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The White Tailed Deer

Members of the deer family (Family Cervidae -- order Artiodactyla) are found throughout the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia. The White-tailed Deer -- the most common deer of North America -- and its cousin the Mule Deer, are the only members of this family found in the North American deserts.

Antlers (solid horns) distinguish most of the 3 dozen species of the deer family from the other hoofed mammals. Unlike most other hoofed mammals, which have permanent, hollow horns, only male deer grow antlers, which they shed each year. Antlers do not serve as weapons against predators, but are used during the mating season, when the males fight to breed with females.

For Native Americans and early European settlers, deer meat (venison) provided one of the most important sources of protein. Deer hides were used to make buckskin jackets, moccasins and other leather articles. Today, the White-tailed Deer remain the most popular large game animal throughout much of the United States.


Throughout North America from southern Canada through Central America. Somewhat uncommon in the North American deserts, they occur in the northern Great Basin Desert of Utah and Colorado, the eastern Sonoran Desert of Arizona and the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico and Texas.


Deer generally prefer open woodland, but are often found on the fringes of urban areas and in farming country, but desert species can occur in most habitats within 10 miles of a water source. They often enter human inhabited areas and feast on flowers and grass as well as regularly getting a drink from man's abundant water supplies. Some deer have also taken to eating garbage and plastic which is not at all good for them. Recently. A number of deer had to be sacrificed at the Grand Canyon after having eaten human trash which stopped up their systems and caused them not to be able to process food.


White Tail deer

"White-tailed Deer" refers to the white underside of the tail, which is held conspicuously erect like a flag when the animal is alarmed or running. The adult White-tailed Deer has a bright, reddish brown summer coat and a duller grayish brown winter coat; the underparts are white. The young, called fawns, have reddish coats with white spots.

Adult males, called bucks, inhabiting the deserts tend to be smaller than their eastern relatives, which can weigh more than 400 pounds. Desert White-tailed bucks average about 200 pounds and stand about 3 1/2 feet high at the shoulders. As in most deer species, the females (does) are smaller, with an average weight of about 125 pounds.

The closely related Mule Deer (O. hemionus) are more commonly found in the North American deserts and throughout the West. In desert regions they are somewhat larger and stouter, have larger ears and tails tipped with black.

Mule Deer antlers are normally smaller and branch to form 2 equal forks, while the male White-tailed Deer has forward curving antlers with a number of points (tines) branching from the main beam.


Deer are extremely cautious animals with keen senses of smell and hearing. They are browsers feeding on twigs, leaves, bark, shrubs, the fruits and nuts of most vegetation, as well as lichens and other fungi. Both White-tailed and Mule deer can run as fast as 40 miles per hour and are good swimmers.

In the deserts, deer often migrate from higher summertime elevations downslope to warmer climes where more food is available. When a number gather together trampling down the snow in an area, it is known as a "deer yard."

Except for the mating season, bucks and does remain apart. Bucks generally live alone or in small groups with other bucks, while does live alone or with their fawns and female yearlings.

Life Cycle

White Tail deer Bucks develop a pair of spiked antlers by the fall of their second year, when they become fierce fighters for the autumn mating season. Winners of head-on clashes are awarded mating privileges with the does in the vicinity.

Age, genetics and nutrition determine antler size, which establishes social status among the males. Large-antlered bucks, with their intimidating racks, mate more frequently. After mating, bucks shed their antlers and grow a larger set between January and April.

In early summer, after a gestation period of about 200 days, does give birth to one or two young. Fawns weigh 5 to 8 pounds at birth, but quickly gain weight and can run within a week. Cared for only by the mother, she nurses them for about 5 months before weaning.

Adult deer have few predators except for humans, Mountain Lions and wolves, where they still exist. Coyote predation on fawns can be considerable, accounting for as much as 40% of fawn mortality in some areas.

Current Status

State fish and game agencies regard deer as a renewable, harvestable resource for viewing and hunting. Sport hunters bag about 1 million Mule Deer and 2 million White-tailed Deer annually.

The National Park Service estimates that between 23 and 40 million White-tailed Deer inhabited North America before the arrival of Europeans. For a number of years the population was greatly reduced in the U.S., due to habitat loss and unrestricted hunting.

But by the mid-20th century, the population has been restored throughout North America. Today, an estimated 14 to 20 million are believed to inhabit the United States alone, and in many areas of the eastern U.S. populations have soared to previously unattained levels.

Experts cite various reasons for this reversal, in addition to the behavioral flexibility of deer. An increase in food supplies has been accompanied by a decrease in the natural predator populations of Wolves, Coyotes, Mountain Lions and Bobcats, which have not survived urbanization. Game management measures have placed restrictions on hunting seasons, bag limits and available lands for public hunting, while establishing artificially protected habitats in state and national parks.

Recently, the National Park Service, noted that it may need to begin "managing" the deer population in about 50 eastern parks because deer over-browsing is causing the destabilization of park ecosystems. Injuries to park visitors from contact with deer that are perceived as tame, collisions of motor vehicles with deer, and damage to crops, ornamental shrubs and flowers in historical parks were also cited as increasing problems by the NPS.