Biology and Ecology of the Whitetailed Deer
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1A Hunting in Texas Guide Service
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Taxonomy
Geographic Range
Whitetail Habitat
Conservation Status
Physical Description
Other Physical Attributes
Reproduction
Lifespan/Longevity
Whitetail Behavior
Food Habits
Causes of Death
Negative Impacts
Positive Impacts
References
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Taxonomy
-Kingdom: Animalia
-Phylum: Chordata
-Class: Mammalia
-Order: Artiodactyla
-Family: Cervidae
-Genus: Odocoileus
-Species: Odocoileus virginianus
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Geographic Range
Whitetail deer inhabit a band along most of southern Canada, another band along northern Mexico, as well as most of the United States lying East of the Rocky Mountains, and some of the Great Northwest. There are also subspecies living in Central America, and the northern portion of South America. There are remnant populations of subspecies west of the Rockies.
CLICK FOR MAP OF WHITETAIL RANGE IN NORTH AMERICA
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Habitat
Whitetail deer are able to survive in a variety of terrestrial habitats. They may be found in Eastern and Southern woods, in the deep saw grass and hammock swamps of Florida, in all types of farmlands, brushy areas, and even the cactus and thornbrush deserts of west Texas and Mexico.
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Conservation Status
No special status (other than game animal) is in effect for the whitetailed deer in most of it's range, however, subspecies have evolved to adapt to special habitats and two of these subspecies are currently on the Federal Endangered Species List. One is the Keys Deer of Florida. The destruction of this diminutive deer's habitat has lead to it's downfall. The other is the westernmost subspecie, the Columbian white-tailed deer. It once was widespread in the mixed forests along the Willamette River and Cowlitz River Valleys of Western Oregon and Southwestern Washington. In the majority of the rest of the whitetail's range, they are at or near record numbers. Proper management by hunters and State Game Departments has brought their numbers from a low of approximately half a million nationwide in 1930, to well over 20 million today. Texas alone has an estimated 4 million. That is the most of any U.S. state.
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Physical Description
Avg. Mass: Adult Males; 57 to 135 kg (125 to 300 lbs) Females: about 60% of same age males.
NOTE:  November of 1926, Carl Leander Jr. harvested a monstrous Minnesota buck. Field-dressed, the deer weighed 402 pounds. The state Conservation Department calculated its live weight to be 511 pounds. No heavier whitetail deer has ever been recorded. 
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Avg. Head and Body Length: 150 to 220 cm (59 to 87 in)
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Avg. Height at Shoulder: 75 to 105 cm (29 to 40 in) 
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Coloration: Whitetail coloration differs in shading locally, seasonally, and among subspecies; however, it is usually grayer in the winter and redder in the summer. White fur is located in a band behind the nose, in circles around the eyes, inside the ears, over the chin and throat, on the upper insides of the legs and beneath the tail. At birth, fawns are reddish brown spotted with white, and weigh between 1.5 and 2.5 kg. Their coats become grayish and they lose their spots by their first winter. Albino (white) and melanistic (black) whitetailed deer are rare but do occur with some frequency in certain areas. Blanco, County, Texas is one area known for a fair number of black deer. Michigan and Wisconsin have had numerous reports of albino and piebald (partially albino) deer. A sub-race of the white-tailed deer is white - not albino - in color. The former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus, New York, has the largest known concentration of white deer. Strong conservation efforts have allowed white deer to thrive within the confines of the depot. 
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Other Physical Attributes
Whitetail deer have scent glands between the two parts of the hoof on all four feet, metatarsal glands on the outside of each hind leg, and a larger tarsal gland on the inside of each hind leg at the hock. They also have glands at the base of each antler and in front of each eye. Scent from these glands is used for intraspecies communication, especially during the rutting season. 
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Males (bucks) possess antlers in Fall and Winter, which are shed sometime between January and March. An occasional doe may also possess antlers. In Texas, hunters take an average of 7 antlered doe deer each season. The antlers (buck or doe) begin to grow out again in April or May, covered with velvet. The velvet contains 1000's of small blood vessels that nourish these growing antlers. Antlers are true bone, and are the fastest growing body tissue known. Much research is being done on antler growth, in part, to learn how we can grow BIG antlers on deer, but also to use in the medical field. If we can learn how deer regenerate these things each year, maybe we can learn how to regrow a leg, or arm. The shortening daylight at Summer's end triggers a hormonal response, which shuts off the blood flow to the antlers, in late August to early September. The dying velvet is then shed by the bucks. Occasionally, a buck will not get the message to stop antler growth and may continuously stay in velvet. These bucks are referred to as "cactus bucks", since the antlers are usually quite freaky in appearance.
