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All about the White-tailed Deer

 

Male with velvet antlers.
(Alan D. Wilson / Nature's Pics)

 
Skip down to:

Physical description
Antlers
4-chambered stomach
Behavior/Reproduction
Habitat/Food sources/Predators


Ask any child about deer and Bambi, the cute white-tailed fawn in Walt Disney's famous animated movie, will surely come up. Some city folks count themselves lucky to have a Bambi visiting their yard and may even feed him. On the other hand are the gardeners desperate to protect their trees, shrubs and flowers. Love 'em or hate 'em, white-tailed deer are elegant animals merely trying to survive in an increasingly urbanized world.

White-tailed deer, also known as Virginia Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), are mammals belonging to the order Artiodactyla (ART-ee-oh-DACK-tuh-luh; even-toed animals) and the family Cervidae (SER-vuh-dee), which includes Moose, Elk and reindeer (known as Caribou in North America), among others. They're the most widely distributed hoofed animals in the western hemisphere and a native animal of the Americas. They have no close relatives anywhere else in the world.

The word for the whitetail's genus, Odocoileus, comes from the Greek for hollow tooth. The word deer comes from the Old English dor, meaning beast. Like "Moose" and "sheep," deer is both singular and plural.

Whitetails evolved over millennia from small, antler-less, tropical herbivores to the animals we see today. Scientists who compared fossil records against DNA-dating established that whitetails date back to the mid-Pliocene Epoch. This was a period between 5.33 and 1.81 million years ago -- a time of global cooling which led to the spread of grasslands and, in turn, created good deer habitat.

As time went on whitetails radiated northward, expanding from their range in the tropics of Central and South America. During the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago) they became common in eastern and central North America and now are found all the way up to chilly southern Canada. Whitetails also inhabit localized areas of Europe, having been introduced there in the mid-1800s.


   Whitetails are becoming increasingly
   urbanized.
(Robert Pernell)
    
 

The whitetail population has fluctuated significantly because of human activities. First, heavy trading by early settlers and Indians reduced the number of deer. Then over-hunting for meat and sport dropped this country's deer population in the 1800s to about 500,000. In some areas, whitetails completely disappeared.

The downward trend was steady until 1900 when a federal wildlife law, the Lacey Act, was enacted to prohibit interstate trafficking of wild game. That was followed within a few years by new laws in most states that further benefited the deer and their population began to steadily increase. Whitetails also benefited from the clear-cutting of forests to make way for farming and urban development. This allowed vegetation favored by deer to emerge, and it continues to this day -- the more we clear, the more deer habitat we create.

Humans and whitetails are increasingly living side-by-side. Whitetails now number around 30 million and inhabit all states but Utah, Nevada and California. They're most heavily represented east of the Rocky Mountains.

There are numerous subspecies of white-tailed deer. Taxonomists don't agree on just how many. Depending on the source there are somewhere between 30 and 40. Most subspecies have been named for the region they populate. For instance, there are the Florida Key Deer, the Dakota White-tailed, the Kansas White-tailed and even a Hilton Head Island White-tailed Deer. This naming pattern holds true for most of the subspecies in Mexico and South America, too, with such species as the Rain Forest White-tailed (southern Mexico) and the Northern Vera Cruz White-tailed.

Male whitetails are called bucks and the female is a doe. You may be familiar with the term "stag" for male deer, and that isn't incorrect, but it's more commonly used for larger members of the Cervidae family, like male Moose or Caribou.

Physical description

If you've never seen a white-tailed deer "in person," you'll probably be surprised when you do. They're much smaller than they seem in photos, where they're usually posing majestically in a grassy meadow, framed by a forest in the distant background, with nothing nearby to serve as a comparison for judging their size. Most of the photos on this page are examples of this!
 

Photo of young boy hand-feeding deer
Whitetails are small, as this young
boy's height shows by comparison.
(Alex Shalamove)

 

So, it may be surprising to learn that the shoulder height of adult whitetails is about the height of a typical 5-year-old child -- about 32 to 40 inches, with the males being taller than females. Body length runs 52 to 95 inches. As for weight, occasionally a male might weigh up to 350 pounds, but typically they weigh no more than about 150 pounds. Females weigh around 90 to 100 pounds -- by comparison, German Shepherd dogs weigh up to 100 pounds. Whitetails living in cooler climates tend to be larger than those living in warmer climates.

White-tailed deer get their name from their tail, which is fringed with white and has a white underside. This is barely seen unless the deer is running or disturbed, at which point the bushy tail (some call it a "flag") flips up and curls forward, exposing the white hair. The tail is around 10 inches long.

In summer, the whitetail's hair is reddish-brown and relatively short, with a thin, wiry texture. It dulls to grayish in winter, with long guard hairs and a thick undercoat to provide insulation. The hair of whitetails who live in northern regions has hollow shafts which fill with air. (There's a unique subspecies of white-haired (not albino) whitetails living on the grounds of the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, New York, the only ones in the world. You can watch an interesting news story about them here.)

