Friday, March 25, 2011

White-Tail Deer

These gorgeous deer are Missouri White-Tail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus virginianus) and are native to North America and can be found throughout the United States with exception to many of the far western states. Throughout the great plains they will be found in Aspen groves and river bottoms with deciduous trees. They can also be found in other countries such as Mexico, and Canada as well as other continents like Central America, and as far south as Peru. There is much speculation among scientists as to the genetics of this species. Because of the tendencies this deer has had for cross-breeding with other deer populations over centuries there are many recognized subspecies. Some scientists say there are more than 30 subspecies, and other scientists claim the number is far less. One thing is certain their DNA can be found at least in part in many different deer populations all across their range. Two recognized subspecies, the Florida Key Deer and the Columbian White-Tail are listed as endangered. Their populations are drastically reduced due to habitat loss. This large genetic variation allows them to take advantage of a wide variety of habitats and plays are large part in this deers success.

Many people do not realize that the white-tail deer in Missouri almost became non-existent. Before settlers came to Missouri there was a large population of these deer, predominantly found in the Northern part of the state. Once settlers came into Missouri they were faced with a ready meat supply and hunted the deer almost to extinction. In addition the deer experienced habitat loss brought on by cutting, burning, farming and grazing forest lands. At one point the estimated deer herd was at 400 deer in the entire state. Laws that were set in place during that time went largely ignored or were not enforced which did little to help the situation. It wasn't until 1931 that enterprising individuals brought in white-tail deer from Minnesota and released them in the Ozarks to try and increase their rapidly declining numbers. They held a deer hunting season and found that the numbers were stable, or declining. Something had to be done and soon. In 1937 the Conservation Commission was formed and one of their top priorities was rescuing the deer population. The Commission closed deer hunting season from 1938 to 1943. During this closure, additional deer were stocked from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and from existing refuges within the state. Enforcement of the Wildlife Code of Missouri by professionally trained conservation agents helped deter poaching. By 1944, the statewide deer population soared to 15,000, and Missouri held its first deer season since the recovery effort had begun. In recent years, nearly 500,000 gun and bow hunters typically harvest around 300,000 deer annually during statewide seasons. Missourians can take pride in the widespread restoration of this major wildlife species. Deer hunting is part of our heritage and has been passed from generation to generation for many years.There are many groups or people who are opposed to hunting, and for various reasons. Many of them will cite cruelty which is unfortunate, because if hunting is carried out by skilled, trained and ethical hunters there is nothing cruel about it. Mother nature is far harder on her own kind than any hunter could be. If you have never witnessed a deer suffering from starvation or disease then you are fortunate indeed.
 (Deer found dead by unknown causes)

Overpopulation of any wild animal species can create huge problems for that species. There simply is not enough habitat available to sustain too large of numbers of any animal. They will exhaust their resources and become weakened and susceptible to disease that can be spread to healthy animals. They cannot locate appropriate food supplies and will slowly starve to death. These are far more horrible ways to die, than at the hands of a hunter.

The white-tail deer in Missouri change color with the season. During the spring and summer months they will be a reddish-brown and in the fall their coat will change to a gray-brown and will remain that way until the following spring. These large mammals are masters of camouflage and can virtually disappear in their environment.
(Yes, there is a deer in this picture)

There is a population of all white White-tail deer in Romulus, NY, they are not albino, it is just a melaninistic variation. They are protected and looked after by park rangers in the area.

Male deer are referred to as bucks or stags and may reach weights up to 300 pounds.....however that would be a large buck. There is a record listed of a white-tail deer (buck) being shot that weighed 511 pounds, which is a HUGE white-tail and definitely not typical of this species at all. Females are usually much smaller and will range in size from 90 to 200 pounds. Bucks regrow their antlers each year, beginning in the spring they will start sprouting antlers that are covered in a vascular tissue called velvet. They  will remain in velvet throughout spring and summer. When autumn returns they will begin rubbing their antlers on trees or other vertical surfaces to rid themselves of the velvet and expose their beautiful new rack. Soon after that the rut will begin and males will be focused on finding females. Often times they have total disregard to their own safety and will run across roadways in front of cars causing accidents. They will also fight other bucks for the favor of a female, or show dominance in a give territory. Small bucks learn to fight by mock fighting with mature bucks and by fighting with other young bucks. Fights rarely result in death, an exception to this would be if their antlers become locked together. This will certainly result in death as neither deer can separate themselves to be able to move or feed. 

