White-tailed deer are buff in color with white underbellies and a distinctive white area under the tail. When alarmed, the tail goes up, exposing the white underside, giving them their name. Male white-tailed deer, or bucks, grow antlers (bony elongated and branched growths on their heads) every year. The females, or does, do not grow antlers and are typically smaller than bucks.
White-tailed deer, particularly the young (fawns), are preyed upon by bears, bobcats, coyotes, wolves and mountain lions. They use speed and agility to outrun predators, sprinting up to 30 miles (48 kilometers) per hour, and leaping as high as 10 feet (3 meters) and as far as 30 feet (9 meters) in a single bound. Deer have been seen jumping over fences 8 to 12 feet high.
Deer are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. They move between bedding and feeding areas, and will visit water sources, too. White-tailed deer live an average of four to five years in the wild. Few whitetails live past 10 years.
White-tailed deer are highly adaptable and live in many habitats. Ideal habitat has thick undergrowth for hiding and open edge areas for food. However, because they are extremely adaptable, they can be found in backyards, neighborhoods and urban parks.
Deer are herbivores, which means they feed on plants. In particular, deer are browsers that primarily eat the leaves, shoots and stems of shrubs and trees. They also eat farm crops such as corn and soybeans. Acorns, the fruit of oak trees, is a favorite food. In winter, when food becomes scarce, they eat buds, twigs, tree bark and dead leaves.
Females (does) and males (bucks) reach sexual maturity at 1½ years. However, many doe fawns become sexually mature at 6 to 7 months of age. Mating occurs in fall, during a time known as the “rut.” Pregnancy lasts about 6 months, with one to three fawns born in late spring to early summer. Fawns are born with spotted coats that camouflage them from predators. Fawns are raised by does and weaned by 10 weeks old.
White-Tailed Deer Through The Seasons
In winter, deer focus on searching for food and conserving energy. They eat buds, dead leaves, and twig tips from trees and shrubs. In severe winters, they eat tree bark. Deer also rely heavily on fat reserves to help them through winter. Bucks and does often share feeding areas. Bucks usually drop their antlers from mid- to late winter.
With rising temperatures and increasing daylight, plants start growing. Deer take advantage of new growth and eat many plants and leaves. They particularly like clover. Bucks grow new antlers and does start giving birth in late spring.
Does nurse and protect their fawns. Summer delivers good nutrition, which helps does produce milk so fawns grow and gain weight. This high quality diet is important for the growth of a bucks new antlers. Bucks are “in velvet,” a sensitive, nutrient-carrying skin covering their growing antlers. Deer eat buds, grasses, blossoms and leaves of green herbs, shrubs and trees. Deer also “raid” flower and vegetable gardens in urban and suburban areas.
Fall: The Rut
Fall is the mating season. Bucks high testosterone (hormone) levels cause aggressive behavior toward other bucks and courtship behavior with does. Bucks search for females in estrus (ready to mate) and defend a general area and does against other males. Bucks become so preoccupied with mating that they eat little and lose weight. Does and fawns focus on preparing for winter by eating high-fat, high-quality food, such as acorns. Healthy deer can eat an average of 400 acorns a day. Deer also eat grasses, shrubs and crops.
Tracks: Two-toed track 1½ to 2 inches in length. The point of the track aims in the direction the animal is heading.
Scat: Most of the year, deer scat consists of 20 to 30 elongated pellets that measure ¾ to 1 inch long. In late spring and early summer the pellet clumps are soft and might stick together into one large dropping because of higher water content in their food.
Bed: Deer bed where they find shelter from the wind and sun, or protection from predators. They will bed in fields, thick forests or even suburban lawns. Beds are oval or circular in shape, with plants matted down or soil mostly free of debris.
Browse: Browse consists of leaves, shoots and stems of trees and shrubs. Plant stems eaten by deer are distinguished by a rough “ripped” look because deer do not have teeth on the upper front portion of their jaw. Deer have flat molars on their top and bottom jaws and incisors on the bottom front jaw only. Therefore, deer pinch stems between their lower teeth and their upper palate, and tear off the leaves or stems.