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Whitetail deer have good eyesight and acute hearing, but depend mainly on their sense of smell to detect danger. 
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Reproduction
Breeding interval: Female White-tailed Deer breed once yearly. Males are polygamous.
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Breeding season: Breeding occurs from September to January. The timing of "the rut" seems to be tied to the best fawning periods for the local area; occurring about 6 and 1/2 months prior.  Many state game departments publish info on when the rut occurs in their state.
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Number of offspring; 1 to 4; normally one the first time a doe breeds, then two each time thereafter. Fawns are born precocious, able to walk in a few hours, and nibble vegetation within a few days, supplementing the milk from their mother.
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Gestation period: 6.50 months (average)
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Time to weaning: 8 to 12 weeks
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Age at sexual maturity: 1 and 1/2 years (average)
NOTE: on exceptionally good range, some does may breed as early as seven months.
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Whitetail deer will sometimes cross breed with Mule Deer or Columbia Black-tailed Deer in areas where their range overlaps.
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Lifespan/Longevity
Expected lifespan: in wild; 10 years (high); avg. 2 years: in captivity, as high as 25 years.
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Behavior
Whitetail deer are very alert animals. Seldom do they miss anything new in their environment. They raise and wave their tails characteristically from side to side when they are startled and fleeing, showing off their name sake; the white underside of the tail. In the western portions of their range, this act has earned them the colloquial name of "Flags". They are extremely fast and agile, bounding at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, and jumping obstacles as high as 8 feet. Whitetail deer are also good swimmers and often enter large streams and lakes to escape predators or search out better habitat. Their home ranges are generally small, often a square mile or less, however, bucks in particular, may cover several miles during the rut. 
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The basic social unit is a female and her fawns, although does have been observed to graze together in herds of more than a hundred individuals. Females generally follow their mothers for about two years, but males leave the group within the first year. Bucks may form transient groups of two to ten in the summer, but these batchelor herds usually disband prior to the mating season.
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Whitetail does are careful to keep their offspring hidden from predators. When foraging, females leave their offspring in dense vegetation for up to four hours at a time. While waiting for the female to return, fawns lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched. They will hold perfectly still when a predator is nearby, and their spots keep them well camouflaged. Young fawns emit no body odor, and they hold their feces and urine until the mother arrives, at which point she ingests whatever the fawn voids to eliminate any sign of the fawn that predators might detect.
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Whitetail deer are not especially vocal, although young fawns bleat on occasion, and does also call their young with a bleat. Injured deer utter a loud, hair-raising bawl.  Bucks grunt when trailing a doe in estrous. Bucks also emit an occasional deep grunt when fighting. When does in estrous are few and far in-between, bucks clash antlers and push one another around to win the right to breed. Hunters often imitate the antler clashing in an attempt to draw out dominant bucks. It's called, "rattling". The alarm snorts of disturbed whitetails are the most commonly heard sounds.
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Although a deer's eyesight is very good, and their hearing is also excellent, the primary mode of locating predators is smell. It is estimated that a whitetail deer can smell about 10,000 times better than the average human. For this reason, deer frequently travel with the wind at the rear. This way, the eyes and ears can protect their frontside, while the unfoolable nose can protect their backside. During rut, bucks will usually switch to crosswind travel, allowing them to scent check the maximum amount of area for hot does (does in estrous).
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In Fall, bucks actively advertise for mates by marking trails with rubs (where bark is rubbed off trees by antlers), and and by making scrapes (pawed out areas of ground into which they urinate across the glands on their hocks, almost always with an overhanging branch to scent mark by licking and antler base rubbing). The rubs mark their territory to warn other bucks. The scrapes are placed in likely meeting spots for does. A doe that is ready to breed will urinate into the scrape and the buck will then follow her tracks in hopes of a hook up.
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Whitetail deer are diurnal, with a crepuscular bias. This means that undisturbed deer will move both during the day and at night, but mainly in the hours near dusk and dawn. When hunted or otherwise disturbed regularly, they may become almost totally noctural. Weather and moon phase are also believed to influence when a deer is likely to move around.
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Food Habits
Whitetail deer feed on a variety of vegetation, depending on what is available in their habitat. Literally hundreds of plant species have been found in stomach samplings across their range. In eastern forests, buds and twigs of maple, sassafras, poplar, aspen and birch are consumed, as well as many shrubs. In desert areas, plants such as huajillo brush, yucca, prickly pear cactus, coma, retama and various tough shrubs may be the main components of a whitetail's diet. Conifers and white cedar are often utilized in northern winters, when other foods are scarce. Grasses are only eaten when very young and green. Forbs (broadleaf weeds) are highly preferred whenever available. The mast of oaks (acorns), beech, crabapple and persimmon are also eagerly sought out.
