Everything You Want To Know About White-Tailed Deer

As I go out into the early dawn to feed animals I hear a light snort. There is a young doe standing at my gate looking into the barnyard. No doubt she was one of my rehab baby deer from last year. “Good morning sweetheart” I say to her. She snorts again, turns and flees into my field on the opposite side of the road.

I smile to myself. Life is good. She is doing well. I find rehabbing white-tailed deer can be a bit stressful as I send them into the unknown every year.

This article will tell you everything you want to know about white tailed deer. Plus I have included lots of pictures of the fawns in our wildlife rehabilitation program not to mention some great stories.

If you still have a question please feel free to ask it in the comments.

What a thrill to be driving down the road and see white tailed deer grazing in a field or scurrying to cross the road. Deer have a positive impact on the environment and local economies. They are beautiful animals and offer inspiration and solace.

One of our success stories. Daisy deer had to have an emergency leg amputation. She learned to run and jump and was able to be set free on the farm. We are so proud of her! Photo: Ame Vanorio

One of our success stories. Daisy deer had to have an emergency leg amputation. She learned to run and jump and was able to be set free on the farm. We are so proud of her! Photo: Ame Vanorio

Where Do White-tailed Deer Live?

Today’s white-tailed deer ((Odocoileus virginianus) range throughout the United States , down into Central America and the northern countries of South America. There are several sub species such as the petite Florida Key Deer.

There are about 13 million white-tailed deer in the United States. They inhabit every state but are not as common in desert states such as Nevada and Utah.

www.fieldguide.mt.gov

www.fieldguide.mt.gov

Kentucky Impacts

There were an estimated 858,876 deer in Kentucky during 2018.

Deer are a valuable resource in Kentucky. The state will tell you they are valuable for a specific economic reason. Hunting. Indeed, hunting does draw in a lot of dollars.

However, deer bring additional revenue through hikers and photography enthusiasts. Kentucky has a wonderful park system with many opportunities to view wildlife.

Seeing a deer herd out in their native environment is quite thrilling. We need to promote viewing deer and other wildlife the way we promote visiting horse farms.

Benefits to the Ecosystem

Deer are considered a keystone species. This means that they directly impact the lives of other plants and animals.

At the correct population, white-tailed deer increase biodiversity and encourage new plant growth. There feces add to the soil encouraging plants to grow and thrive. They eat brush allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor allowing smaller plants to grow.

Ohio State University conducted a study that found deer had a positive impact on reptile populations. Invertebrates, salamanders and snakes enjoyed the areas that were opened up by grazing. In addition, it was theorized that the higher fertility attracted invertebrates which attracted salamanders which attracted snakes. So they help complete the food chain.

Through their feeding habits it has been shown that they also contribute to a healthier and more diverse bird population.

Physical Attributes

White-tail adult deer are a reddish brown color in summer. In winter with a thickening coat they become more of a grayish brown. The males, called bucks, weigh as much as 150 to 300 pounds and have antlers. The female doe weighs 88 to 198 lb.

Deer have eyes are on the side of there head and they have good vision. They have excellent hearing due to the ability to rotate their ears in three directions without moving their heads. They also have very good sense of smell.

Its name comes from the white color on the underside of the tail. This flag alerts other deer of danger. Running from danger is a deer’s main form of defense. A deer can run very fast – up to forty five miles per hour. They can also jump quite high – up to eight feet.

These skills start at a young age. I recently observed one of my young fawns jumping a three foot fence.

Deer also communicate vocally. Fawns have a high pitched call to let mom know where they are. To me it sounds similar to a kitten mewing. Adult deer have a series of snorts, blows and grunts that communicate location, danger or come with me.  

Check out the rack on that deer! Antlers Are Cool!

A new set of antlers are grown every year. In fact, during the spring they can grow up to an inch per day. They are made of  bone that grows out of the base of the skull. The bone is covered with velvet during the growing stage which provides a blood supply.

The velvet contains blood and nerves and is actually quite sensitive. The buck will carry his head carefully during this time so not to harm his antlers. The velvet dries up in late summer before breeding season.

Antlers are different from horns. Horns are made of keratin, just like your fingernails, as well as bone. Horns are not shed and continue to grow by adding new layers.

