The White-tailed deer, also called the Virginia deer or whitetail, is named for the white underside of its tail which is visible when it holds its tail erect when it runs. Adults have a bright reddish-brown coat in the summer and in the winter it is a duller grayish brown. The young have white spots on their reddish coats.
The westernmost population of the species, known as the Columbian white-tailed deer, was once widespread in the mixed forests along the Willamette and Cowlitz River valleys of western Oregon and southwestern Washington, but current numbers are considerably reduced, and it is classified as near-threatened. This population is separated from other white-tailed deer populations.
In this post, Pritish Kumar Halder discusses Virginia deer or White tailed deer.
White-tailed deer occur in most southern Canada and all of the United States mainland except for a couple of western states. Their range covers entire Mexico and Central America, reaching South America as far south as Peru and Bolivia. White-tailed deer live in various habitats, from big woods in northern Maine to Florida’s hammock swamps and deep saw grass.
They can also be found in brushy areas, open prairie, savanna woodlands, montane mixed oak and pine woodland communities, tropical and subtropical dry and moist broadleaf forests, adjacent wetland habitats, riparian corridors, rainforests, grasslands, plains, mountains, farmlands, plantations, pasturelands, suburban and urban areas.
In North America, the species is widely distributed east of the Rocky Mountains as well as in southwestern Arizona and most of Mexico, except Lower California. It is mostly displaced by the black-tailed or mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) from that point west except for mixed deciduous riparian corridors, river valley bottomlands, and lower foothills of the northern Rocky Mountain region from Wyoming west to eastern Washington and eastern Oregon and north to northeastern British Columbia and southern Yukon, including in the Montana valley and foothill grasslands.
Texas is home to the most white-tailed deer of any U.S. state or Canadian province, with an estimated population of 5.3 million. High populations of white-tailed deer exist in the Edwards Plateau of central Texas and all of Pennsylvania. Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, Wisconsin, Maryland, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, and Indiana also boast high deer densities.
Habits and Lifestyle
White-tailed deer are usually considered solitary, particularly in summer. Their basic social unit is mother and fawns, although sometimes they do graze together in herds that can number hundreds of individuals. Bucks and does remain separate from each other except during the mating season.
Bucks usually live alone or within small groups alongside other bucks. Deer living in deserts often migrate from summertime elevations down to warmer areas where there is more food available.
White-tailed deer are crepuscular, and mainly feed starting before dawn until a few hours after the sun has risen, and again in the late afternoon until dusk. They use a number of forms of communication, such as sound, odor, body language, and marking with scratches. When alarmed, a White-tailed deer will raise its tail to warn other deer.
Diet and Nutrition
Whitetails are herbivores and feed on twigs, bark, leaves, shrubs, the nuts and fruits of most vegetation, lichens, and other fungi.
Plants such as yucca, huajillo brush, prickly pear cactus, ratama, comal, and a range of tough shrubs can be the mainstay of a whitetail’s diet if it lives in a desert area. Though almost entirely herbivorous, White-tailed deer have may opportunistically feed on nesting songbirds, field mice, and birds trapped in mist nets, if the need arises
Whitetails are polygynous, and bucks fight fiercely during the mating season, with winners able to mate with does in the area. The season runs from October to December. The gestation period is about 6 months. A female usually gives birth to one fawn in her initial year of breeding but 2 are born subsequently. Fawns can walk as soon as they are born and only a few days later are able to nibble on vegetation.
When seeking food, mothers leave their offspring hidden amongst vegetation. A fawn starts to follow its mother as she goes off to forage when it is about 4 weeks old. At 8 – 10 months old, they are weaned. At one-year-old, young males leave their mothers but young females will often stay with them for two years. Most of them (particularly males) will breed in their second year.
Being commonly hunted for sport and meat, and in Texas being the primary big game animals, White-tailed deer populations are threatened by overhunting. To the south from the US border deer face this same threat, along with habitat loss. Poaching is another cause of the extinction of local populations.
According to the IUCN Red List, in the United States, the White-tailed deer population is estimated to be over 11,000,000 individuals, of which a third will be in the State of Texas. The estimated population in Canada is half a million individuals. Overall, currently, this species is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today are stable.
White-tailed deer can have a great influence on plant communities as a result of their grazing, particularly where they are abundant. These deer are also an important prey animal for many large predators.
Fun Facts for Kids
- When White-tailed deer gather together and trample down snow in a particular area, this is called a “deer yard.”
- White-tailed deer can jump vertically more than 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) and horizontally 9 meters (354 in), which is almost the length of a school bus.
- White-tailed deer swim well and can escape from predators through large streams and lakes.
- Only the males grow antlers, and they shed them each year.
- White-tailed deer are the shyest and most nervous of deer. When they are startled and run away, their tails wave from side to side.
- Deer can smell human odor on underbrush for days afterward. Bucks will stay away from areas that have been visited by humans for weeks afterward.
- Bucks usually lie on their right side when they go to sleep, and they face downwind, enabling them to employ their nose, ears, and eyes to detect danger in any direction.