Buck rub: Bucks create rubs as a form of communication during the rut. The rub is formed when the buck aggressively rubs its forehead and antlers against smaller trees, removing the bark. A forehead gland leaves scent on the rubbed bark. This scent communicates to does that the buck is in the area and ready to mate. It also alerts other bucks that he is present. Rubbed trees are often found along well-used deer trails, near bedding areas, and “staging areas” where bucks wait before moving into fields to feed at dusk.
Scrape: A buck scrape consists of a broken branch or twig 3 to 6 feet above the ground. Beneath the broken branch, the ground will be pawed and scraped free of litter. The buck often urinates into the scrape. Scrapes communicate the same thing as buck rubs.
Deer trails or herd paths : These are trails deer commonly use to go between feeding, bedding and watering areas. These will be well-worn paths that typically fade away as you follow them. They can be found in all habitat types, but often show up better in grassy or forested areas. Many different animals will use these paths, especially in areas with snowfall.
Calls to Use When Hunting
Grunt: Tending grunts are used by male deer during the rut to establish a tending bond with a doe before mating. The grunt is a unique sound that’s a short series of low grunts. Hunters can use a grunt call to attract other bucks that think a doe is nearby.
Antler Rattle: Antler rattling can be heard when two male deer fight for the right to mate with females. A doe that’s ready to mate often attracts many bucks. Fights can happen if one buck doesn’t back down when confronted by a rival. To fight, bucks face each other, lower their antlers and try to overpower each other while pushing and shoving with their antlers intertwined. The sounds of clashing antlers and loud rattling can attract other males to the scene.
Hunters can attract bucks to their area by imitating the sounds of fighting bucks, a technique called “rattling.” They create this noise by banging two antlers together or vigorously rubbing and slapping a cloth bag filled with hard plastic or wood dowels. Antlers used for “rattling” must match the game being hunted: Use deer antlers to attract deer, elk antlers to attract elk, and moose antlers to attract moose. Likewise, the rattle bag should match the tone of the game animal you’re trying to attract.
The most effective and safest place to aim is for the lungs while the deer is quartering away or broadside. The heart and lungs are low behind the shoulder. If you aim too far forward you will hit the shoulder blade and the arrow may only wound the animal. Aiming too far back may result in a gut shot.
- Early scouting is key for successful white-tailed deer hunting. Placing a tree stand or blind near areas that deer visit often will increase shot opportunities. REMEMBER: Look for food, water and cover.
- Create good shooting lanes and mark off your distances for more accurate shots.
- Pull back your bow when the deer gets into range. You want to pull back when the deer is not looking in your direction. Otherwise it might spot your movement and leave the area quickly.
Field Dressing & Meat Care
Due to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal disease that attacks deer, elk and moose, it is very important that you wear rubber gloves when handling meat. CWD is a communicable disease among deer, elk and moose that affects the brain and nervous system. Scientists are not sure what causes CWD. However, prions found in the brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils, and spleen may be responsible. You CANNOT destroy prions with cooking the meat. Do not cut through the spinal cord except to remove the head. Use a knife designated for this purpose or you could contaminate other meat. At this point, CWD has not been proven to affect humans.
For more information on CWD please visit www.cwd-info.org.
Many hunters in the western United States will quarter their game after field dressing to store for several days in a cool dry location before packing their meat out of their hunting location.
If you shoot an animal that looks or behaves abnormally, contact your local Wildlife Agency, DNR or Conservation Officer for CWD status and precautions you should take before field dressing it.
- Cooney, Judd. The Bowhunter’s Field Manual. New York: Woods N’ Water, 2006.
- Dalrymple, B.W. North American Big Game Animals. Outdoor Life Books, NY, 1985.
- McNally, Bob. Fail-Proof Tactics for Whitetail Bowhunting. Woods N’ Water Press, 2006.
- Quality Deer Management Association at www.qdma.com.
- Samuel, Dr. Dave. Understanding Whitetails. Cowles Creative Publishing. 1996.
- Your State Wildlife Agency or Department of Natural Resources for specific information on deer in your area.
- Whitetails.com at www.whitetails.com.