Photo: By Stehn John, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Photo: By Stehn John, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Antlers are used during rut. Rut is the breeding season and males use there antlers to fight over territory and does. They may also use there antlers to knock food such as fruit out of trees and to dig into the earth for water during a drought.

He also likes to flaunt his antlers to say to the female “look how pretty I am” . Having a nice set of antlers also signals to the doe that this gentleman caller is healthy and genetically superior.

Antlers are a valuable part of the ecosystem. The buck sheds his antlers in the winter. These antlers provide important minerals for smaller mammals such as chipmunks and squirrels.

Fun fact: 1 in 10,000 female deer will grow antlers.

Can you tell the age of a deer by its antlers?

Yes and No!

The only precise way to tell a deer’s age is by looking at its teeth.

The buck deer grows antlers which have points or tines on them. Often we think that the deer grows a point for every year of its life. This is not true. A yearling buck that is well fed can grow a six to eight point rack.

Sometimes age can be interpreted. For instance, a button buck is just developing antlers and is typically between six and twelve months old.

The size of the antlers has more to do with heredity and nutrition.

Some other characteristics that you can look to for that indicate age are the roundness of the haunches (butt) and the sagging of the belly. Both indicate and older animal.

Where Do Deer live?

Deer have expanded their territory and their range not only geographically but have steadily moved into urban areas. Traditionally, we think of deer as living in fields and meadows next to forested areas. In spring and summer they move through open areas to browse on grasses, weeds and bushes. In winter they tend to stay in the woods more to have protection from winter weather.

As a country girl this is where I think of deer living. But I have discovered how wrong I was. My first deer call as a new rehabber was from a bank in Florence, Kentucky. They had a new born deer curled up in the parking lot.

The fawn was fine, the bank kept cars away and mom came back and got the baby. But it was shocking to me that a deer would leave her baby on a tiny median surrounded by cement. Since then I regularly get calls from urban residents who have discovered fawns on decks, in garages and near stores.

Many of these natural habitats have become lost to urbanization. The destruction and development of the deer’s habitat have pushed them into urban areas. They live in city parks and migrate through suburban neighborhoods.

Deer are typically most active at dawn and dusk. We call this behavior crepuscular. At these times they move to new areas and look for food. During the day they will often seek cover and hide.

Tractor Supply

Besides Your Hosta’s – What Do Deer Eat?

Deer are herbivores and total vegetarians. The both graze (eat grasses on the ground) and browse ( eat bushes and trees). They will also eat fruits, mosses and nuts. In addition, deer love farmers crops and flower gardeners.

In fact, scientists have found that deer eat over 650 different plants. That’s a very varied diet and gives them an advantage in the wild. An adult deer will eat 2000 pounds of food per year. So herds with high populations can have a detrimental effect on the local plant population.

Read below some ways to keep deer out of your garden.

Deer like cows and goats are ruminants. Ruminants have a stomach with four individual chambers. Each stomach has a specific job in digestion and allows deer to eat such a varied diet.

Like other ruminants, deer chew their cud. This gives them the opportunity to go away from their safe spot, eat a great deal, and then go back to a safe place with cover. Once in their safe place they will regurgitate the food and chew it again for proper digestion.

Reproduction

Deer breed in the fall. One buck will mate with several does and they do not form pair bonds. Gestation is seven months and babies are typically born in late spring and early summer. In Kentucky this is usually May and June. Does give birth to one to three babies although twins are most common.

Interesting, deer have four teats like cows and black bears. In a year of very good nutrition a doe may have triplets.

Deer are very good mothers but maybe not in the way you expect.

She leaves her babies alone

So the mother deer’s method of parenting is to actually plop the baby down and leave it there.

Now before you judge her to harshly let me explain.

The fawn is born with no scent. This helps to protect them from predators. The fawn also does not yet have the leg strength to keep up with mom.

This is George. He came to use with a number of health concerns. But over time he is getting better and will be releasable. Photo: Ame Vanorio

This is George. He came to use with a number of health concerns. But over time he is getting better and will be releasable. Photo: Ame Vanorio

So mom takes off hoping that the bad guys will follow her and not find baby. She checks on baby twice a day to nurse and move them.

Fun Fawn Facts

  • Fawns have over 300 spots when they are born to provide camouflage

  • Fawns can run very fast even as newborns but it takes several weeks before they can keep up with mom or outrun a predator

  • They spend the first month of their life hiding

  • Fawns weigh less than eight pounds at birth

  • Up to 25% of twin fawns have different fathers

  • Most of the fetuses growth occurs during the last two months to correspond with spring

The 24 Hour Rule

That’s why we have a 24 hour rule. Monitor the situation for 24 hours. Unobtrusively watch out for baby.

