- is the most widely distributed and the most
numerous of all North America’s large animals
- leaves its fawn unattended for hours at a
- may have difficulty surviving the winter,
particularly if there are too many deer competing for
food or if snow is deep
- occasionally gets its antlers hopelessly entangled
with those of another male during a mating season
battle, resulting in the slow death of both
The graceful white-tailed deer
Odocoileus virginianus is well known to most North
Americans. Hunters and nonhunters alike recognize the animal
by its habit of flourishing its tail over its back, revealing
a stark white underside and white buttocks. This "flag" of the
white-tailed deer is often glimpsed as the high spirited
animal dashes away from people. The tail has a broad base and
is almost a foot long. When lowered, it is brown with a white
In summer, the white-tailed deer has a reddish
pelage, or fur, on its back and sides and is whitish beneath.
In winter the upper parts turn greyish. Full grown male deer
frequently exceed 1 m at shoulder height and 110 kg in
weight, with exceptional individuals weighing up to
200 kg in the northern part of their range.
antlers of the mature male white-tail consist of a forward
curving main beam from which single points project upward and
often slightly inward. Perhaps one of every 1 000 females
also bears small, simple antlers.
deer is hard to distinguish from the black-tailed deer. The
black-tail has similar antlers and will sometimes show the
characteristic "flag" of the white-tail but usually with less
flare. Fortunately, for identification purposes, the
black-tailed deer occurs only west of the Great Divide (its
Canadian range is coastal B.C. and Vancouver Island), where
the white-tailed deer is uncommon.
Confusion is less
likely between the white-tailed deer and the darker stockier
mule deer. The mule deer can be distinguished by a small white
tail with a black tip and antlers that divide and redivide
into paired beams and points. It also has large ears that are
more like those of a mule than those of its more delicate
cousin. Unfortunately people in different parts of Canada have
given these two types of deer the same nickname, "jumper." In
the Prairies the mule deer is dubbed "jumper," in recognition
of its stiff-legged bouncing gait. Elsewhere people may mean
the white-tail when they use the term, referring to that
animal’s irregular jumping gallop when alarmed.
Signs and sounds
Abundant food makes almost any forested or bushy area
suitable for white-tailed deer during the summer, but as snow
deepens the deer concentrate in "deer yards," or areas that
provide food and shelter from storms and deep snow. Sometimes
the move from summer to winter range requires travelling many
The doe leaves her fawn unattended for hours at a
time. When the fawn remains bedded, the natural camouflage of
its spotted coat and its almost scentless condition
effectively conceal it from predators. The doe returns at
intervals to suckle the fawn.
People sometimes chance
to find fawns in their secluded hiding places and mistakenly
believe they have been deserted by their mothers. In fact, a
doe will rarely desert her fawn, and the little animals should
not be touched. Human scent on the fawn may cause the doe to
Of all North America’s large animals, the white-tailed deer
is the most widely distributed and the most numerous. Its
range extends from the southern tip of the continent northward
well into the boreal, or northern coniferous, forest.
Scattered individuals occur as far north as Great Slave Lake.
In southern Canada, the white-tailed deer can be found from
Cape Breton Island westward to south-central British Columbia.
There were at least 15 million white-tails in Canada and
the United States in 1982. Average densities throughout its
range exceeded three deer per square kilometre.
are 16 recognized subspecies of white-tailed deer in North
America. Only three of these are found in Canada. The northern
white-tailed deer is found throughout eastern Canada, from
about the Ontario-Manitoba border eastward to Cape Breton. The
brushy draws (valleys), parklands, and forest fringes of the
prairies, westward to the foothills of the Rockies, are
inhabited by the Dakota white-tailed deer. The tawny
northwestern white-tailed deer is found in southeastern
British Columbia, occasionally straying down the eastern
slopes of the continental divide into Alberta.
White-tailed deer are relative newcomers to much of
the range they now occupy in Canada. When Europeans first
explored the northern half of the continent they found deer in
only the most southerly parts of Canada and this situation had
not changed much at Confederation. At that time there were no
deer in Nova Scotia and they were not numerous in New
Brunswick. Deer were in southern Quebec and their range
extended some distance down the St. Lawrence River and up the
Ottawa River. Although deer were numerous in southern Ontario,
none had penetrated northward beyond Lake Nipissing. There
were a few white-tailed deer in south-central Manitoba, but
most of the remainder of the Prairie Provinces was populated
by only the mule deer.
