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
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-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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.