Unless mom is dead on the road or baby has open bloody wounds we give mom a chance. Does are the best mothers for fawns. Humans are not good replacements.

Fawns Do not Belong On Couches

Stop laughing. I seriously get calls where people tell me they found a horribly sick fawn so they brought it inside. Low and behold the fawn is on their couch watching Beverly Hillbilly’s.

Don’t bring the fawn inside. If it looks dehydrated you can place a shallow pan of water by it. Do not try to feed a fawn. Food to a dehydrated animal is a death sentence.

Rescue and Rehabilitation

At Fox Run we rehabilitate six fawns each year. We limit the number because fawns need a large amount of space and are quite expensive to raise. Quite often fawns are admitted with injuries and need veterinary care.

Dr. Glaza  giving one of our fawns a check up.

Dr. Glaza giving one of our fawns a check up.

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Deer can be very difficult to rehabilitate. Young fawns very much want to be pets and are very affectionate. Rehabbers have to work hard at reducing physical contact with fawns so that they “wild up” and become afraid of humans.

Check out our video on What Should You Do if You Find a Fawn

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The Fear Factor

Deer are prey animals and are naturally programmed to try to escape. Sadly it also means they can and do die from stress related capture. It may not be today or tomorrow but the stress can build up over time and cause heart and organ failure. This is called capture myopathy.

Diseases/Zoonoses

Wild deer suffer from several prominent diseases.

Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) is vector transmitted. The vector is an infected midge ( a small fly) which is prominent in wooded areas in late summer and early fall. Mild outbreaks are common every year but in 2007 over 4000 deer contracted the disease.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is having a negative impact on white tailed deer populations in many states. Kentucky has not yet had any recorded cases but several of our neighbors - West Virginia, Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois - have. CWD is related to mad cow disease. At this time it is not felt to affect humans.

The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has done a great job in making a video about CWD. Easy to understand information from one of our state biologists.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a fatal brain disease that affects deer and elk. Learn more about CWD from staff experts in this video of a public forum hosted by Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, as part of an effort to raise awareness about the threat of CWD. More info at fw.ky.gov.

Hunting and Trapping

Overpopulation

Many areas complain that they have an overpopulation of deer. Deer overpopulation is primarily a human error.

Do you know the irony of this? By the late 1800’s, the white settlers had reduced deer populations severely. Much like what happened with the buffalo. In 1916 deer hunting in Kentucky was made illegal so that the population could replenish. Hunting was reestablished in 1946.

Deer have natural enemies in the wild. Depending on the geographic location; wolves, coyotes, mountain lions and bobcats are all predators of the deer. We have killed these animals with hunting and habitat loss to the point that their populations cannot rejuvenate without intervention.

The biggest threat to the deer population now is the human. Deer hunting is a popular sport. In addition, in many rural areas it is a means to get food. Many states have programs where hunters can donate the meat from their kill to low income families for food.


However, it is not always a way to manage wildlife populations. The fact is that the numbers of hunters are decreasing.

Today’s society is not as interested in hunting animals for sport. The United States Department of Fish and Wildlife reported that between 2011 and 2016 there was a decrease of  2.2 million hunters.

We definitely need to encourage respect and understanding of the role that natural predators play in there ecosystems. This can be done by providing habitat for these animals to be able to raise their young and flourish.

Some communities have chosen to sterilize (spay and neuter)  deer so they can live a healthy life much the way we do feral cats.

Do you wonder why hunters wear orange?

Deer have Dichromacic vision. That means they can see colors in blue and yellow. The colors red and orange are not seen well. So hunters wear orange because the deer can not see them but other hunters can.

Deer Farming

Deer are one of the few wildlife species that are farmed. Like buffalo and elk, deer are often raised in an agricultural setting for meat. This meat is processed similar to cattle and sold in markets around the country. Hides and antlers are also sold commercially.

Threats to Livestock or Property

Deer do not pose much of a physical threat to livestock and are often seen in fields grazing alongside them. They do often carry parasites which can be passed to livestock.

