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White-tailed Deer

Photo by Stan Tekiela

by Stan Tekiela
© NatureSmart

December 27, 2020

The recent weather roller-coaster has found me stomping around the woods in search of rutting White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). One week I am wearing a short-sleeved shirt and light-weight hiking shoes and the next week I am dressed in four layers and waterproof boots along with a hat and gloves. But no matter the weather, at this time of year, the bucks are looking for females.

The White-tailed Deer is the most widely distributed member of the deer family found throughout the United States, much of Canada and believe it or not, as far south as Peru and Bolivia in South America. It has also been introduced into several countries in Europe and New Zealand along with parts of the Caribbean.

While the White-tailed Deer is mostly found in the eastern half of the country it ranges as far southwest as Arizona and across the Pacific Northwest to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. In parts of the west the White-tailed Deer gives way to the Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) except for some specific habitats such as river bottomlands.

Depending upon who you talk to, there are many varieties or subspecies of White-tailed Deer. Figuring out subspecies can be a bit tricky. Subspecies are usually determined by general morphological differences within a species. For example, a subspecies can be determined by the size or shape of the body, tail or ears. A good example of this is the Key Deer, a subspecies of the White-tail that lives only on Florida’s key islands. This subspecies looks just like all other White-tails except it’s one-quarter of the size of a regular White-tailed Deer. An adult male Key Deer weighs only 50 pounds. This is a clear and obvious difference but not all subspecies are this clear cut.

White-tailed Deer follow the biological rule (Bergmann’s Rule) which states within a species, the further north latitude you live the larger you are, and the further south you live the smaller you are. White-tail’s in northern states and Canada are much larger than those in southern states. The Key Deer is a perfect example of this biological rule.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the woods studying and photographing White-tailed Deer behavior lately. During the breeding season, the males, called bucks, are focused on finding females, called does, and often allow for closer observation. Recently I went out for a walk in the woods to get some exercise and stumbled across a nice 10-point buck who was attending a female. I hung around just long enough to see they looked comfortable and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I continued my walk and an hour later when I was returning found the buck and doe right where I left them. I figured this is a good sign and headed for my truck to grab my camera gear. Fifteen minutes later when I returned with my camera and prepared to capture some great images, the buck and doe where nowhere to be found.

Several days later I headed out to see if I could find another big buck. I walked for a mile or so and spotted two does with their heads down feeding on the few remaining green plants. I figured there is a good chance a buck might be attending the females. I approached from the down wind side so they couldn’t smell me. As I approached, I noted that the sun was now behind the deer which usually doesn’t make for good pictures. But I wanted to check them out anyway.

As I approached, I caught a whiff of a rutting buck. When the bucks are looking for females, scent glands located on the male’s hind legs produce a sweet yet pungent smell. If you get close enough and the wind is in your direction, it’s easy to pick up this scent. As soon as I caught the scent of the buck, I saw him standing in a tangle of branches and vines. His thick winter coat and tall multi-branched antlers made him blend so well it was hard to see him.

I was able to capture a few images of the buck and more importantly spend some time studying the behavior between the buck and the doe. This kind of quality time is hard to come by, so I enjoyed it while it lasted and eventually headed back to my truck for the long drive home. Until next time…

Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer. He travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.


The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.

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