most effective deterrent for birds

  • Fencing and Netting. Some suggest putting old nylons over tomato cages. Special bird fencing/netting to totally enclose a garden is also suggested.

Other deterrents

  • Owl/predator statues (so long as you move them around once a week)
  • Scarecrows
  • Reflective materials like mirrors, old CDs, aluminum plates
  • Play sound recordings of birds in distress or bird predators
  • Harvest your crops before they are fully ripe and let the fruits ripen off the vine
  • Spray birds with water from a hose

Interesting Bird Facts

  • Starlings were brought to the United States from Europe and were first released in New York in the 1890’s. The starling population in the United States is now estimated at 140 million!
  • Like deer, red-winged blackbirds also have a polygamous mating system.


Of course, these are but a few of the wildlife friends you might encounter.  It was interesting for me to learn from researching the above that if you really want to screen these animals out, you essentially need to fence yourself in!

Voles, raccoons, lizards, squirrels, snakes, possum, turtles, even bears, wander through our neighborhood occasionally. One of the benefits of being a laid-back sort of gardener is that the presence of these animals is more amusing than antagonistic. We think of it as having our own personal zoo.

Do you have trouble with deer, rabbits or birds? What garden predators concern you most? Please share in the comments.