Photo Credit: Harold Wilion
White Tailed Deer
Geographic: Whitetail deer inhabit most of southern Canada and all of the mainland United States except two or three states in the west. Their range reaches throughout Central America to Bolivia.
Physical Characteristics Mass: 57 to 95 kg. Head and body length is 150 to 200 cm, tail length is 10 to 28 cm, and height at the shoulders is between 80 and 100 cm. Odocoileus virginianus dorsal coloration differs in shading locally, seasonally, and among subspecies; however in general it is grayer in the winter and redder in the summer. White fur is located in a band behind the nose, in circles around the eyes, inside the ears, over the chin and throat, on the upper insides of the legs and beneath the tail. Whitetail deer have scent glands between the two parts of the hoof on all four feet, metatarsal glands on the outside of each hind leg, and a larger tarsal gland on the inside of each hind leg at the hock. Scent from these glands is used for intraspecies communication and secretions become especially strong during the rutting season. Males possess antlers which are shed from January to March and grow out again in April or May, losing their velvet in August or September. At birth, fawns are spotted with white in coloration and weight between 1.5 and 2.5 kg. Their coats become grayish lose their spots by their first winter. Whitetail deer have good eyesight and acute hearing, but depend mainly on their sense of smell to detect danger.
Food Habits: Whitetail deer feed on a variety of vegetation, depending on what is available in their habitat. In eastern forests, buds and twigs of maple, sassafras, poplar, aspen and birch (to name a few) are consumed, as well as many shrubs. In desert areas, plants such as huajillo brush, yucca, prickly pear cactus, comal, ratama and various tough shrubs may be the main components of a whitetail's diet. Conifers are often utilized in winter when other foods are scarce. Whitetail deer are crepuscular, feeding mainly from before dawn until several hours after, and again from late afternoon until dusk.
Reproduction: Most whitetail deer (particularly males) mate in their second year, although some females occasionally mate as young as seven months. Bucks are polygamous although they may form an attachment and stay with a single doe for several days or even weeks until she reaches oestrus. Does are seasonally polyoestrous and usually come into heat in November for a short twenty-four hour period. If a doe is not mated, a second oestrus occurs approximately 28 days later. Mating occurs from October to December and gestation is approximately 6 and a half months. In her first year of breeding, a female generally has one fawn, but 2 per litter (occasionally 3 or 4) are born in subsequent years. Fawns are able to walk at birth and nibble on vegetation only a few days later. They are weaned at approximately six weeks. Life span in the wild is 10 years, but whitetail deer have lived up to 20 years in captivity.
Behavior Whitetail deer are the most nervous and shy of our deer. They wave their tails characteristically from side to side when they are startled and fleeing. They are extremely agile and may bound at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour through tangled terrain in a forest. Whitetail deer are also good swimmers and often enter large streams and lakes to escape predators or insects or to visit islands. Their home ranges are generally small, often a square kilometer or less. Whitetail deer do not migrate to a winter range but yard up in their own territories during heavy snow. They are notorious for continually using the same pathways when foraging, but will not bed down during the day in areas that they have used previously. Whitetail deer are generally considered solitary, especially in summer. The basic social unit is a female and her fawns, although does have been observed to graze together in herds of up to hundreds of individuals. Females generally follow their mothers for about two years, but males leave the group within the first year. Bucks may form transient groups of 2-4 in the summer, but these disband prior to the mating season. Males begin rutting as early as September, and at this point become entirely preoccupied with obtaining matings. They do not guard harems (as with elk) but rather fight each other individually, clashing antlers to gain access to a particular female. Whitetail does are painstakingly careful to keep their offspring hidden from predators. When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for about four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor. Fawns withhold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to deny predators any sign of the fawn. Whitetail deer are not especially vocal, although young fawns bleat on occasion. Injured deer utter a startlingly loud "blatt" or bawl. Whistles or snorts of disturbed whitetails are the most commonly heard sounds.
Habitat: Whitetail deer are able to survive in a variety of terrestrial habitats, from the big woods of northern Maine to the deep saw grass and hammock swamps of Florida. They also inhabit farmlands, brushy areas and such desolate areas of the west such as the cactus and thornbrush deserts of southern Texas and Mexico. Ideal whitetail deer habitat would contain dense thickets (in which to hide and move about) and edges (which furnish food). Biomes: temperate forest & rainforest, temperate grassland, chaparral, desert, tropical deciduous forest, tropical scrub forest
Economic Importance for Humans
Positive: Whitetail deer are commonly hunted for meat and sport. Early settlers and Native Americans also utilized whitetail deer hides to make buckskin leather. Whitetail heads are also commonly mounted on the walls of lodges and other places of outdoor recreation.
Negative: Whitetail deer are destructive to crops, vegetable gardens, fruit trees and the like where their ranges overlap with human habitation. When their numbers become too high, whitetail deer can cause serious damage to forest vegetation through overbrowsing. They are involved in accidents with cars, often resulting in serious injury to the human occupants of the vehicles.
Conservation: Whitetail deer are extremely common throughout their ranges and are the most numerous of the large North American mammals. Precise estimates of their numbers have not been made, but there are probably somewhere between 8 and 15 million on this continent. Although their populations were decimated to the point of extinction in many areas at the turn of the century (due to overhunting), they have recently reached their highest numbers due to the improvement of their habitat by the cutting of climax forests, providing them with a greater amount of brush and shrubs on which to forage.