The white-tailed deer is a medium-sized deer native to the United States (all but five of the states), Canada, Mexico, Central America, and in South America as far south as Peru. It has also been introduced to New Zealand and some countries in Europe, such as Finland and the Czech Republic. There is a population of white-tailed deer in the state of New York that is entirely white in color. The former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, New York, has the largest known concentration of White Deer. Strong conservation efforts have allowed white deer to thrive within the confines of the depot.
The deer coat is reddish-brown in the spring and summer and turns to grey-brown throughout the fall and winter and can be recognized by the characteristic white underside to its tail, which shows as a signal of alarm by raising the tail during escape.
The male deer usually weighs 130 to 300 pounds but, in rare cases, bucks in excess of 375 pounds have been recorded(1). The female usually weighs from 90 to 200 pounds. Length ranges from 62 to 87 inches, including the tail, and the shoulder height is 32 to 40 inches. White-tailed deer from the tropics tend to be smaller than in temperate populations, averaging 77 to 110 pounds(2). Deer have dichromatic (two-color) vision; humans have trichromatic vision. So what deer do not see are the oranges and reds that stand out so well to people(3).
Males re-grow their antlers every year. The number of points, the length or thickness of the antlers are a general indication of age but cannot be relied upon for positive aging. A better indication of age is the length of the snout and the color of the coat, with older deer tending to have longer snouts and grayer coats(5). Antlers begin to grow in late spring, covered with a highly vascularised tissue known as velvet. Bucks either have a typical or non-typical antler arrangement. Typical antlers are symmetrical and the points may project at any angle from the main beam.
The white-tailed deer is a ruminant, which means it has a four-chambered stomach(6). Each chamber has a different and specific function that allows the deer to quickly eat a variety of different food, digesting it at a later time in a safe area of cover. The deer stomach hosts a complex set of bacteria that change as the deer's diet changes through the seasons. If the bacteria necessary for digestion of a particular food (e.g., hay) are absent it will not be digested. They eat a large variety of food, including legumes and grazing on other plants like shoots, leaves, cacti, and grasses. Their diet varies by season according to availability of food sources. They will also eat hay, and foods that they can find in a farm yard (acorns, fruit and corn). White-tailed deer have also been known to feed on nesting songbirds, field mice, and birds trapped in Mist nets(7).
There are several natural predators of white-tailed deer. Grey wolves, cougars, American Alligators, and (in the tropics) jaguars are the more effective natural predators of adult deer. Bobcats, lynxes, bears, and packs of coyotes usually will prey on deer fawns. Bears may sometimes attack adult deer while lynxes, coyotes, and bobcats are most likely to take adult deer when the ungulates are weakened by winter weather(8). The killing by humans of natural deer predators, particularly panthers and cougars, over the East Coast (only the coyote is now widespread) is believed to be a factor in the overpopulation issues with this species. Many scavengers rely on deer as carrion, including, New World Vultures, hawks, eagles, foxes, and corvids (the latter three may also rarely prey on deer fawns).
Males compete for the opportunity of breeding females. Sparring among males determines a dominance hierarchy (9). Bucks will attempt to mate with as many females as possible, losing physical condition since they rarely eat or rest during the rut. The general geographical trend is for the rut to be shorter in duration at increased latitude. There are many factors as to how intense the "rutting season" will be. Air temperature is one major factor of this intensity. Any time the temperature rises above 40 °F, the males will do much less traveling looking for females, or they will be subject to overheating or dehydrating. Another factor for the strength in rutting activity is competition. If there are numerous males in a particular area, then they will compete more for the females. If there are fewer males or more females, then the selection process will not need to be as competitive.
Females enter estrus, also called the rut, in the fall, normally in late October or early November, triggered mainly by declining sunlight. Sexual maturation of females depends on population density as well as availability of food(10). Females can mature in their first year, although this is unusual and would occur only at very low population levels. Most females mature at 1–2 years of age. Most are not able to reproduce until six months after they mature.