Deer can be a menace around the garden area. They will enter your garden and feast on corn, tomatoes and beans among other vegetables. The best tactic is to use fencing. A substantial fence is the best as the deer can see and be intimidated by it.

Deer can jump high and they can jump wide but not necessarily in the same motion. Your best fence is a wire fence with wooden posts that is six feet high and actually slopes outward at a 45 degree angle.

Electric fence also works well. If your deer pressure is intense you will want to use three strands at 18, 30 and 42 inches high. Electric mesh fences have also proven effective.

Deer netting is not as effective because it is flimsy, especially if it is used with fiberglass poles. The deer will figure out they can push on it and it will collapse. You can make it more effective by tying blue ribbon to it giving it greater visibility.

Repellents are also limited in their effectiveness. Human hair and soap do not work. Your neighborhood deer are already acclimated to the way you smell.

Improve Habitat for Species

In the section above I went over how to prevent deer from destructing your garden. Many persons want to know how to make their property more wildlife friendly.

If you have enough land that you can safely attract deer you can build them a garden. I actually have planted a garden for the deer. I think if I give then there own garden they wont invade mine. (Big Smile)

Many feed stores carry seeds to plant a deer garden. One great thing to plant for them are root crops that will be hardy in the cooler weather. Deer loves radishes, turnips and beets.

Way back in the day I worked for the National Wildlife Federation, teaching during the summer Family Summits. I was friends with David Mizejewski who was passionate about bring wildlife into urban backyards. I highly recommend his book Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife, Expanded Second Edition , below.

Pets

Deer do not make good pets. In fact it is against the law in most states and definitely in Kentucky.



True Story

Two years ago in May I had driven to Danville, Kentucky to pick up my son who was a student at Centre College. My phone rang and I answered the call to on of my local Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Officers. He asked me if I had room for another fawn. Yes, I said, however, I was in Danville picking up Caleb and it would be three hours before I arrived home.

“That’s OK he said I have to hunt down the guy – this is a kidnap victim”.

Let me just pause for a moment to tell you a kidnap victim is the term rehabbers use to describe an animal that is deliberately or inadvertently taken from its family when the baby is perfectly fine.

Officer Chris went on to say that someone had taken a baby deer from the woods and was SELLING it via Facebook in a yard sale. Just let me say OMG!

God love KYFW that day. They chased that fawn over several counties, gave out citations and finally ended up at my house at 11 pm at night. With two fawns no less.

The Deer Are Not Your Buddies

Do not even try to make friends with a wild deer by hand feeding them. Deer have very sharp hooves and strong legs. Trust me on this. They begin to strike out at a young age. During bottle season I often have bruises on my legs from being struck by their cute baby feet.

A hand fed buck can become a real problem. In two years that adorable baby you gave apples and chips to will easily weigh 200 pounds. He believes in shoving and pushing to get his way. He is dangerous. And sadly that behavior will get him euthanized.

If you have deer coming into your yard observe them from a distance. Wash your windows and put a comfy chair in front of them for your own personal observatory.

Literature/Folklore

Deer are prominent in folklore and religious traditions. They have even risen to fame as movie stars in films such as Bambi. The Disney movie Bambi came out in 1942. On the surface it painted the white tail deer as king of Americas forest.

The myth of Bambi has perpetuated our feelings to the environment since 1942. One of the criticisms of Bambi was that it pitted man against beast. Environmental critics propose that movies portray man working to help nature not destroy nature.

Spirit Animal

The deer is a popular and powerful spirit animal with Native Americans and other pagan religions. The female deer symbolizes gentleness and femininity. The buck symbolizes power and authority. The antlers lift to the sky like a crown. As the antlers fall off this symbolizes regeneration. The deer is seen as a messenger.

In Celtic traditions the Goddess Flidais could shape-shift into the form of a deer. Deer were often described as “fairy cattle”.

Christianity

The bible has several references to deer. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights. (Psalms 18:33)

The deer symbolizes devotion and Gods taking care of his children. We see this in the story of Saint Eustace. Before his conversion to Christianity, Eustace was known as Placidus and was a Roman general. While hunting he saw a stag with a cross among his antlers. Taking this as a sign from God he converted to Christianity and lived out his life as a follower of Christ.

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 Ame Vanorio, is the founder and director, of Fox Run Environmental Education Center. When not giving baby animals bottles she is a freelance content writer and enjoys playing with her four rescue dogs.