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White-tailed Deer

Odocoileus virginianus

Description:

A white-tailed deer has a coat that is reddish-brown in summer and grayish-brown in winter. The belly, throat and areas around the mouth and nose are white. The underside of the tail is also white, giving the species its name. Young deer less than six months old have coats that are covered with white spots. Males have antlers that fall off each year in December or January and begin regrowing in April or May.

Size:

Adult white-tailed deer range in weight from 125 to 225 pounds (56.70 – 102.06 kg). Males are larger than females. Deer can stand up to 45 inches (1.14 m) high at the shoulder and measure up to 7 feet (2.13 m) long.

Adaptations:

  • A deer’s coat has hollow hairs that help to keep it insulated in cold weather. The coat colors change seasonally, helping the deer to better camouflage, and the spotted coats of fawns help them to hide on the forest floor.
  • As ruminants, deer have four-chambered stomachs that allow them to chew their food quickly and then store it for further chewing and digestion later. This gives them the ability to eat quickly in an area where they may have to watch for predators. It also allows them to eat plants which other animals are unable to digest.
  • Deer have good senses of smell and hearing, which help them notice danger.
  • When alarmed, white-tailed deer stomp their hooves and snort to warn others of danger. They may also “flag” or raise their tails to reveal the white undersides, which are distress signals. When deer are running, they can easily follow each other by looking for the white tails.
  • Deer are excellent runners and can travel at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour. They are also good leapers and swimmers.
  • Bucks (male deer) have antlers that are used for defense. They may also use their antlers to fight with other bucks when competing for a mate.
  • White-tailed deer have glands on their feet and legs that produce a scent which is used to communicate with other deer.

Diet:

White-tailed deer are herbivores (plant-eaters) whose diets vary according to habitat and season. They are both browsers (animals which eat twigs and leaves) and grazers (which eat grasses). Common food items include green plants (summer), corn, acorns and other nuts (fall), and buds and twigs of woody plants (winter). At Cosley Zoo, the deer are fed a commercial deer diet, hay, fruits and vegetables, and leaves and branches from a variety of trees.

Reproduction:

In northern Illinois, white-tailed deer mate in the late fall. Does (females) give birth to 1-3 young after a six-month gestation period. The fawns (young deer) can walk immediately after birth and are able to forage for food a couple of days later. They are weaned at about six weeks of age. Female fawns may stay with their mother for two years. Males usually leave after one year.

Shelter and space needs:

White-tailed deer live in wooded areas near clearings or farm fields.

Life expectancy:

White-tailed deer have an average life expectancy of 2-3 years in the wild. In human care, they may live up to 15 years.

Relationship with man:

White-tailed deer play an important role in their ecosystems as major prey animals for many large predators. They are commonly hunted for meat and sport. The large amount of money that is collected for hunting licenses plays an important role in protecting our environment.

Fun Facts:

  • The average rack of deer antlers weighs between three and nine pounds. The size of a deer’s antlers is not an indication of age. Rather, it reflects the genetics and nutrition of the animal.
  • Antlers can grow up to ½ inch per day. Antler cells have some of the fastest growth rates in nature. Some scientists are studying these cells to find out why they grow so fast, hoping to use this knowledge to slow down the rapid growth of human cancer cells.
  • The white-tailed deer is the state mammal of Illinois.
  • A mother deer will leave her fawn alone for hours at a time while she feeds. If she has more than one fawn, she will hide them in separate places. This draws attention away from the fawns, which are odorless and difficult for predators to notice.
White-tailed Deer

Photo Credit: Adam Bishop, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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