White-Tailed Deer

 

White-Tailed Deer

©Darlene B. Durham 2014

 

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Spotted Fawn

 

One of the most frequently seen mammals at TGO is the white-tailed deer.  They derive their name from their tail which is brown on the top and white underneath.  The tail coloration is used for signaling danger to other deer.  When a deer is alarmed, it will hold the tail up erect exposing the white underneath and wave it as if it were a flag to warn other deer of impending danger. The white underside of the tail is also used by the female deer, called a doe, to guide her fawn in dim light.

The primary color of the white-tailed deer coat can vary from brown shades of tawny to cinnamon color to an almost black color.  In addition to the white underside of the deer tail, their ears, throat, belly and rump are also white. The varying brown coloration of the deer coat provides camouflage and helps with the regulation of their body temperature.  To help keep a deer cooler, its coat is thinner and lighter during the summer months.

Our deer in Florida are smaller than the deer found in northern states.  An adult Florida buck or male deer weighs approximately 115 to 125 pounds versus the approximate weight of 300 pounds of their northern counterparts.  An adult Florida female doe weighs approximately 90 to 95 pounds.

Deer are usually less active during the day and are more active at twilight.  This characteristic is referred to as crepuscular.  Because they are more active during times of limited light, the deer have excellent senses of hearing, smell and sight.  Even though the white-tailed deer has excellent eyesight, they are believed to be color blind and only see shades of gray.  Due to their color blindness, hunters can wear brightly colored orange hunting jackets to identify themselves to other hunters and the deer are not alarmed by the brightly colored jackets.

There are several types of white-tailed deer social groups.  The most common is the matrilineal.  The word comes from matri (matriarch) and lineal (direct line).  The social group will include a doe, her female offspring from previous years and their fawns.

The male deer or buck will sport antlers for most of the year.  During this time, it is easy to distinguish between the adult male and female deer.  The growth of antlers is caused primarily by the presence of testosterone in the male deer.  The antlers are not true horns as horns are a permanent feature and a buck will grow a new set of antlers every year.

A buck’s antlers will begin to grow in the spring.  The antlers will be covered with a velvety tissue by the summer.  This tissue provides blood supply and is very sensitive.  If the antlers are injured during this time, they will bleed profusely.  Prior to the mating season, approximately five months, the blood supply stops, the tissue will dry and peel off and the buck will rub the antlers on trees and shrubs to remove the remaining velvety tissue.  This leaves antlers which are smooth, hard and sharp.  In late winter to early spring, the antlers are shed and the process begins again.  In Florida, it is rare to find the old discarded antlers as rodents will chew them and the hot humid Florida climate accelerates the deterioration process.

There are several factors in determining the size of a buck’s antlers including the age of the buck, genetic factors and nutrition.  The antlers of a buck born during the spring or summer will only have antlers approximately one inch long during its first rut.  This is referred to as a “button buck”.  As a buck reaches the yearling stage at about 16 to 18 months old, his antlers tend to grow as spikes unless there is sufficient food and then they may have forked antlers at this early age.  Antlers are largest on bucks who have reached the age of 6 to 10 years old.

Generally, antlers size increases as the buck ages.  Even though the average four year old buck will have eight points, due to the different factors affecting antler growth, the size of a buck’s antlers is not a foolproof way to determine its age.  The examination of its teeth is a more accurate indication of age.

To count the number of “points” on a buck’s antlers, count all points which are at least one inch in length on both antlers.  If a buck has four points on each antler that are at least one inch long, then he is referred to as an eight point buck.

The white-tailed deer is found throughout the state of Florida.  They live in almost every type of Florida habitat type but they prefer deciduous forests and the edges of forests.

The white-tailed deer is an herbivore which means they eat grass and plants.  Since deer are highly adaptable to different food supplies they can be both browsers and grazers.  A “browser” is an animal who eats shrubs, bushes and bark.  A “grazer”, like a cow, eats primarily grass.

A white-tailed deer’s diet consists of leaves and the tender tips of vines and shrubs, grasses, twigs, acorns, bark, mushrooms, fruits, flowers, succulent green and aquatic plants in addition to many other types of plants which are no higher than approximately 4.5 feet above ground.  In Florida, deer eat approximately four pounds of food per day.

Deer have four stomachs which are connected much like a cow’s stomach.  Their food is processed through these stomachs and 65 feet of intestines.  That is a long intestine!  It will take 24 to 36 hours for deer to process their meal.

Deer will forage for food primarily at night.  Deer are selective eaters and at four pounds of food per day, they can have an adverse affect on their favorite plants in an area.  It often happens at TGO, there is a nice plant in the yard one day and overnight, it has been devoured by deer.  If there is not enough of their favorite food, they will eat less desirable and less nutritious food which can adversely affect their reproduction

The deer breeding season is called the “rut” and it usually lasts three to four months.  As the rut begins, soon after the velvet tissue is off of the bucks’ antlers, the bucks will begin to spar.  These sparring matches between bucks are mildly aggressive and usually consist of pushing each other.  These matches will establish a hierarchy or pecking order among the bucks.

