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Although fur color varies depending on location and season, whitetail deer are usually grayish in the winter and reddish-brown in the summer, with a white belly. The common name refers to the white on the underside of the deer's tail, which is most visible when the animal is alarmed. There is also a white ring around the nose and each eye, and a patch of white on the neck and chin, inside each ear, and the upper inside of each leg. There are prominent scent glands between the two parts of the hoof on all four feet, as well as on the inside and outside of each hind leg.
A medium-size deer, the whitetail is 2-3 feet tall, 5-7 feet long, and weighs 125-300+ pounds, with bucks being significantly larger than does.
Only bucks have antlers, which begin growing in April or May and are shed between January and March. Although older deer tend to have larger antlers with more tines, the size is actually determined by the buck's nutritional health not its age; older deer tend to have access to better food supplies, which is why their antlers are often larger.
Whitetail deer have good eyesight and acute hearing but tend to depend more on their sense of smell to warn them of danger. Very agile, they are capable of bounding at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour even through tangled terrain.
Distribution and Habitat
Whitetail deer are found throughout most of southern Canada, all of the United States except for higher elevations of the Rocky Mountains, and through Mexico and Central America to Bolivia and northern Brazil. They are capable of surviving in a wide variety of habitats ranging from open plains to deciduous forests, as well as swamps and near desert regions, but prefer forest edges that are close to farmlands, old fields, and brushland.
Habits and Behaviors
Whitetail are the most shy and nervous of all deer. They are most active at night, but are often seen during the day. Generally solitary except during the breeding season, whitetail does have been known to gather in herds of hundreds when grazing on open ground and bucks may form into groups of 2-4 individuals in the summer. Whitetail are not very vocal, although they are known to "call" when injured or scared and rutting males may vocalize warnings to potential competitors. The majority of communication between whitetail involves scent and body language.
The mating season runs from October to December. Most whitetail do not mate until their second year, but some females may mate at as young as seven months. Bucks are polygamous, but an individual buck may stay with a single doe for several days or weeks until she is ready to breed. Although the buck will mate with almost available female in his range, he does not form a harem and may have to fight another buck for any given doe; that fighting consists of the two bucks clashing antlers until one of them surrenders.
Gestation takes about 6-1/2 months. First-time mothers generally only have one fawn per breeding season, with two being the average thereafter. The reddish, spotted with white, fawn can stand and walk soon after birth, begins nibbling at vegetation after a few days, and is weaned at about six weeks. The spots begin fading by the fawn's first winter, and adult coloration is usually achieved by its first spring.
Whitetail mothers are very protective of their fawns. When looking for food, they leave their offspring in a hiding place for about four hours at a time. While waiting for their mother to return, the fawns instinctively lay flat on the ground with their necks outstretched, well camouflaged against the forest floor; in more open area the fawns are usually hidden in a stand of tall grass or shrubbery. Young males leave their mother after one year but young females often stay with their mother for two years.
Whitetail deer can live up to 20 years in the wild, but the average lifespan is 10 years.
Whitetail deer feed on a wide variety of vegetation depending on what is available, including leaves, twigs, fruits and nuts, grass, corn, alfalfa, and even lichens and other fungi.
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This page was last updated on November 15, 2017.