White-tailed Deer

Odocoileus virginianus
Monday, July 26, 2010

The white-tailed deer is the only member of the North American deer family present in our area. They are also the smallest deer on the continent. Their closest relatives include Mule Deer, Moose, Elk, and Caribou. The White-tailed Deer is present through Central America, as far south as Bolivia. They occur in most of the continental US and southern Canada. They are absent only from several states in the southwest, where they share territory with Mule Deer.

These deer are generally reddish-brown in the summer, fading to gray-brown in the winter. Their coats are designed to help them blend in to the background in a variety of different habitats; they live in forests, open areas, deserts (within ten miles of a water source), and more recently urban areas. The mostly solid-colored coats are interrupted by white fur on their throats, eyes, nose, stomach, and underside of their tail. Males can weigh between 68 and 136 kgs (150-300 lbs), and females are generally between 41 and 91 kgs (90-200 lbs). They are, like most mammals, sexually dimorphic; apart from being larger, the males have large antlers which they grow in the summer and shed by around January.

Bucks (males) spend most of the late spring and summer growing out their antlers in preparation for the mating season. In the fall (October-December), bucks will spar vigorously using their antlers; not, as in some species, for possession of a harem; rather to gain mating privileges with the one or several does (females) in the vicinity. The does are polyoestrous (they come into heat several times), and if they do not mate the first time, a second estrous occurs around 28 days later. The bucks are polygamous, although they may form an attachment to a particular doe and remain with her until she reaches estrous. After the breeding season, the buck will lose their antlers in preparation for growing another, larger pair the next year. It is important that older bucks have larger antlers, for antler size determines social ranking among bucks. During the mating season, bucks mark their territory by rubbing their antlers against trees, as well as communicate using strong scent markings from glands on the inside of their rear legs combined with urine.

The does will gestate for around 6 ½ months, and then give birth to 1-3 fawns (young). The fawns have reddish-brown coats covered in white flecks, which give them an advantage in hiding from predators. The does generally leave their fawns for about four hours at a time as they go and forage. During this time, the fawn will remain flat on the ground with its neck outstretched. The fawn will hold its urine and feces until its mother returns, at which point she will ingest them, desperate to hide from predators that she is caring for a helpless fawn. If the mother has more than one fawn, she will hide them in different places as she forages. One purpose of the white tail on a White-tailed Deer is to allow fawns to follow the mother easily if she is frightened and bolts. The fawns are ready to forage with their mother at about 5-6 weeks, at which point they are weaned. The females will stay with their mother for two years, whereas the male fawns will leave their mother after only one year to go and join small groups of other males, which invariably break up before the breeding season. The males have no part in the parental care of their fawns, nor do they stay with the doe after they have mated.  Deer generally live 2-3 years in the wild, although they may reach age eleven. Captive animals have lived to 20 years old.

White-tailed deer are ruminant, meaning that, like cows, they have four stomachs and chew their cud.  They tend to graze on any type of vegetation in the summer. In the winter, they get whatever they can; this turns out to include twigs, buds, and conifers. They can run up to 30 mph, with impressive leaps as high as 3 meters high and 9 meters long. They are graceful and agile, able to plunge through both forest and open land as few other creatures can. The adults have few natural predators, however, the fawns can be (and often are) killed by foxes, bobcats, and dogs. The adults also have to deal with coyotes, mountain lions, humans, and wolves where they can still be found. However, one of a deer’s biggest enemies is the automobile, due to deers’ propensity to graze in populated areas with busy roads, and, doubtless, nice lawns.

The skull and jawbones were collected along route 613. The skull would normally have a nose extended as far as the jaw; however, the thinner bone has degraded with the passage of time. The various other leg bones were found near the Cross Trail, connecting the Moonshine Dell trail to the Spring Road. A skull with antlers is on display in the upstairs of Lewis; also, an extraordinarily finely dressed stuffed specimen resides in the office.

Article by Hazel Galloway