Whitetails have excellent senses: Their vision is sharp, including superb peripheral vision -- because their eyes are located at the sides of their head, they can see almost all the way around their body. Also, their eyes have more light-detecting cells than we humans have, which give them great night vision. Sharp as their vision is, smells and sounds carried in air currents can alert them to danger long before their eyes can detect it: Their sense of smell is their strongest sense -- reportedly 10,000 times better than ours. And, their large, upright ears, 5 to 12 inches long, can capture the softest sounds.

Whitetails have 32 teeth, but no front teeth in their upper jaw. Instead, a tough pad sits in their place. It's used to help the lower front teeth hold food in place.


Drawing of a deer skeleton
Deer skeleton (Jean-Georges
Ferrié, Michel Coutureau and Cédric
Beauval)

 


Their legs are long and slender with powerful muscles -- perfectly build to escape predators. The front legs provide swift turning and pivoting ability. The back legs are built for leaping and speed -- they can jump 10 feet high or 30 feet forward in a single bound and gallop 35 miles per hour. They're also great swimmers -- up to 13 miles per hour. Their agility makes the deer a challenge for predators (for gardeners, too -- if whitetails see something yummy on the other side of a garden fence, over it they go.)

Deer feet are cloven hooves, meaning split into two toes. These bear the weight of the animal. They have two other toes located higher up on the leg. Called dewclaws, they're similar in structure to the hooves, but smaller, and they don't touch the ground, except when the deer runs, jumps or is on soft ground. The outer surface of the hoof, called the hoof wall or horn, is hard and similar to our fingernails.



   Male fawn. Click the image for a larger
    view of his
new pedicels.
   (photo: Wild Geese)

 

Antlers

Antlers are the most obvious distinction between male and female whitetails, at least for a few months of the year. However, about one in 10,000 females also has antlers, a result of hormonal maladies.

It's commonly thought that "antler" and "horn" are two names for the same thing, but there's a difference. Antlers come in pairs, they're branched and protrude from the front of the deer's skull. As for horns, they also protrude from the front of the skull, but they're permanent and don't branch.

Antlers are grown each spring and are temporary. Growth begins as longer days trigger an increase in the male's testosterone level. First, two bumps on his forehead, called pedicels, one a few inches above each eye, react to the hormone by forming a "bud" from which the antlers will grow. Called pedicels, they're covered with skin and hair and made of spongy bone. (Male fawns begin to grow them at only a couple of months old.)

Within a month the first tine (or point) begins to form. A month later, a second tine starts forming. Antlers grow fast -- up to 2 inches or more per week -- and in about four months they're fully developed.

Each antler has a main beam that first grows slightly in a backward direction, then reverses and curves forward and over the face. Each main beam holds from one to many un-branched tines. Antler width (or spread) for the whitetail is calculated by the greatest inside spread between the main beams. Spread may range anywhere from 3 to 25 inches. Antlers are usually symmetrical, but asymmetrical pairs may also occur, with tines growing in every direction.

While antlers are growing they're soft to the touch and covered in "velvet," a skin tissue filled with a rich supply of blood vessels and nerves. (The main photo on this page shows velvet antlers.) By late summer, however, decreasing day length signals the testosterone level to drop and the blood supply turns off. The velvet, now starved of blood, dries up and falls off, often in just a day or two. Males rub their antlers against trees during this time, which clears off the velvet and, incidentally, polishes their antlers to a rich shine.

Males use their now-hardened antlers for combat displays of strength and dominance over one another during the breeding season. The sound of antlers colliding can often be heard over long distances and this sometimes attracts females in heat. After breeding season is over, antlers drop off, or "shed." This leaves an open wound, but it will cover over with skin. Come next spring, the process starts all over again.

Cast-off antlers are rarely found in nature. They're rich in nutrients and other animals gnaw them right up. Interestingly, if the tissue that gives growth to antlers is surgically removed from a male's head and grafted onto another part of his body, a tiny antler will grow there.

Antlers generally get bigger as animals grow older. Bucks at 1½ years old average four tines, while at 3½ years and older, they average 8 tines. After about 7½ years the antler size declines. It seems like this would be a good way to judge an individual buck's age. But, not so, say the experts -- genes and injury influence antler growth, as does nutritional deficiencies in calcium, protein, phosphorus or other vitamins.

So, what do the experts do? They check the teeth. It so happens that fawns have baby teeth, just like humans -- they're born with four and in a few months will grow baby incisors and premolars. At around 18 months the baby teeth will have been replaced with adult teeth, which are permanent. After that, amount of wear on the molars is used to establish the animal's age -- teeth lose about 1 millimeter of height above the gum line each year.
 