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Whitetailed deer are ungulates, eating as quickly as they can, then regurgitating the food for more thorough chewing while resting. This habit exposes them to danger for the shortest period of time. Deer have a four compartment stomach. Each time the food is chewed, it is swallowed into a different part of the stomach. Each part performs a different function in digestion. Unlike humans, whose bodies actually produce the chemicals that break down their food, deer have microorganisms living in their digestive system that break down the food to where the deer can absorb the nutrition from it. It takes different types of organisms to break down each type of food, so a deer must switch from one food source to another slowly, so that specific organism can build up to the point where that food can be used. A deer can actually starve with a belly full of food if that's not what it has been eating lately. Remember this, and start fall/winter feeding of deer slowly, and wean them from it slowly as well.
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Deer will readily make use of surface water when it is available, but can usually get enough water from the food they eat to sustain themselves for long periods without any surface water at all. The desert subspecies, like Coues Deer, and Carmen Mountain Whitetails are especially adapted to this.
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Causes of Death
Known predators; humans, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, bears, jaguars, bobcat, stray dogs. Eagles may take an occasional fawn.
NOTE: in years when ground cover is sparse, fawn depredation may run over 95%. The average fawn loss from all causes is 40 to 50%.
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Diseases are a fairly common causes of death in wild whitetails, especially among the very young and the very old. The most common are pnuemonia, bluetongue, encephilitis, anthrax and tuberculosis. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is becoming a real concern. It started in a captive herd of elk and has since spread to wild herds of cervid in at least seven states. Complications from parasitic infestations, such as ticks, nematodes and worms, is also hard on fawns. Being hit by cars is a big problem when whitetail live near or in human population centers. Getting caught in a fence has resulted in many a dead deer, as well. Other injuries, especially those received in buck fights, often lead to infection and then death. Of course, hunters, take a large share of the adult deer that die. In some states, as high as 80% of all antlered bucks are harvested each year. In Texas, it is more like 20-25% of antlered whitetailed bucks, and about 12-15% of antlerless whitetail deer.
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Negative Impacts of Whitetailed Deer
Whitetail deer are destructive to crops, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and ornamental plants where their ranges overlap with human habitation. When their numbers become too high, whitetail deer can cause serious damage to forest vegetation through overbrowsing. They are involved in accidents with cars, often resulting in serious injury to the human occupants of the vehicles. Generally, whitetail deer are very healthy animals. Those that do get sick are normally removed from the herd in short order, so seldom are seen by humans, or have time to make an impact on livestock. Sometimes though, they are disease vectors, serving as hosts to the ticks which may carry Lyme disease (as well as many other diseases). They may also transfer bluetongue, TB, psuedorabies, brucellosis and other diseases to humans during the butchering process, or livestock sharing their habitat. There is some concern that they may also transfer CWD to humans, but as of yet, this concern is unfounded. The simple act of wearing rubber gloves when handling uncooked venison will eliminate almost all chance of disease, and cooking the meat to at least medium well done before consumption will eliminate almost all remaining possibilities.
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Positive Impacts of Whitetailed Deer
Whitetail deer are commonly hunted for meat and sport, providing thousands of days of recreation annually. Whitetail heads are often mounted on the walls of lodges, restaurants, offices, and places of outdoor recreational interest. Whitetail hides are sometimes made into useful leather articles. Antlers and bone are sometimes made into knife handles, works of art, buttons, drawer pulls and other useful pieces. The hunting industry generates literally BILLIONS of dollars for the economy of the United States. Venison (deer meat) is lower in fat and cholesterol than beef. Whitetail deer are also important prey animals for a number of large predators.
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References
Banfield, A.W.F. 1974. The Mammals of Canada. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
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Darymple, B.W. 1985. North American Big-Game Animals. Outdoor Life Books, New York.
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Nowak, R.M. and J.L Paradiso. 1983. Walker's Mammals of the World. 4th edition. John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
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Geist, V. 1979. Hoofed mammals. In: Wild Animals of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
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whitetailworld.com; accessed 16 January 2007.
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Smith, P. 1991. Odocoileus virginianus. Mammalian Species, 388: 1-13. 
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Geist, Dr. Valerius, "Deer of the World: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology", Stackpole Books, 1998 
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Halls, Lowell K., White-tailed Deer Ecology and Management: A Wildlife Management Institute Book, Stackpole Books, 1984. 
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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitetail_deer; accessed 22 January 2007.
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