Since then human activities,
including the cutting and burning of blocks of forests, the
seeding of agricultural crops, the winter feeding of cattle,
the reduction of competitors such as mule deer, elk, moose,
and bison, and the restriction on hunting of white-tails have
helped this deer to extend its range northward and westward.
Long-term easing of the severity of winters may have been an
important factor. Whatever the exact combination of causes,
the range of the white-tailed deer extended considerably
during the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.
Extension of range and development of substantial populations
have been somewhat more recent in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and
British Columbia than elsewhere in Canada. Thus, the current
range of most white-tailed deer in Canada represents a marked
recent extension of northern limits. It is not surprising,
therefore, that severe winters and changes in habitats cause
marked sporadic declines in population levels through much of
the currently occupied Canadian range.
white-tailed deer shares some parts of its western range with
its relations the black-tailed deer and the mule deer.
During the spring and summer the white-tailed deer’s diet
consists of leafy material from a variety of woody plants,
grasses, herbs, and forbs. It also includes such delicacies as
fiddleheads, mushrooms, and blueberries. When summer’s lush
vegetation turns brown and dry in autumn, the deer must depend
largely on the twigs and buds that are within their reach.
Acorns are a favourite autumn food for white-tailed deer
living in eastern Canada, and in Western Canada grain piles
left in fields attract white-tailed deer throughout the autumn
and winter. Even in winter white-tailed deer consume green
forage, such as winter-green forbs, grasses, and sedges.
Even the most favourable winter concentration areas
have a limited food supply. If there are too many deer using
the area, the most nutritious fodder disappears rapidly,
leaving foods of only marginal value for the remainder of the
winter. Deep snow worsens the problem. When snow is deeper
than 40 cm, deer find it increasingly difficult to move about
freely and tend to follow previously broken trails. The
quantity and quality of food that can be reached from these
trails further limit nutritional intake at the very time that
intense cold and difficult travel tend to increase the deer’s
Converting surplus fat stored
during the late summer and early autumn meets some of this
energy requirement, but once this remaining source of energy
has been depleted, there is less likelihood of the deer
surviving until spring. If food remains scarce and the deer
begin to break down muscle tissue for energy, then the chances
of survival become extremely poor. It is not surprising that
those that do survive a severe winter return to their summer
ranges as little more than gaunt shadows of their sleek autumn
form. The green growth of spring brings welcome relief.
Deer reproduce quickly. A healthy herd is capable of almost
doubling its numbers during one favourable year. Under
favourable conditions, female fawns tend to breed at six to
seven months and at 12 months of age produce singletons, or
one baby. Male fawns and male yearlings are sexually mature
but are seldom given a chance to breed.
white-tailed deer’s spotted, wobbly legged fawns, weighing 2
to 4 kg at birth, are born in late spring. Although birth
may take place from late March to early August, most fawns are
born during the last week of May or the first week of June. On
high quality range twin fawns are the rule, although single
births are quite common among younger females, especially
those giving birth for the first time. Triplets are relatively
uncommon and quadruplets occur only rarely. On poorer ranges
or after a severe winter single births usually outnumber
double births and multiple births do not occur.
newborn fawn can get to its feet within minutes, and very soon
takes its first nourishment from the doe’s rich milk; however,
it remains relatively feeble during the first week or so of
As the fawn grows stronger it begins to
follow the mother about during her feeding and soon learns to
supplement its milk diet by nibbling on succulent vegetation.
The doe, meantime, like other adult members of the deer herd,
has been feeding steadily on new spring vegetation. She has
entered the spring period in lean condition and with a shabby,
tattered winter coat. Gradually the coarse grey winter coat is
replaced by the fine reddish summer coat. Improved food supply
results in both doe and fawn becoming sleek and sturdy by
In the early spring the antlers of the male
begin to show as twin dark protrusions from the frontal bones
of the head. Growth of the antlers and regaining of body
weight continue rapidly through the late spring and early
summer. Antlers are true bones and during growth have both an
internal supply of blood through the pedicels, or branches,
and an external supply in the hairy skin covering of the
velvet. In late summer during advanced growth the antlers
appear bulbous and distended under the velvet. The shortening
days of late summer terminate growth of the antlers.
