There are many very interesting facts about the Whitetail Deer, many that are not widely known. Also called “Virginia deer”, they are the smallest members of the North American deer family. The “White Tailed” term refers to the white underside of the deer’s tail. When on the alert, it is held up high so the white part is very visible.
They are found from South America all the way to southern Canada, and are native to 17 different countries. They are not found in places like Alaska, Hawaii or desert areas, since those habitats are not suitable for their survival. Whitetail Deer actually date back to the Ice Ages and hold the distinction of being the oldest of the deer species.
Eating and sleeping seem to take up most of their day. They eat usually five times a day. Their food consists mainly of leaves, twigs, alfalfa, grass, corn, fruits and nuts, and even fungi. They are true herbivores, grazing on whatever plant foods are available. A fun fact is that chin whiskers tell the deer how far from the ground their lips are when feeding. A 150-pound deer (as a rule of thumb), needs to eat about 12 pounds of food each day. This equates to a formula of about 8 pounds of vegetation for every 100 pounds of the deer’s weight. Grazing and eating would seem to take up a lot of time. Surprisingly, on top of the time spent eating, they sleep between 60 and 70 percent of the time. You might say that almost all of their day is taken up either grazing, eating or sleeping. Whitetail Deer have the same number of teeth that a human has, which is 32. The front upper teeth, though, are missing, and instead the space is filled with a hard-surfaced pad of gristle. They have incisors on the bottom but not on the top, so instead of simply snapping a twig like a rabbit does, they have to use an upward motion. They do have both upper and lower molars, and the wear on these molars is how the age of a deer is determined.
Sparring helps develop the muscles and skills needed if they have to fight during breeding season. Sparring also tests for dominance and reaffirms the status quo in each fraternal group. This prevents fighting which could cause severe injuries or death.
Mating season is in November and December. The buck guards and mates with the female for a day, but then goes out in search of another female in heat. Gestation is normally 202 days during which time the female becomes very territorial. Births are mainly during the months of May or June, and the doe usually delivers one to three babies at a time. Twins are common and even triplets have been born. Does normally give birth away from the rest of the herd. In order to hide her babies from predators, the doe gives birth in an area of dense vegetation. For the first week, the doe will feed her fawn in the dense area where it was born. Since the doe goes back to join the herd after feeding, returning again for the next feeding time, it is very important that the babies are kept in a safe area. After the week is over, the fawn will then join the rest of the herd. An interesting fact is how quickly fawns learn. A newborn can stand within 20 minutes of birth, walk in about an hour, run a little bit within 24 hours and outrun a man in just five days! Frequently the mother will raise her daughters until adulthood. Then she will leave, giving the home to her daughters.
The size of the deer varies widely. Large males can stand as high as 42” at the shoulder and can weigh up to 400 pounds. The smallest, the Key deer of Florida, only stands about 30” at the shoulder and weighs only 50 pounds. Both the body and the antlers grow the largest in cold temperatures, and on productive agricultural soils, but are smaller in the tropics and on small islands. The adult has a bright reddish summer coat with the coat turning a duller gray-brown in the winter, with the underparts being white. The young deer have a reddish-brown coat with white spots, which help them blend in with the forest, thereby hiding them from their predators.
In the heat of the summer, these deer will inhabit meadows and fields and use clumps of broad-leaved forests for shade. For their beds, they will use piles of leaves or pine needles. During these summer months, they may live apart from each other, but when winter comes, they form large herds. They will trample down the snow in an area where they will herd together. This area is referred to as a “deer yard”. A typical home range is about one square mile.
Only bucks over a year old have antlers. The first set begins to grow at 10 months of age. Since most of a young deer’s nutrition is needed for its growing body, the younger deer have smaller antlers. Antlers are actually the fastest growing tissue known to man. During the time the antlers are growing, they are covered with “velvet”, a soft hairy skin that supplies blood to the growing antlers. When the antlers are full size, the velvet starts to die and fall off. The bucks will rub their antlers on brush and trees to help the velvet come off. The antlers are fully grown late summer, and it is during the winter that they will lose their antlers only to re-grow them the following year. As the buck ages, the antlers will grow more tines and eventually max out. As the deer grows older, after the antlers have maxed out, they will grow back smaller each year. Influencing the condition and size of the antlers is having nutritious food and good genes. The shape and configuration of the antlers are strictly genetic. Contrary to what many believe, you definitely can’t tell a deer’s age by the size of its rack. The age, as mentioned earlier, is calculated by the wear on the molars. Also incorrect is the notion that some hunters refer to the antlers as horns. Horns actually continue to grow for the life of the animal, whereas the antlers fall off in the winter and are re-grown in the next year. Examples of animals with horns are bulls, rhinos, sheep and buffalo.
The deer are very agile and fast. They have sprinting speeds up to 30 miles per hour and are able to leap up to 30 feet in a single bound. Despite the agility and speed, however, in the wild, they are preyed upon (especially the young) by bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes. The average life span of a domesticated Whitetail is between six and fourteen years. The longest living deer in captivity was 23 years old. Unfortunately, due to disease, auto collisions and hunting, the average life span, in the wild, is only between 1.5 and 3.5 years. It is very rare to find a Whitetail Deer, in the wild, live to be as old as 7 or 8. Those living in the wild might be free, but their lives are cut dramatically short.
The Whitetail Deer were formerly in abundance by unrestricted hunting. By the mid twentieth century, through game management measures, throughout North America, the population has been greatly restored. Where they are protected from an abundance of hunting and predators, although good for the deer, this has led to severe damage to agriculture and forestry. Due to so many collisions with cars and trucks, this has ended in injuries and fatalities for motorists. Along with more accidents, there is more dangerous transmittal diseases such as Lyme Disease. Not only that but the Whitetail Deer carries parasites that have killed populations of woodland caribou, moose and elk, and have even affected livestock.
The deer have very keen senses of smell, vision and hearing. There have been many stories, too, about how intelligent the deer are, especially with respect to hunters and predators. One thing is for certain, though: Whitetail Deer, whether intelligent or instinctive, are beautiful, graceful creatures that are amazing to watch.