We all recognize them and always react the same way, “oh, look there’s a deer!” We’ll stop in our tracks or bring our cars to a halt to watch this iconic herbivore as it grazes in a field or near the roadside. So let’s explore their lives a bit.
Known to scientists as Odocoileus virginianus, the White-tailed Deer is one of four species of deer native to Canada; the other three being Elk, Moose and Caribou.
Deer are herbivores and therefore have a complicated way of digesting their food. It involves acquiring sustenance from plants by fermenting it in a specialized part of the digestive system, called a rumen, prior to digestion in the stomach. Simply put, they chew their cud.
All male, and some female, deer have antlers, not horns. Horns persist throughout the life of the animal, as in cows, but antlers are shed annually and new ones grown. These bony outcrops are, at first, covered with ‘velvet’ that is generously supplied with blood vessels until the growth is complete. At that point, the blood flow is cut off, the velvet rubbed clean, and the breeding cycle begins almost immediately.
In the White-tail, the antlers are formed as two main branches, leaning outward over the face, and multiple smaller tines arise from these and point skyward. Known as a ‘rack’, these are prized by photographers and hunters alike. Eight to ten point bucks are not uncommon, and some can have many more.
Gray in the winter, the deer take on a beautiful russet pelage (fur) in the summer. Fairly large animals, the males (bucks) stand between 79-114 cm at the shoulder, and the females 69-84 cm.
Important for territoriality, communication and breeding, three different types of scent glands can be found on these deer, one between the toes, one on the inner surface of the heel and one on the outside of the leg. They are activated for different reasons and at different times, but always relate to messaging between animals.
Breeding takes place between October and November when the males compete for the females. Females can breed in their first year, but this is uncommon. Gestation takes about 196 days, and one or two fawns are born in May or June the following year.
They are able to stand within 10 minutes of being born and able to walk in 7 hours. Young fawns wear a cryptic medium-toned russet pelage with distinct irregular spots to provide camouflage. They carry this for about the first three months, then moult to look like an adult. The spotted young are often left alone for long periods of time as the doe feeds nearby, relying on exquisite camouflage and an innate ability to stay motionless in the face of predators to protect themselves.
Fun Fact: Fawns are born scent free to fool predators and the doe eats the droppings and urine to maintain this advantage!
To avoid predators, deer can jump over obstacles 2.5 meters tall and can run at speeds averaging 50 km/hour, and approaching 80 km/hour for short bursts. Their life span in the wild rarely exceeds 10 years, but captive held animals can live twice as long.
Wolves are often accused of causing serious declines in deer numbers, regionally, but this is rarely borne out with facts. To the contrary, studies show that the wolves keep a herd strong, weeding out the sick and old. What invariably causes significant and rapid declines are habit degradation and food availability. The loss of habitat drives deer to new areas, where conditions may not be ideal, and onto roadways, where they become road kill. The lack of food is more insidious, for it manifests itself by not only starving the breeding adults but also reducing reproduction.
I recall one day to our delight, when three deer visited our bird feeder to eat the cracked corn I put out for the Mourning doves. It was both humorous and engaging, to watch these ‘giants’ amidst our tiny chickadees and juncos! White-tailed deer are amazing animals that bring joy to all who see them. They’re out there waiting for you right now!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
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Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.