The velvet dries and begins to peel off, revealing the
hard bony tissue beneath. Bucks rub their antlers against
brush and small trees to speed this process. The antlers are
usually shed in January although shedding may occur from
December through March.
White-tailed deer are truly
magnificent specimens in the early autumn. Their bodies are
rounded out by reserves of fat stored for the lean months
ahead. The new thick winter coat exaggerates the thickness and
sturdiness of the body. Fawns have lost their spots and are
now short-faced, smaller replicas of their parents. Most of
the breeding occurs during the last three weeks of November
although some fawns and yearlings breed in December and,
rarely, into January. The peak of the rut, or period of male
sexual activity, occurs during the last two weeks in November
in Canada but is more variable in the southern U.S. Bucks with
swollen necks, caused by hormones associated with the rut,
travel almost incessantly, searching out the does and engaging
in mock battles with their rivals. Sometimes a real battle
develops, and occasionally the antlers of the combatants
become hopelessly entangled, leaving both to die slowly.
Deer in Canada are relatively free of serious diseases or
parasites. In much of their range their natural predators,
such as the timber wolf, coyote, bobcat, and mountain lion,
have been greatly reduced in number and infrequently exert
substantial pressure on the deer. Most of the predation on
fawns occurs during the first few weeks of life. Free-roaming
dogs do sometimes take a heavy toll on deer of all ages,
particularly in late winter when crusted snow aids the dogs
but hinders the weakened deer.
Although a series of
severe winters may tend to shrink the range of the
white-tailed deer in Canada, a few favourable years permit it
to rebuild substantial populations, and even extend its range
Maintaining healthy stocks of
white-tailed deer is primarily a matter of keeping numbers of
deer in balance with their supply of winter food. People
engaged in activities that alter the landscape can improve the
availability of food and shelter for deer, particularly during
harsh winters. For example, logging in the forest, which
normally favours deer by opening the high canopy so that new
growth will start on the forest floor, can be made even more
beneficial to the deer if cover is left in place to shelter
them from the deep snow. In eastern Canada, hemlock is the
best cover, followed by cedar, balsam, spruce, and pine. In
areas where brushy or woodland cover is scarce, such as on the
prairies, suitable habitat can be saved from land clearing for
Given adequate food and shelter, healthy
deer populations grow rapidly if the annual increment of
animals is not hunted. Overpopulation invariably leads to
pressure on food supplies, which results in malnutrition, even
in the face of heavy predation. Too many deer can do immense
damage to their winter range, depleting suitable browse
species and sometimes preventing regeneration of valuable
forest trees. Moderately heavy hunting helps prevent these
natural catastrophes by holding deer numbers in check while,
at the same time, providing recreation and valuable meat.
Surveys indicate that the legal kill of white-tails in
1978 was 125 000 in Canada and 1 875 000 in the
U.S. By 1982, the legal kill in the U.S. had risen to about
Banfield, A.W.F. 1974. Mammals of Canada. National Museum
of Canada, Toronto.
Halls, L.K., editor. 1984. White-tailed deer. Wildlife
Institute Management Book. Stackpole, Harrisburg,
Hesselton, W.T., and R.A.M. Hesselton. 1982. White-tailed
deer (Odocoileus virginianus). In J.A.
Chapman and G.H. Feldhamer, editors. Wild mammals of North
America: Biology, management, and economics. The Johns Hopkins
University Press, Baltimore and London.
Rue, L.L., III. 1962. The world of the white-tailed deer.
Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Taylor, W.P., editor. 1956. The deer of North America.
Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by
the Minister of the Environment, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1973, 1988,
1990. All rights reserved.
Catalogue number CW69-4/7-1990E
Text: R.C. Passmore
1987; F.L. Miller, 1989
Photo: Canadian Wildlife