Dominant males will win the favor of many does and go on to mate and pass his genetics onto the next generation. The rutting period in Missouri usually begins the middle or end of October and continues throughout November. In January the bucks drop their antlers, that is to say they shed them. Many people enjoy combing the timber and fields in search of antlers to add to their collections. I myself have never found one, but I know many people who have. In April the females will begin giving birth. The first year does typically give birth to a single fawn, but older more mature does may give birth to twins or even triplets. Fawns are born with spots which help them blend in with their surroundings making them difficult to see.


In addition they are also born scentless and the mothers will clean up all fecal matter so no scent surrounds her offspring. Does will often place their babies in a secure location and then wander off to feed. The fawn knows to stay put until mother returns. If you happen to find a fawn laying in the grass all alone, have no fear, mother is nearby. The baby is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing staying put and staying motionless. Taking this fawn from the wild out of concern will cause more harm than good. Mother deer are much better moms to a fawn than a human could ever be. If you find a fawn that is truly abandoned or orphaned then an intervention may be needed. Baby deer require special care, including special milk. It is not recommended that untrained persons try to care for a fawn, nor is it legal. These young deer acclimate to humans readily and become pet-like. While this may seem cute, it puts the deer in grave danger when it is released back to the wild. A tame deer is a dead deer. Take these orphaned or abandoned deer to specially trained and licensed wildlife rehabbers. 

White-tail deer are generalist when it comes to their diet and will eat a wide variety of plant material. They will eat legumes, leaves, cacti, grasses, fungi, shoots, acorns, fruit and corn. They  may also find your prized garden and yard plants delicious fare. Many people struggle each year to keep these munchers out of their yards and gardens. There are many plants available to plant that are distasteful to deer and you might consider planting those varieties. Putting up deer-proof fencing will go along way in preventing deer from entering your garden in the first place. This is typically a problem in more suburban and urban areas where food is more scarce and your vegetation is simply to tempting. Where I work we have birdfeeders behind our building and each evening during the winter the deer show up to feed on the seeds. Winter is a difficult time for deer, food is much more hard to come by and they are resorted to feeding on bark or twigs. There is very little nutrition in wood. Acorns are a favored winter food, but some years the oaks may produce smaller or fewer acorns to assure its own survival. This lack of acorns results in a lack of food for our white-tails. Some individuals will feed deer, and I cannot tell you to do this, or to not do this. It is your own personal preference. There are good points and bad points about this practice. Just make sure you do your research before beginning any kind of feeding regiment. Make sure the outcome is what you expect. 

White-tail deer notoriously avoid humans and are vary wary of our presence. To them we represent danger. They have many ways to communicate their discomfort. They may stamp their front feet as a warning, they may snort. If truly frightened they will run away flashing the white fur under their tail as a warning of nearby danger. Any other deer in the area will see this and retreat as well. This white fur under their tail is where their common name came from. They are very fast runners and may reach speeds up to 30 mph and can leap over fences and are excellent swimmers. 

(Foot stomping a warning)

Deer also communicate with each other by scent. They have four scent glands located on four different parts of their body. These scents are used in a variety of ways. Males will urinate on their legs during the rutting season, the urine will run down their legs to glands located near their feet. They will rub this scent around their territory to advertise their presence to other males. This is like a no-trespassing sign to entering bucks, telling them that this area is already occupied. Scent is also important in helping males locate females. Some scent is so strong that it can be detected by the human nose.

Deer face other dangers besides disease, starvation, loss of habitat, hunters, and car collisions; they are also preyed upon by other wild animals. Bobcats will feed on fawns or young deer. Coyotes, wolves and mountain lions are capable of killing full grown deer. Parasites such as lice, mites and roundworms can take its toll on deer by weakening them and making them susceptible to predators. If the infestation is too severe they may die of starvation brought on by the parasites. Dogs are another problem deer face. Irresponsible dog owners allow their dogs to range and roam free and dogs are predators just by their genetics and they love to chase deer. They may run deer into barbed wire fences, out into traffic or outwardly kill the deer.

Through successful conservation efforts the white-tail deer is here to stay. We are blessed in Missouri to have a large sustainable white-tail population and I am fortunate enough to see them on a regular basis. While the white-tail is classified as the smallest deer in North America, they are absolutely one of the most beautiful. While it is true that car collisions occur and gardens may be feasted upon....I must say the good outweighs the bad and I hope to continue to enjoy Missouri white-tails for years to come.

1 comment:

  1. I get a buck through my yard everyday that still has his full rack. Is this common? Do some bucks not lose their antlers or just lose them later in the winter?