About White-tailed Deer

Two deer © Richard Johnson
Two deer © Richard Johnson

The graceful white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the most abundant of Massachusetts' large game animals. They belong to to an order of ungulate (hoofed) mammals called the Artiodactyla (even-toed), which also includes the pigs, cows, antelopes, sheep, goats, camels and hippos. And they are members of the family Cervidae, which also contains the moose and caribou.

Identification

White-tailed deer have long legs and narrow hooves, which make them swift runners and good jumpers. They have excellent hearing due to their large, sensitive ears. Their short tail stands erect when alarmed, displaying white fur on the underside.

The typical weight of an adult buck (male) is 100 to 250 pounds with a shoulder height of 3½ to 4 feet. The doe is smaller and weighs in much lighter at 70 to 150 pounds. Mature males' antlers have a main branch 30 inches long with tines growing upward every few inches. The antlers are shed each year after the breeding season.

During the summer males and females are a reddish brown above and white underneath, but their coat changes to a grayish-brown in the winter with longer, hollow hairs that provide insulation against the cold. At birth fawns are chestnut brown with white spots on their back and sides. These spots disappear during the first molt when the fawns are three or four months old.

Behavior

Much of Massachusetts is now ideal deer habitat. Deer prefer forest-edges close to both fields, where they forage for food, and woodlands, where they find shelter and breed. They regularly visit ponds, lakes, and streams. The home range of a deer is usually 2 to 3 square miles, but they will move beyond this range if food supplies become scarce.

Three phrases are often referred to when it comes to deer activity: deer yards, bedding areas, and deer runs.

In winter, bucks, does, and fawns gather together in "deer yards:" sheltered locations frequently under stands of coniferous trees. It is believed that this behavior helps them survive severe weather conditions by conserving body heat and discouraging predation. They reduce their food intake during the winter by 30 percent and activity by 50 percent. Therefore they usually browse within close proximity to the deer yard.

“Bedding area” are the locations frequented by deer during their daily inactive periods that provide protection and cover. Those used during the day may be secluded areas on high ridges where they can watch for predators. At night they will use dense thickets and groves of evergreen trees, which offer protection as well as shelter from the wind.

The network of trails connecting the bedding areas or deer yards to feeding areas are called feeding trails or “deer runs.” If food sources remain good, these trails can be used for many years.

Food & Digestive System

Deer are herbivores, and they consume an amazing variety of plant material, mostly at dawn and dusk. They browse on the buds, leaves, and tender shoots of woody plants, as well as berries, fruit, and grains. The also eat acorns and other available nuts, bark, lichens and mushrooms.

In winter, when food is more limited, they commonly browse on American yew, eastern hemlock, apple, black cherry, maples, red oak, and a variety of other trees and shrubs. It is during this lean season that they often leave the protection of the woodlands to browse on ornamental shrubs in suburban yards.

Deer belong to a suborder of hoofed animals called ruminants, i.e. cud-chewing animals. The stomach of ruminants is divided into four chambers. The food enters the first two chambers where it is partially digested. When these stomachs are full, the deer settles down and regurgitates the partially digested food called "cud" into its mouth.

There it is chewed again, and enters stomachs three and four where it is digested completely. This system allows the deer to take in large amounts of food and return to cover quickly, thus avoiding predators.

Life Cycle

The mating or "rutting" season takes place in the fall. During the rest of the year the males and females live in separate groups. In August and September male groups disband to search for females. In New England, mating usually takes place in November or early December, after which the does return to their maternal groups.

Most fawns are born in May or June, after a 200-day gestation period. A doe giving birth for the first time will usually produce one offspring, but in subsequent years she gives birth to two, and occasionally three young. Although some does may be as young as six months when they reach sexual maturity, the average age is 18 months.

During the first week of life, fawns are left alone except when the mother returns to nurse. When lying motionless in the leaves, they are well camouflaged with their reddish brown coat and white spots, blending with dappled sunlight the forest floor. By the following spring the fawn is a yearling.

While its mother is raising her new offspring the yearling goes off and feeds, but stays in the area and returns to the mother for the fall and winter. The following spring the fawns leave the mother for good, the males joining buck groups and the females joining does.

Situations & Solutions

The white-tailed deer has become controversial because of its burgeoning population. Deer not only do damage to trees, shrubs, and gardens, but can pose a health and safety risk. Learn More about the damage they can cause and what options are available.