The White-tailed Deer is a medium-sized deer with slender legs and a long tail covered in long hairs. The general coat colour is greyish brown in winter and reddish brown in summer. Throughout the year, the belly and chin are white, as are the backs of the lower front legs and the insides of the hind legs. There is also a white throat patch. The face is the colour of the body except for a lighter coloured or white eye-ring, a white band at the rear edge of the black, naked nose, and white inside the ears. There is a small black patch of hairs on the chin. The underside and edges of the bushy tail are white, as are the hairs on the rump immediately under the tail. But the upper side of the tail is usually the same colour as the upper body, or in some individuals is a darker brown. Young of the year are reddish brown with horizontal rows of white spots on the upper body.
The White-tailed Deer has at least five types of glands on its body, three of which are usually visible. There is a small antorbital gland in front of each eye, and a tarsal gland on the inside of the tarsus. A small metatarsal gland (less than 40 mm long) at the lower end of the metatarsus often with white hairs in the centre. The interdigital glands between the main toes are indicated by small patches of white hair, while the nasal and poorly developed frontal glands require more invasive examination. Biologists are uncertain whether the White-tailed Deer has caudal (tail) glands. Females have four inguinal teats.
Antlers of adult males consist of a main beam that curves up and forward over the head. Above the bur is a moderately long brow tine branching from the main beam above the eye, followed by three to five longer, upward pointing tines that are usually unforked. Yearling males develop a pair of either single spikes or simple forks; the brow tine does not develop until the second year. Like Mule Deer, atypical antlers with as many as 25 points have been found in White-tailed Deer from B.C. The skull of the White-tail has shallow lachrymal depressions in front of the orbits, and the vomer divides the posterior nares vertically into two sections.
The most similar species to White-tailed Deer is the Mule Deer, but there are clear external distinguishing traits. The most obvious are the rump patch and tail. In White-tailed Deer, the tail is longer and the upper (outer) surface of the tail is almost always the same brown colour as the rest of the body, not white or dark brown as in the Mule Deer. Only the white outer edges of the rump patch are visible when the tail is down in the resting position, so there is no large white rump patch always visible as in Rocky Mountain Mule Deer. When alarmed, White-tailed Deer raise the tail and the white hairs along its edge and underneath on the rump, making the tail area appear much larger. They will also bound off waving the raised tail – called flagging, this is another unique characteristic of the species. The ears lack the dark rim and are also proportionately smaller than those of Mule Deer. White-tailed Deer also lack the dark patch on the forehead that Mule and Fallow deer have. In summer coat, White-tailed Deer generally have a more reddish tinge than the Mule Deer. The metatarsal gland on the outside of the lower hind leg is also smaller, has white hairs in the centre, and is located towards the distal (lower) end of the metatarsal region rather than in the middle or at the proximal (upper) end, as in Mule Deer. For adult males, the non-forking tines of the antlers also separate them from Mule Deer.
Like the Mule Deer, White-tailed Deer skulls can be separated from other similar-sized species such as Fallow Deer by the vomer dividing the posterior nares. Unlike Mule Deer, the antorbital depression of the White-tailed Deer’s skull is shallow. While the vomer also divides the posterior nares in Caribou, White-tailed Deer lack upper canines and do not have the angled dorsal profile of the premaxilla.
Neither tracks nor faeces can be separated easily from those of the Mule Deer, but the clearly pointed hooves of all Odocoilid deer can be distinguished from the similar-sized but blunter tracks of the Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goat.
Gestation is 200 to 210 days. Twins are common when conditions are good, but triplets are rare. Young White-tailed Deer are born in early June and weigh 2 to 4 kg. With their spotted coats providing camouflage, they use the hider strategy in their first few weeks of life, lying hidden in thick vegetation during the day while their mothers go off to feed.
Under good conditions, female White-tailed Deer can give birth around their first birthday, but in most populations it takes place a year later. Females complete most of their body growth around 3 to 4 years of age, and males by about 4 to 6 years of age.
There has been no detailed study of diets of White-tailed Deer in B.C., but probably like elsewhere, the species feeds on a range of vegetation, eating mainly forbs and browse, with lesser amounts of grasses, mushrooms and the bark of young deciduous trees. In winter in the East Kootenay, Douglas-fir and Kinnikinnick were found to be important foods.
Age determination and life expectancy
The age of a White-tailed Deer can be determined by tooth eruption sequence up to about 3.5 years old, and by counting cementum annuli of either incisors or molars for older animals. Tooth wear does not seem to be a reliable year-specific technique. White-tailed Deer probably live for 8 to 10 years, although there are no data for populations in British Columbia. A White-tail Deer skeleton lacking a skull, can be sexed by examining the pelvis. In males 2 years and older, a bump, called a suspensory tuberosity, projects from the anterior edge of each pelvic ilium just above their junction.
Predators and other mortality factors
The main predators in B.C. are probably Cougars and Coyotes, although Wolves, Lynxes and Bobcats are also known to prey on them in other areas. Bears sometimes prey on the young during the hider stage. White-tailed Deer prefer to avoid predators by hiding in dense vegetation, but if surprised, they will often snort and stamp a forefoot to give an alarm to others; they also behave this way in response to humans. When moved to flight, White-tailed Deer bound away majestically, tail raised and waving from side to side (flagging), exposing the erect white hairs underneath.
