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White Tailed Deer

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White tailed deer by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park
White tailed buck in velvet, by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park

White Tailed Deer
Order: Artiodactyla

Family: Cervidae
Genus: Odocoileus

Species: O. Virginianis

Deer appear in paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira, on the north coast of Spain, going back 36,000 years. The white tailed deer has been in North America for about 4 million years, making the white tail one of the real veterans of nearly all varying habitats in North America, ranging from Nova Scotia west to southern Alberta, sweeping south into Central America, with gaps west of the Rockies. To put that in perspective, modern moose, alces alces, have only been in North America about 15,000 years, having migrated through Berengia about the same time the ancestors of native Americans began to trickle across.

In North America, moose have much more serious problems with winter ticks in affected habitats than deer have. For example, deer go through winter with an average of about 300 winter ticks, while moose may accumulate from 10,000 to 90,000 winter ticks, a condition which has moose in trouble all along the US-Canadian border from Maine to Minnesota. Are white tails simply more efficient groomers, or could there be a connection related to longevity in habitat, and the ability of animals to adapt to parasites and challenges not found in previous habitats?

Deer have played a major role in human nutrition and survival for a very long time. European immigrants to America, learned from native Americans about utilizing all parts of the white tail. Deer numbers rose and fell in the 19th century with market hunting by both native Americans and the growing numbers of settlers and immigrants, joining individual hunting, along with deforestation and destruction of deer habitat. State regulation of hunting slowed down the hunting free-for-all, and helped increase deer numbers, but two other factors in the first decades of the 20th century led to an explosion of deer.

Everything in nature is connected. The increasing suburbanization and the expansion of farming in America had the effect of moving more people into deer habitat, while introducing deer to our orchards, crops and gardens, thereby increasing their ability to making a living and reproduce. The more deer saw, heard and smelled human activity, without being shot at, the more it helped to inure them to the dangers of our presence.

In an environment without humans, gray wolves tend to be the number one controller of both deer and western coyotes, the latter in competition for safer prey, smaller than moose, elk and bison, but the accelerating persecution of gray wolves, which included poisoning campaigns and bounties led to an explosion of both deer and coyotes. Predators tend to strengthen the health of prey populations by detecting and eliminating disease and weakness.

As wolf habitat in the lower 48 dwindled to Minnesota, the only state which kept the Federal wolfers out, western coyote numbers exploded out west, leading to a manifest destiny in reverse, with coyotes increasingly moving east under and over the Great Lakes,  exploiting available wolf habitat in the lower 48, and causing further hybridization of Algonquin wolves in Ontario and Quebec, already averaging 20% western coyote going back tens of thousands of years, long before there were any humans in North America.

Yes, you read that correctly. Wolves have the most dangerous job in nature for two reasons. An alpha female may deliver 4 to 7 pups every Spring. While it is much safer for wolves to go after deer, snowshoe hare and beaver, pressure to produce food compels wolves to go after much larger, more dangerous prey, such as moose, elk and bison. Moose, for example, are so dangerous in defending themselves, that wolves test 20 moose for each one they decide to take a chance and attack. As though that factor in intself didn't make a wolf's life dangerous enough, in wolf economics, the pack has to defend a territory large enough to contain enough prey for the pack to make a living, and if a neighboring pack's territory is not producing, they'll be invading another pack's territory, which will result in wolves killing each other over access to prey. Add these factors to our inclination to shoot wolves, and wolves are lucky to reach their fifth birthday in the wild.

Gray wolves tend to kill coyotes, just as coyotes kill fox, routinely and opportunistically eliminating the smaller predator, as a means of creating a larger base of smaller, safer prey, but starting in Minnesota and heading east over Lake Superior, young male wolves, who “disperse” from, in other words, leave Mom and Dad’s  territory, to seek an unguarded territory, or a territory they may be able to take over, may discover that female wolves don’t generally disperse as far as males, so they may end up defending a territory no other wolf wants, and they may end up mating with a female coyote.

