Wild Things: White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Photo by James Taulman

White-tailed deer are common throughout the United States, except for California, Nevada and parts of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. 

Being herbivores, these deer feed on green vegetation during spring and summer, switching over to acorns, nuts, and other “hard mast” that becomes available in fall. In winter they subsist on twigs and buds of woody plants, often browsing, or feeding on vegetation on limbs up off the ground.

Fawns will stand within 10 minutes after birth, but stay hidden for most of the day, relying on their spotted coloration for camouflage and protection for the first 3-4 weeks. Fawns will nurse several times each day for about 10 minutes.

Photo by James Taulman

After a month the fawns are active and forage with their mothers. Fawns will be weaned in 2-4 months but they are most vulnerable during the first week. They may stay with the mother for up to two years, and does are attentive and nurturing to their young.

Because populations of natural predators like wolves have been eradicated or reduced over much of the U.S., deer populations sometimes grow to excess. Sport hunting can help to control deer populations but in areas where hunting is not permitted, like suburban neighborhoods, deer can become relatively tame and raid gardens and lawns.

Photo by James Taulman

Chronic wasting disease is a fatal nervous system disorder that affects deer populations. It was first discovered in Colorado in 1967 and was detected in free-ranging white-tailed deer in southern New Mexico in 2002. It is thought to be spread by deer feeding on grass or drinking water contaminated by prior contact with infected animals. There have been no cases of transmission of the disease to humans, but it is an ongoing problem for deer populations.

James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.

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