Diseases and parasites may have significant effects on White-tailed Deer populations. For example, outbreaks of epizootic haemorrhagic disease (EHD), an orbivirus closely related to Bluetongue, causes acute but sporadic mortality in White-tailed Deer. Such an EHD outbreak was reported in southeastern B.C. and the Okanagan Valley in the 1980s. The virus is transmitted by Biting Gnats that also transmit the Bluetongue virus. High mortality rates during EHD outbreaks may devastate small populations. Other deer species and domestic animals generally show mild to no clinical effects from EHD infection, although deaths have been reported in Mule Deer. We do not know how this virus persists in the environment. Domestic Cattle are not carriers of EHD.
Social organization, grouping and behaviour
Adult male and female White-tailed Deer live apart for most of the year. The basic social unit is a family group comprised of an adult female with one or two of her yearlings and young of the year. Young males leave their family when about a year old. Males are usually solitary around the rutting period but otherwise may live in small all-male groups. White-tailed Deer will often form larger temporary aggregations when attracted to choice food sources, especially in open areas.
The necks of adult male White-tailed Deer swell just before rut, and with their hard antlers, they spar with each other as well as with bushes and small trees. In serious fights between similar-sized individuals, rival adult males approach and circle each other in a slight crouch, ears back and the hair on their body raised. The hairs of their tarsal glands are flared, and they seem to avoid eye-contact with each other. Then, they may suddenly lunge at each other and lock antlers, rapidly pushing and twisting with their heads close to the ground, trying to throw their opponent off balance. When one male slips or breaks away, the other tries to gore him in the rear as he flees. The winner will chase the loser for a short distance uttering a loud coughing bark, sometimes slapping his forefeet on the ground. Like most other deer, female White-tailed Deer, and males without hard antlers, fight with ears back and head held high, using their forefeet, either from a standing position or raised up on their hind legs.
In British Columbia, White-tailed Deer mate in November and early December (and their courtship is quite different than that of Mule Deer). Males vigorously rub their antlers against bushes and small trees, first to remove the velvet in August, and later in the fall, perhaps as visual, auditory and olfactory signals. The noise of a male thrashing a bush travels some distance; the scratches he makes on the bark are clearly visible, and the odour he leaves behind on the vegetation, possibly from his frontal glands, is powerful. Male White-tailed Deer also scrape small patches of ground with their forefeet, and then mark the depression with urine and tarsal gland secretions using the hock-rub. They often defend these scrapes against other males, and females are sometimes attracted to them and may also urinate in them. Both sexes urinate while rubbing their tarsal glands together, but in the rut it is mainly males that do this. Both the tarsal and the metatarsal glands secrete a musky odour.
When a female starts to come into heat, she is usually courted by a single male; but sometimes, several males will pursue her, often running in large circles. A courting male approaches the female with head low like a young trying to suckle, then rushes towards her, hits the ground with his hooves, barks a few times and chases after her if she runs away. Close to oestrus, the female becomes more tolerant and the male moves towards her in a crouch, sometimes bleating, and then stands alongside and guards her from other males. There are few pre-copulatory mounts, and copulation itself is quick, with the male performing a copulatory jump during ejaculation.
White-tailed Deer prefer heavily vegetated brush habitats, such as riparian areas, as well as extensive shrub fields. But they will venture into open habitats between dusk and dawn to feed under the cover of darkness. They also occupy open forested regions in the eastern half of B.C., where underbrush species of grasses, forbs and shrubs supply sufficient food and cover. In late winter, White-tailed Deer may use steep south aspects, usually between 450 and 900 metres above sea level, where snow accumulation is low and movement easy. In some areas of the province, they make spring migrations to higher elevations (up to about 1,300 metres) and spend the summer there. In the West Kootenay, they move to valleys away from the winter ranges. Movements back to winter ranges usually begin when 100 to 300 mm of snow accumulates on summer ranges. White-tailed Deer are strong swimmers when necessary, and regularly cross rivers such as the Columbia during their seasonal movements.
White-tailed Deer is a widespread species in the New World, extending from northern North America, through Central America and into South America to about 15° South latitude. As many as 38 subspecies are recognized, and size variation of adults is considerable, ranging from 22 to 25 kg for the Florida Keys Deer to over 192 kg for the Northern Woodland subspecies of northeastern North America. Despite this wide variation, it is difficult to distinguish the different subspecies of White-tailed Deer in the field. Much of the variation is probably ecotypic, in response to the different environments in which the deer live. The type locality for the Northwest subspecies is the south end of Priest Lake, Idaho; and the type locality for the Dakota subspecies is White Earth River, North Dakota.
Odocoileus means “hollow-toothed” and virginianus means “of Virginia”. White-tailed Deer are expanding their range throughout western North America. This is also occurring in B.C. as can be seen by comparing the map shown here with the map in The Mammals of British Columbia (Cowan and Guiguet 1965).
The general expansion of White-tailed Deer distribution in North America, north and westward from the southern and southeastern United States is believed to be partly the result of deforestation and agricultural modification of the environment. In some areas, there have been reports of competition and hybridization with Mule Deer. Another impact of this expansion has been the accompanying spread of the White-tailed Deer Meningeal Worm. This parasite rarely kills the White-tailed Deer, its primary host, but some researchers have suggested that it causes declines or limits the increase of other deer populations. Immature forms of the Meningeal Worm migrate into the brain or spinal cord of atypical hosts where they can cause severe, often fatal neurological symptoms. Signs include weakness, loss of co-ordination, circling, head tilt and paralysis. Fortunately, this parasite has not been reported west of the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border to date, but vigilance is important to prevent the introduction of this potentially devastating parasite into B.C. deer populations.
Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC:
Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab
for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British
Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed:
2022-09-30 6:20:20 PM]
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