Four-chambered stomach of deer (Pearson Scott Foresman / Wiki)
 

Four-chambered stomach

Whitetails are ruminants, taken from a Latin word meaning, "to chew the cud." There are about 150 other species of ruminants, including cattle, goats, sheep, antelope, camels and llamas.

Whitetails are herbivores. Plants of various kinds are their only food once they're weaned from their mothers. They have a stomach with four chambers specifically designed to undertake the tough demands of a high-cellulose diet. The first two chambers are the rumen (ROO-men) and reticulum (ruh-TIC-u-lum). They perform the same function and are collectively called the reticulorumen (ruh-TIC-u-low-ROO-men). After food is partly chewed and swallowed, it passes back and forth in the reticulorumen, mixing with saliva and breaking down into solids and liquids. The solid material clumps together and is regurgitated. Deer slowly re-chew (ruminates) the material -- the cud -- to mix it with more saliva and break it down into smaller particles. Depending on how much fiber is in the food, they may spend several hours a day chewing their cud.

Once swallowed again, the cud passes through the reticulorumen into the omasum (oh-MAY-sum), where many of the mineral elements are absorbed into the blood stream. From there the mixture moves into the abomasum (AB-uh-MACE-um), which is equivalent to a human stomach, and from there into the small intestine. All four chambers contain huge populations of various bacteria and other microbes which break down and ferment the food material.

Behavior

Whitetails, being prey animals, are shy and always on alert. They may be active to some extent at all times, but primarily move about in the hours near dawn and dusk, when they can't be easily seen. They reduce their exposure to danger by leaving their cover only briefly -- for instance, to quickly eat, then move back into hiding. During hunting season they may become completely nocturnal. However, during breeding season, roughly late September through January, males shed some of their hyper-wariness and leave heavy cover to seek out mates. Hunting season is timed so hunters can take advantage of this.

Whitetails live in social groups consisting of an adult female, her fawns and her yearling female offspring. They usually remain together until fall, at which time the yearling males separate from their mother and sisters as breeding season approaches. (If they don't leave voluntarily, the females will drive them away.) All males are solitary during breeding season, but may live together in small groups the rest of the year.

Whitetails rest in "deer beds," which are oval depressions in leaves, soft dirt or grasses. The beds are always surrounded by shrubs and grasses to shield the deer from prying eyes and bad weather. They rarely bed in the same spot twice, a tactic that probably protects them from predators.


Males sparring (Mike Rogal)
 


Whitetails have several ways of communicating with each other. For example, males use their antlers to strip bark off small trees -- this marks their territory. The mark is called a "rub." They also make "scrape lines" in their territory by using their front hooves to expose bare ground.

They also vocalize. Not a lot, but 13 different calls have been identified. One particular call is used by females to locate other members of their family group. Another is made by mothers to call their fawns. Still another announces when a female is ready to mate. Bucks, too, have several different calls.

Another way whitetails communicate is with scent glands. Glands are located between the two parts of each hoof, on the outside of each hind leg, on the inside of each hind leg at the hock, in front of each eye and at the base of each antler. The deer leave a scent every time they rub trees or shrubs. Scents alert females when males are moving through their area during breeding season. Scents also let males know when challengers are in the area. The scent glands between the hooves emit a substance with an offensive odor, so with every step a whitetail takes, a scent is left on the ground. Scent also serves as a danger-alert: They stomp their feet when they're alarmed, which leaves an excessive amount of scent as warning to others.

Reproduction

Breeding season seems to be timed to occur about 6½ months prior to the best fawning period for a particular locale. Commonly called rutting season or "the rut" by hunters, it runs when females are in estrus and males have high testosterone levels, anywhere from September through January.

Males spar with each other to win the rank of top deer. The reward is first choice of females. Sparring consists of ramming into each other, clicking antlers, trying to push each other backward, kicking and flailing their legs.

  
  Female and her fawn
   (Howard Cheek)
    
 

A male will chase a female for several days prior to mating, then mate with her several times. He remains with her for several days more to keep other bucks away. When they part company, the buck will go on to mate with several other females before the breeding season ends. He won't be involved with females again until the next mating season.

The gestation period is about 200 days. A healthy female might mate when she's as young as 7 months old. Females usually give birth to only one fawn the first time. After that, they usually have twins or, sometimes, triplets. The fawns are born quickly, sometimes with the mother standing.

Newborns weigh 5 to 8 pounds and wear a reddish-brown coat with white spots. Their eyes are open and they can stand and walk within an hour or two. They nurse almost immediately. This first nursing provides a high-protein milk called colostrum, which contains an assortment of antibodies that will help the fawns resist disease until their own immune system is developed.