Deer hunters tend to bemoan the impact of eastern coydogs, more accurately termed coywolves, because of their hybridization with Algonquin wolves, on the deer population in the Northeast. But the coyote impact on deer numbers is much greater on fawns than it is on adults, partly thanks to our assistance with traffic accidents supplying deer as roadkill. A study by SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry a few years back concluded that, excluding fawns, 92% of deer eaten by coyotes in New York were killed by cars. About 60% of fawns reach maturity, while 80% of fawn mortality is caused by predators, including bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bobcats, lynx, fishers, eagles, and even foxes. Other fawn mortality factors range from car accidents to getting caught in fencing or under farm equipment, or natural causes like starvation and drowning.

More recently, hunting generally, and deer hunting in particular, which peaked among baby boomers in 1982, while rising in some states, and falling in others, is in a fairly steady decline nationwide. We've lost 10% of all hunters in the last ten years, with less than 4% of Americans involved in hunting today, at exactly a time when, having largely eliminated wolves, nature’s tool for deer control, we need more human hunters to control deer numbers. For those concerned about health and red meat, venison is much leaner than beef, and probably half the calories.

Controlling deer without natural predators is no easy problem. Highest deer densities are often found in  thickly settled  suburban areas, where it is unsafe, and often illegal, to fire rifles or shoot arrows, and the deer take a heavy toll on gardens and landscaping generally. Some towns and villages are experimenting with immunocontraception, to cut down the number of does breeding. Such methods may require multiple doses, and may only be good for a couple of years. Other towns employ specially vetted deer hunters to control local deer populations. Habitat carrying capacities, which increase as deer learn how to eat more human planted and invasive vegetation, determine how many deer a particular area can support, which means as you eliminate deer, other deer come in from surrounding areas.

In New York State, we have just under a million deer, with 60 to 70 thousand in the Adirondacks, and about 70,000 vehicle deer collisions statewide annually. Hunters took about 225,000 deer in New York State in 2018. As elegant and visually appealing as white tails are, their lives tend to be violent and short, with the average age of death for deer being about 3 years old. As a sign of the times, the mosquito, which for 80 years was the most likely animal to be involved in human mortality in the lower 48 states, just as it is in most moderately temperate countries, was knocked out of first place by the white tailed deer, because of the number of people killed in accidents involving deer.

Following Bergman’s Rule, white tails in colder climates will be larger on average than deer in warmer climates, as larger deer in colder climates are more likely to survive cold winters, thus surviving to breed and pass along their genes for superior size.  While deer flourish in widely varying habitat, ideal habitat tends to be woodlands, river valleys, forest edge, swamp, meadow and farmlands. The Adirondacks, with its rough mountainous terrain, is not good habitat, and most of the hunters who hunt in the Adirondacks are here as much for the beauty and splendor of an Adirondack Autumn, and would more likely find more deer in their back yards or local forest, than they will up here. Adirondack bucks average about 200 lbs, with mature females at about 160 lbs.

Deer are mainly browsers, feeding on leaves, shoots, woody stems, shrubs, bushes or fruits. They also consume large quantities of forbs, mainly broad leaved, flowering plants, which are not grasses, sedges or rushes. Some grasses are grazed, along with some lichens and mosses. But deer are also opportunistic and will eat bird’s eggs, and even nestlings. Food proportions change season to season, based on availability, and while there is no season in which browse is not their main source of food, the highest percentage of browse is consumed in the winter, while the highest percentage of forbs are consumed in Spring and Summer. Special circumstances like nursing does, rutting bucks, etc. require higher quantities of food. Mature deer eat about five to seven pound of vegetation a day.

Bucks spend a great deal of nutrition growing those impressive antlers, which begin to sprout in April, and are quite sensitive, as they are covered in a fuzzy skin called “velvet”, which contains nerves to keep the buck aware of physical obstacles in the immediate surrounding of the growing and vulnerable antlers, and blood vessels to feed oxygen to the antlers, which consist of cartilage, and two types of bone. The cells of interior “spongy” bones enable the inflow of nutrition and growth regulating hormones, and the hardened bones which make up the exterior of the antler, and whose gradual thickening will serve as the main weapons in the jousting and pushing of the rut.

As the antlers reach full size in August, the velvet covering the hardened antlers dies and dries, and is sloughed off by bushes, tree branches and gravity. Like boxers in training camp, the bucks begin to spar with each other in preparation for the rut. As with bull moose, large, experienced bucks will spar playfully with youngsters preparing for their first rut. As they approach the November rut, buck necks thicken, preparing for the impact of serious fighting. The number and size of the tines on the antlers not only attract deer trophy hunters, but also signal the bucks readiness for the rut, and their desirability as mating partners to does.