The sparring phase is followed by the courtship phase about four to six weeks after the sparring phase.  During this phase the bucks will chase females and the aggression between competing bucks will become fiercer.  During altercations, the less dominant buck will turn away from the more dominant buck.  In the case where both bucks are equally matched, the pair will lower their heads, charge each other and lock antlers.  They will push each other until one is driven back and retreats.  These altercations can lead to serious injuries to the bucks but most fights only last about 30 seconds before one buck backs down.

If a doe does not become pregnant during her first estrus, she will again come into estrus in 28 days. Once pregnant, the gestation period for the white-tailed deer is approximately 200 days or about six and one half months.  A doe will usually give birth to one fawn but if there is abundance of food sources, she can produce twins and occasionally triplets.  Most fawn births in north Florida occur between April and June and in south Florida they occur from January through May.  These months correlate to the increased availability of nutritious food sources.

White-tailed does will typically give birth to their fawns in thickets or on the edge of open fields.  A fawn will weigh between seven and nine pounds at birth.  The new mothers will nurse their babies two to three times during the day.  Fawns will be weaned at approximately four months of age.

The young fawns have a brownish coat with spots for the first three to four months.  This spotting provides camouflage for the young deer especially on the forest floor as the spots can blend with the dappled sunlight which filters through the trees. The fawn’s spotted coat will be replaced with the brown adult coat about the same time it is weaned.

One caution we always emphasize at TGO during the time that fawns are born is if a fawn is seen alone, do not approach it.  It has not been abandoned.  A mother deer will leave her fawn in a place she feels is safe for the new baby, usually hidden in tall grass.  She leaves her new baby to forage for food.  She is usually not very far away.

The doe will also not spend much time with her new baby except to nurse as a fawn does not have a scent, whereas, the adult deer does have a scent.  The scent of the mother could draw predators to the fawn.

It is a myth that a doe will abandon a fawn if it has been handled by a human but we should be admiring these beautiful babies from a safe distance.  If a fawn does leave the area its mother left it, deer do have a scent gland between its two toe nails which can secrete a scented substance for the mother to find her baby.

A fawn will stay with its mother during their first year or so.  At this time, they are called yearlings.  The doe will chase off the yearling just before she gives birth to a new fawn.  The female yearlings will usually be allowed to return after the new fawn birth; however, the male yearlings will usually leave its mother and rarely returns.  Over time, the females will leave to establish their own home range which is usually near the area they were born.

There are a number of threats to the deer population including predators, accidents, parasites and diseases.  Predators include humans, panthers, bears, bobcats and coyotes.  Humans not only hunt and kill deer but deer and humans are involved in many automobile accidents which injure and kill deer.  Most vehicular collisions with deer occur during darkness.  When a deer is blinded by headlights, its movements can become abrupt or unpredictable.  At times, they will freeze in position at the sight of the headlights of an oncoming car.  Since deer seldom travel alone, if you see a deer in or near the road, slow down and drive cautiously as one or more deer may suddenly appear.

The white-tailed deer is the second most common prey for panthers with their number one prey being wild hogs.  Bobcats also prey on deer.  There is an increased population of coyotes and it is suspected they prey on deer; however, it is unknown the extent coyotes as predators have on deer mortality.  Black bears have been known to take newborn fawns but do not appear to have a major impact on the deer population.

The white-tailed deer are also killed by non-vehicular accidents such as becoming entangled in fences, drowning and other type of accidents.  Other health threats which can cause injury or poor health include poisonous plants, pesticides and accidental consumption of heavy metals.

Deer are also susceptible to many different parasites.  The parasites alone probably will not cause sickness or kill a deer but their presence in conjunction with other factors such as stress, malnutrition or other conditions may impair the deer’s resistance to infection and cause harm to the deer.

We are fortunate to have many deer here at TGO.  During the spring and summer, we can watch the fawns as they develop from the adorable spotted baby hiding in the grass and being nursed by their mothers through their weaning process and eventually to young deer with their adult unspotted coats. We can see the young “button buck” who is just beginning to get his first antlers.  We do have the challenges of deer eating our ornamental plants and the possibility of vehicular encounters with them but the downsides of having these beautiful creatures are worth the rewards.  Get out and walk, bicycle or drive a golf cart around the community or on the golf cart trail and enjoy all the nature, including our deer, which we are so fortunate to have!

The photo below taken by Darlene Durham shows the white underside of a fawn’s tail.

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White Tail of a Fawn

 

A doe will leave her baby in an area where she thinks it will be  safe.  Notice in the photo below how the spots on the fawn’s coat blends with the dappled sunlight.  The photos of fawns below were taken by Hobie Kurtz.

 

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Fawn In Grass
Courtesy of Hobie Kurtz

 

 

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Fawn In Dappled Sunlight
Courtesy of Hobie Kurtz

 

The young buck pictured below is beginning to get his antlers.  Click on the photo to enlarge to get a better view.

 

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Young Buck

 

The photos below taken by Hobie Kurtz show bucks with different stages of antlers development.

 

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Young Buck
Courtesy of Hobie Kurtz

 

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Buck With Velvet Antlers
Courtesy of Hobie Kurtz

 

Once the velvet tissue falls off, the buck’s antlers are smooth and sharp!

 

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Buck With Antlers
Courtesy of Hobie Kurtz

 

Taylor Durham took this photo of a mother and her beautiful twins!

 

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Doe With Twin Fawns

 

 

TGO Nature Center – “Living in Harmony with Nature

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