Females give birth to 1–3 spotted young, known as fawns, in mid to late spring, generally in May or June. Fawns lose their spots during the first summer and will weigh from 44 to 77 pounds by the first winter. Male fawns tend to be slightly larger and heavier than females. For the first four weeks, fawns mostly lie still and hide in vegetation while their mothers forage. They are then able to follow their mothers on foraging trips. They are weaned after 8–10 weeks. Males will leave their mothers after a year and females leave after two. Fawns are the only known animal to be born without a scent at birth, making them difficult to find by prerdators when left alone while the mother searches for food.
White-tailed deer communicate in many different ways using sounds, scent, body language, and marking. All white-tailed deer are capable of producing audible noises, unique to each animal. Fawns release a high-pitched squeal, known as a bleat, to call out to their mothers(11). A doe makes maternal grunts when searching for her bedded fawns(12). Grunting produces a low, guttural sound that will attract the attention of any other deer in the area. Both does and bucks snort, a sound that often signals danger. As well as snorting, bucks also grunt at a pitch that gets lower with maturity. Bucks are unique in their grunt-snort-wheeze pattern that often shows aggression and hostility(13). Another way white-tailed deer communicate is with their white tail. When a white-tail deer is spooked it will raise its tail to warn the other deer in the area that can see it.
A century ago, commercial exploitation, unregulated hunting and poor land-use practices, including deforestation severely depressed deer populations in much of their range. For example, by about 1930, the U.S. population was thought to number about 300,000. After an outcry by hunters and other conservation ecologists, commercial exploitation of deer became illegal and conservation programs along with regulated hunting were introduced. Recent estimates put the deer population in the United States at around 30 million.
Conservation practices have proved so successful that, in parts of their range, the white-tailed deer populations currently far exceed their carrying capacity and the animal may be considered a nuisance. Motor vehicle collisions with deer are a serious problem in many parts of the animal's range, especially at night and during rutting season, causing injuries and fatalities among both deer and humans. Vehicular damage can be substantial in some cases(14).
1. The Outdoor Life Book of World Records (http://www.outdoorlife.com/articles/hunting/2007/09/outdoor-life-book-world-records). Retrieved 2011-02-20.
2. ADW: Odocoileus virginianus: Information (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Odocoileus_virginianus.html). Retrieved 2011-02-20.
3. Deer colorblind to orange, but if you glow… February 23, 2009 Contact: Wendy B. FWC
4. Wislocki G.B. 1954 Antlers in Female Deer, with a Report of Three Cases in Odocoileus. Journal of Mammalogy 35(4):486-495.
5. The Management of Spike Bucks in a White-Tailed Deer Population (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_rp_w7000_0247.pdf). Retrieved 2011-02-20.
6. Nelson, Richard. Heart and Blood, Living With Deer in America, Chap. 1
7. White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) Predation on Grassland Songbird Nestlings (http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1674/0003-0031 (2000) 144%5B0419%3AWTDOV%5D2.0.CO%3B2). The American Midland Naturalist. 2000.
8. ADW:Odocoileus virginianus: Information (http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Odocoileus_virginianus.html). Retrieved 2011-02-20.
9. Ditchkoff, S.S., Lochmiller, Robert L., Masters, Ronald E., Hoofer, Steven R., Van Den Bussche, Ronald A. (2001). Major Histocompatibility-Complex-Associated Variation in Secondary Sexual Traits of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus Virginianus): Evidence For Good-Genes Advertisement Evolution 55(3): 616-625.
10. Forest Foods Deer Eat Department of Natural Resources website (http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12148-61306--,00.html). Retrieved 2011-02-18.
11. 12, 13. Thomas D. Atkeson, R. Larry Marchinton, (1988). Vocalizations of White-tailed Deer, American Midland Naturalist, 120(1): 194-200.
14. Warning to Motorists: Fall Is Peak Season for Deer-Vehicle Collisions (http://www.iii.org/press_releases/warning-to-motorists-fall-is-peak-season-for-deer-vehicle-collisions.html), Insurance Information Institute, October1, 2009.