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Nature Notes: White-Tailed Deer, part one

Ed Robinson
February 28, 2015
Curt Chipman photo

If there is a common mammal more loved and sometimes detested than the white-tailed deer (also referred to as a “whitetail”), I would be surprised. Many of us fell in love with this graceful animal after seeing the classic Walt Disney movie “Bambi,” and have long enjoyed seeing them in parks and backyards. Ask a pumpkin, corn or grape farmer what animal causes the most harm to his crops, and he might name this deer with strong language attached. In suburban areas where deer are over populated, body shops do a booming business repairing cars damaged in deer collisions.

To do justice to the whitetail, this will be a two-part article. There is much to learn about this species, and I hope you enjoy the articles.

The whitetail is native to North America, and ranges from Canada all the way south to Peru and Bolivia. In the Western US, from Alaska to the Mexican border country, you will find close cousins such as the mule deer, black-tailed deer, Sitka deer, Coues deer and the endangered Columbian white-tailed deer. The whitetail is prevalent east of the Rockies, but with changes in farming and timber practices, whitetails have been expanding their range to the west and north, and are now the most widely distributed deer. Like the moose profiled in a recent article, deer populations in Maine are tied to agricultural practices, human population changes, weather and disease. In the northern parts of the state, deer numbers have fallen significantly, but in many southern areas, populations are on the rise.

Most people can identify a whitetail easily, with their long necks, graceful heads, soft brown eyes and that large white tail. Through the year, a deer’s coat changes from a soft reddish brown color in the summer to a dull grey/brown during the cold months. When shedding their winter coat in spring, deer can look downright scruffy, but in summer, they are sleek and beautiful in a soft morning or evening light. Near my hometown in central New York State, there is a population of several hundred white deer (not albinos) on the huge, fenced Seneca Army Depot, now threatened by the closure of the base.

The size and weight of whitetails varies considerably over their range, partly due to nutrition but mostly due to genetic changes due to evolution. In the 1800’s, German biologist Carl Bergmann demonstrated that for many species of mammals and birds, body size and mass increases the further north you go, allowing animals to survive harsh winters. An adult whitetail in the desert southwest might range from 80-130 pounds, while in Maine, females (“does”) can reach 200 and males (“bucks”) can reach well over 300 pounds. It can take five or six years for a deer to reach the upper end of the weight range, and in the wild, deer may live into their teens.

Deer are equipped with wonderful senses. With protruding eyes widely spaced, a deer has nearly 360 degree vision and they are highly attuned to unusual movements. They have dichromatic vision, meaning they see in two primary colors, yellow and blue, but they see oranges and reds more as shades of grey (thus the logic of wearing bright orange during hunting seasons). Deer have excellent hearing, since those large, pivoting ears can collect sounds from long distances. Their sense of smell is far more developed than our own, since deer detect danger and also communicate with each other by detecting and judging odors left by other deer and, of course, predators of all kinds. Any time a deer is spooked, that white tail will pop up and wave back and forth as the animal bounds or sprints away, as a warming to other deer in the area (the deer is also likely to snort or wheeze loudly to give alarm). A deer in full flight can leap up to 30 feet in one bound, jump an eight-foot fence and hit speeds well over 40 miles per hour.

Many people think of deer as creatures of the deep woods, but in fact, they are more comfortable around the edges of forests and fields. Highly adaptable, whitetails will use forest openings caused by fire, wind or timber operations, but they may equally move into more open terrain if food, security and water are suited to their needs. Over the course of a year, deer will consume emerging legumes, new grasses, leaves, mushrooms, fruit and nuts (with acorns a particular favorite). At our old farm in New York, we plant a variety of shrubs and food plots to give deer and other wildlife high quality nutrition all year, with corn, buckwheat, clover, winter turnips and apples being popular.

In winter months, when food options dwindle, whitetails go into survival mode. From January through March, deer that entered winter in good condition with large reserves of body fat can survive all but the most brutal winters. Their digestive systems adapt to living on browse, the buds and small twigs from new growth on deciduous trees, plus your favorite rhododendron, even pine needles. The deer will migrate and gather in large herds in areas with heavy thermal cover, and move as little as possible to conserve energy. In these conditions, feeding whitetails high energy foods such as corn or hay may do the deer more harm than good, shocking their systems and concentrating them in areas where they may become susceptible to predation by coyotes and large felines (lynx, bobcats and cougars). Biologists often recommend that the best way to supplement deer food in winter is to use your chain saw to hinge cut large tree branches, or to do your pruning of fruit trees and leave the branches on the ground.

Females and males generally mature in the autumn of their second year of life. Does enter estrous in late October or early November, since hormonal changes are triggered by fewer hours of daylight. Depending upon the age and health of the doe, and the carrying capacity of her favored habitat, a doe may give birth to as many as three fawns, with one the most common number. Fawns are born in May or June, with spotted coats and an almost total absence of scent to protect them from predators (fawns are a favorite food of bears and coyotes). The doe will leave her fawn alone while browsing, or when threatened, and the fawn will lie perfectly still and quiet. Humans often find fawns alone, and make the mistake of assuming they have been abandoned (better not to disturb or touch the fawn). Weaning is normally done within 10 weeks, and the young will stay with their mothers for at least their first year of life.

Click here for part two of the series about deer.

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