White tail mating season in the Adirondacks peaks in early November. Does go into estrus during this period, but are only receptive for about 24 hours at a time. What triggers estrus is not entirely clear, but most research cites a “photoperiod” meaning length of daylight, which would explain why estrus periods vary from climate to climate, with latitude the most important factor in providing the photoperiod.

Does leave hormonal clues, mainly melatonin, announcing their condition as they move around, and aroused bucks follow these scents, often sparring with other bucks, for the right to mate with does, when the does are receptive, or to stay near the does, waiting for them to come into heat. Bucks become so focused on mating, that they will forgo eating. The rut naturally weakens them, and local predators like wolves and cougars will exploit that vulnerability. Does who are not impregnated during the main rut, may enter a second estrus period in early December, which may lead to a second rut. Like moose, bucks will drop their antlers after the rut season is completely over, in the Adirondacks usually around New Years.

Bucks who have successfully mated with does, may hang around the doe until her estrus cycle has ended, to discourage other bucks from mating with her. This type of behavior, protecting male semen, is found in a wide range of animals, even down to the insect world, where male damsel flies actually have a scoop appendage to “scrape” out the semen of other males who mate with their intended after they do.

While I’m generally very skeptical about any explanation that smacks of teleology, the belief that nature has a purpose which manifests itself above and beyond the actions of individuals within a species, often used as a proof of a creator or intelligence which guides what happens in nature, this is indeed a fascinating observation. 

I’ve always scoffed at the notion that the buck mounts the receptive doe in order to insure the continuation of his genes, rather than just his compulsion to have sex because it is pleasurable, but here is one argument in favor, in as much as the intricacies of intercourse from “foreplay” to consummation do in fact lead to the continuance of your genes in the gene pool. And it doesn’t always work, as it is not uncommon for two sibling fawns to have different fathers.

The same thing happens in bear litters. Bear sows may mate with a third boar, even as two other boars are battling to determine mating rights to their unfaithful sow. Someone should tell bucks and boars that fighting over the right to mate with their intended, may be less productive than just running around and mating with as many as you can!

This is the most productive time of year for the deer hunters, but it is also unfortunately the most likely season for car accidents, as aroused bucks are even less careful near roads than they normally would be, and encounter unwary drivers who may be focused on the upcoming holiday seasons.

While a doe can mate at only seven months old, most bucks and does generally mate for the first time during their second year. The doe’s gestation period is about six and a half months Mature does commonly give birth to a litter of two fawns, while first year mothers usually have a single fawn. Mom will encourage a newborn fawn to stand and nurse within 20 minutes of birth, and will lead it to tall brush or grass, where it should be safe from predators, while Mom forages to generate a milk supply for the fawn.

Deer fawns, as well as moose and elk calves, have less odor than one would expect, because predators, over thousands of years of predation on them, inadvertently weed out the “stinkier” prey, leaving the surviving fawns and calves to survive and breed, passing along the genes for less odor. This makes the doe’s strategy of hiding her fawn in tall grass and brush a sensible solution, as they are not as likely to be smelled by patrolling predators, unless they are stepped on by the predator. Folks encounter fawns who are lying down, call us at the Wildlife Refuge to report there is something wrong with the fawn, because it makes no attempt to escape. We respond that the fawn is just doing its job, and you should clear out, as you may be noticed by mom, and the last thing we want is for her to abandon her fawn.

Fawns suckle mom for the first three months, will lose their spots in the Fall, and will stay with Mom, usually through the first Winter, until they go out on their own the following Spring. Deer molt their coats twice a year, having tawnier, deeper tone coats in the Spring, and grayer, duller coats as camouflage for the Winter.

Steve Hall

White tailed deer by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park
White tailed deer by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park
White tailed fawn by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the ParkWhite tailed doe by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park
White tailed fawn and Doe, by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park

White tailed deer in Winter by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the ParkWhite tailed deer in Winter by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park

White tailed deer in Winter, by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park
White Tailed Deer RangeAdirondack Mammals, by Steve Hall
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