The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) gets its name for the white fur on the underside of its tail, which it flashes when it senses a threat. The species includes several subspecies, such as the tiny Florida Key deer and the large northern white-tailed deer.
Fast Facts: White-Tailed Deer
- Scientific Name: Odocoileus virginianus
- Common Names: White-tailed deer, whitetail, Virginia deer
- Basic Animal Group: Mammal
- Size: 6-8 feet
- Weight: 88-300 pounds
- Lifespan: 6-14 years
- Diet: Herbivore
- Habitat: North, Central, and northern South America
- Population: >10 million
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
The white-tailed deer has a reddish-brown coat in the spring and summer and a gray-brown coat in autumn and winter. The species is easily recognized by the white underside of its tail. Deer have horizontally-slit pupils with dichromatic blue and yellow vision. They cannot readily distinguish between orange and red colors.
Deer size depends on sex and habitat. On average, mature specimens range from 6 to 8 feet in length, with a shoulder height around 2 to 4 feet. Deer in colder climates are larger than those found closer to the equator. Mature males, called bucks, weigh 150 to 300 pounds, on average. Mature females, called hinds or does, range from 88 to 200 pounds.
Bucks regrow antlers each year in spring and shed them after the breeding season in winter. Antler size and branching is determined by age, nutrition, and genetics.
Habitat and Distribution
White-tailed deer range from the Yukon in Canada through the United States (except Hawaii and Alaska) and Central America south to Brazil and Bolivia. In the United States, the black-tailed or mule deer displaces the white-tailed deer west of the Rocky Mountains. Climate change has allowed the white-tailed deer to expand its presence in Canada in recent years. White-tailed deer have been introduced into Europe and the Caribbean and are farmed in New Zealand. Deer have adapted to a variety of habitats, including urban environments.
Although sometimes seen during the day, deer primarily browse before dawn and after dusk. White-tailed deer eat plants, including grasses, legumes, leaves, shoots, cacti, corn, fruit, and acorns. They can eat mushrooms and poison ivy with no ill effects. Deer are ruminants, with a four-chambered stomach. The animal needs time to develop gut microbes to digest new food as its diet changes, so feeding deer a food that is not found in the wild may harm it. While white-tailed deer are primarily herbivores, they are also opportunistic predators that will take mice and birds.White-tailed deer "flagging" its tail. Jérémie LeBlond-Fontaine, Getty Images
When threatened, a white-tailed deer stomps, snorts, and raises its tail or "flags" to show the white underside. This signals predator detection and alerts other deer. In addition to sound and body language, deer communicate by marking their territory with urine and scents produced by glands found on their head and legs.
A typical deer range is less than a square mile. Females form family groups with a mother and her fawns. Males group with other males, but are solitary during mating season.
Reproduction and Offspring
The white-tailed deer breeding season, called the rut, occurs in autumn in October or November. Males spar with their antlers to compete for females. Females give birth to one to three spotted fawns in spring. The mother hides her fawns in vegetation, returning to nurse them four or five times a day. Young are weaned around 8 to 10 weeks of age. Bucks leave their mothers and mature at about 1.5 years of age. Does may become sexually mature at 6 months of age, but typically do not leave their mother or breed until their second year. The life expectancy of a white-tailed deer ranges from 6 to 14 years.White-tailed doe and her fawn. Daniel J. Cox, Getty Images
The IUCN classifies the conservation status of the white-tailed deer as "least concern." The overall population is stable, although some subspecies are threatened. The Florida Key deer and Colombian white-tailed deer are both listed as "endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
Deer are preyed upon by wolves, pumas, American alligators, bears, coyotes, lynx, bobcats, wolverines, and feral dogs. Eagles and crows may take fawns. However, the greatest threats come from habitat loss, overhunting, and motor vehicle collision.
White-Tailed Deer and Humans
Deer cause economic damage to farmers and pose a threat to motorists. They are hunted for game and sport and farmed for meat, pelts, and antlers. In some places, it is legal to keep white-tailed deer as pets. While captive deer are intelligent and affectionate, bucks may become aggressive and can cause serious injury.
- Bildstein, Keith L. "Why White-Tailed Deer Flag Their Tails". The American Naturalist. 121 (5): 709-715, May, 1983. doi:10.1086/284096
- Fulbright, Timothy Edward and J. Alfonso Ortega-S. White-tailed deer habitat: ecology and management on rangelands. Texas A&M University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-58544-499-1.
- Gallina, S. and Arevalo, H. Lopez. Odocoileus virginianus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T42394A22162580. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-2.RLTS.T42394A22162580.en
- Post, Eric and Nils Stenseth. "Large-Scale Climatic Fluctuation and Population Dynamics of Moose and White-Tailed Deer." Journal of Animal Ecology. 67 (4): 537-543, July, 1998. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2656.1998.00216.x