Photo of fawn well-hidden in vegetation
Can you spot the fawn? (click image to enlarge it)
(Dherman1145 / Flickr)
 

A mother stays away from her fawns, hiding them in dense vegetation to protect them from predators. She returns only two or three times a day to nurse them. While they wait, they tuck their legs, head and neck into their body for maximum concealment. They lie completely motionless when a predator is nearby. Their coat perfectly camouflages them in the dappled sunlight striking a forest floor, or even when out in the open. It's hard for predators to see them, and they can't smell them, either: Fawns have no body odor and hold their urine and feces until their mother returns. When she does, she ingests whatever the fawns eliminate in order to remove any tell-tale odors.

Fawns munch on vegetation as early as a week or so old. At about one month, they start accompanying their mother. Should a predator approach a fawn, their mother will show herself and run off in another direction, hoping to lure it away. Fawns are playful and spend their time frolicking, nudging, jumping and boxing one another with their legs and feet. They are weaned at 8 to 12 weeks. They'll sport their distinctive white spots for 3 or 4 months, until their winter coat grows.

The family stays together until the next spring when the mother leaves her fawns and returns to her favorite birthing area to breed. All of her female offspring will remain in the same general area as their mother throughout their lives. Males, on the other hand, leave their mother in the fall, or certainly by the next spring -- if they don't, the females will force them to leave. Males might have to travel long distances to find new territories.

Life expectancy is up to 10 years in the wild, but more often only about 2 years. In captivity, whitetails can live up to 25 years.

Habitat

There are populations of whitetails across the U.S., but they're most common east of the Rocky Mountains. The perfect habitat for a whitetail is an area of one or two miles composed of a mixture of trees, shrubs, vines, flowering plants, grasses and miscellaneous other plants, such as fungi. Water, too, of course. That's the ideal, but whitetails are highly adaptable and manage to survive, even thrive, in many different environments, including forests, farmland, brushy areas, even shrubby deserts, from sea level to mountain ranges.

In agricultural areas, whitetails stay within a forested area until evening, then move out to feed in the fields. On the Plains, which are wide-open and scantily dotted with areas of cover, whitetails travel along grassy gullies and draws that offer them some cover.

Some whitetails live year-round in swamps, which provide them with water, many species of trees that drop nuts or offer good wood for browsing, and soft bedding and cover for hiding. In some areas, during hunting season whitetails head for boggy swamp areas that are inaccessible to hunters.

In summer, whitetails like fields and meadows, and seek shade on hot days in deciduous and coniferous forests. In winter, the forests offer some protection from harsh weather.

All a whitetail needs for encouragement to become a city resident is a park or neighborhood with 20 acres or more of habitat offering them food, water, shelter and cover.

Food Sources

Whitetails are herbivores and their diet is based on the plants available to them. In a forest, they might feed on undergrowth and fungi. In agricultural areas they eat such crops as corn and alfalfa, while in the city their diet might consist of shrubs, fruits, nuts, vegetables and flowering plants. Soft-stemmed, broad-leaved, flowering plants (forbs) are their favorites and, given a choice, they'll pick these over most woody plants and grasses every time. That's because forbs are more easily digested, providing their body with more available protein. In some tropical and subtropical areas, whitetails survive without eating any woody plants.

Predators

White-tailed deer are very alert to everything going on around them. They're agile and fast. They often enter streams and lakes to escape predators. But life is perilous, particularly for fawns. It's estimated that the amount of fawns lost from all causes runs 40 to 50 percent. Predators of fawns and adult whitetails include coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, wolves and wild dogs. Humans are the main predator of adults -- hunters kill an estimated 6 million a year and injure about twice that number. In some states, hunters take up to 80 percent of the antlered deer each year. Motor vehicles annually kill almost two million more.


 


White-tailed deer at a glance:
 

Photo of female White-tailed Deer standing on a lawn
Female (Guy Sagi)

Appearance: Tail: white on
edge, underside; summer
coat: reddish-brown; winter:
grayish; fawns: white spots

 
Size: Ht. 32-40 in. Lg 52-95 in.
Wt. females: 90-100, males: 150+


Lifespan: 10 yrs in wild;
25 in captivity

Range/habitat: Across U.S.

Behavior: Shy, alert; active at
dawn, dusk; scent glands mark
trails, territory; sexes socialize
only in breeding season; females
form family groups, males may
group together

Foods: Herbivorous: twigs, leaves,
grasses, fruits, vegetables, nuts,
flowering plants

Cover: Tall grasses,
forests, hedges, undergrowth,
whatever is available
 
Reproduction: Breeding season
Sept.-Jan. depending on locale;
200 day gestation; 2-3 fawns

Predators: C
oyotes, bobcats,
mountain lions, wolves, wild dogs,
hunters, autos
 
Called: Male:buck; female: doe;
young: fawn.


Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla (even-toes
          ungulates)
Suborder: Ruminantia (cud chewers)
Family: Cervidae
Genus: Odocoileus
Species:
virginianus

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