White-tailed deer are known for their beauty and grace – “poetry in motion”. Able to run up to 40 mph, leap 30 feet in a single bound and when pushed will jump over an 8 foot fence. In addition to their physical agility they also have a good eyesight, hearing and sense of smell.
Over time the population has varied greatly. During pre-colonial times some put the population at over 20 million, but as the forests were cleared for farming, industry increased and their meat became more popular the numbers plunged to about 500,000 by 1900. Fortunately restrictions were placed on hunting of deer and the numbers were gradually restored. Since deer are able to adapt to suburban, and even urban environments, we are now facing many more human and deer interactions. As herbivores, known for their consumption of all types of plant material from leaves to apples to acorns, on average they will eat one ton of food each year.
After a gestation period of 200 days, fawns are born in late May or early June. Although they can have between 1-4 babies, twins are most common, weighing between 6-9 lbs. each. Within a half hour of birth the fawns are able to walk. They are extremely vulnerable to predators, fox and coyotes, at this time so the mother cleans up the area and moves them. She will constantly move them to different bedding spots over the next few weeks, also separating the fawns from each other. The doe thoroughly cleans her newborn of any odors so they will not attract predators. The fawns spots also help to conceal them as they flatten their bodies to the forest floor. (Suggest reading the Native American story – How Fawn Got Its Spots, see resources.) The doe only goes to feed them every three to four hours. If a predator approaches the mom will either charge them, attacking with their hoofs, or lead it away from the fawns. If you come across a fawn it is best to leave them alone since mom is probably nearby. If this ends up not being the case the Wildlife Division should be contacted to arrange for a proper wildlife rehabilitator to assist. By late summer fawns are weaned, more independent and large enough to outrun their enemies. When alarmed a deer will raise the tail revealing their “white flag”.
Natural enemies include coyotes, bobcats and black bears, but humans, domestic dogs and cars take a heavy toll on deer populations. It is important to keep your high beams on especially at dusk and dawn, when deer are most active, to avoid collisions.
Bucks, male deer, begin growing antlers in April or May. At first they grow slow, but as more food becomes available the growth rate increases. As the antlers grow they are encased in a network of blood vessels and skin tissue called velvet. The “velvet” nourishes the antlers throughout the growth process. Growth is usually completed by the fall season when the antlers begin to harden. The deer then scrape off the velvet in preparation for the “rut” or breeding season. They increase their rubbing activity to both strengthen their neck muscles and to let other bucks know they are present. A buck will also lick branches and by rubbing his nose and forehead on the tree rubs he will leave as much of his scent as possible. He will also scrape the ground and urinate in that area. All of these things are done to mark his territory.
Nutrition, genetics and age all play a part in the size of antlers. No two sets of antlers are exactly alike. The bucks will use their antlers for sparring during the mating season in their fight for dominance. Unlike horns that are permanent, antlers are shed each year by mid-December to late January.
You can tell that white-tailed deer have been in the area by their tracks, browse and scat.
White-tailed deer are “ungulates”, hoofed animals. They leave a heart shaped track with the bottom end of the track pointing in the direction the deer is going. Deer have incisors only on the bottom jaw. There are no teeth directly above the incisors so they tear at the branches rather than cutting through them. A rabbit or hare make a clean 45O cut that looks like it was made with a knife. Deer scat, although variable based on the food and season, is similar in size to rabbit scat, but with the pellets being more elongated and a rabbit’s being rounder.
Referred to as white-tailed deer, white-tail deer, whitetails, etc. , in the genus Odocoileus from Greek words odon (tooth) and koilos (hollow) in reference to the depressions in the crown of the molar teeth located in the back of their mouths. The species virginianus refers to the state of Virginia where they were first collected and described.
White-tailed deer a beautiful animal that should be appreciated and respected for it connects us in so many ways to the natural world.
How Fawn Got Its Spots
Oh Deer! Activity from Growing Up WILD
Whitetail – Behavior Through the Seasons by Charles J. Alsheimer
White-tailed Deer Fact Sheet