The Amazing White-tailed Deer: One Species That Has Benefited From Human ActivityApr 20, 2022 08:32AM ● By WILLIAM R. COX
The Florida white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus seminolus) is found in peninsular Florida. The whitetail gets its name from the white patch found under its 12-inch tail. This much-admired mammal is the number-one big game animal in Florida and the rest of the United States. It is important not only as a game animal, but also as an exciting subject for outdoor enthusiasts and nature photographers.
A buck in Florida is four to five feet long and stands 36 inches tall at the shoulders with an average weight of 125 pounds. The female is smaller, standing only 32 inches at the shoulders and weighing on average 95 pounds. Bucks in other states are larger, in the 40-inch range and averaging 175 pounds. The Florida whitetail’s smaller body size is beneficial in the warmer climate found throughout Florida in that less energy is needed to regulate body temperature.
Deer are particularly good swimmers and can leap over fences eight feet high and run up to 28 miles per hour.
The white-tailed deer has benefited from many human activities. Its numbers have increased as deep forests are cleared for agriculture. A reduction in its natural predators, better protection laws and enforcement, rapid reproduction, and habitat improvement have all contributed to an increase in the deer population. In our camping travels my wife and I have observed how much more abundant deer are in local, state, and national parks that include a mix of native forests and agricultural lands.
Deer feed on a variety of foods such as vines, fungus, berries, fruits, brush, grass, acorns, soybeans, corn, twigs, leaves, and many other plants. In areas of plentiful food, the white-tailed deer increases its population, body size, and antler development. Impressive antler development indicates that the deer population is living in harmony with the land. Anything less than impressive antlers indicates too many deer or not enough suitable food.
Habitat management is a key component in providing adequate food to support a healthy deer herd. Florida’s plants and animals have evolved with a regimen of prescribed burning, the most economical and beneficial habitat management tool for improving deer habitat. Fire releases nutrients locked up in older plants, which stimulates the new growth of many herbaceous plants for food and cover, converting an ecosystem low in energy into one with higher energy.
While the rut (breeding) for deer in most states starts in November, this is not true for most of Florida. Florida’s mild winters and long growing season allows fawning almost year-round. The timing of the rut in an area is determined by many environmental factors, including shorter daylight hours and lower temperatures.
During the rut a buck starts rubbing trees marking his territorial boundaries. Soon after he makes scrapes by pawing the ground and working on an overhead branch three to four feet above the scrape. While holding the branch by his mouth he uses his antlers to rub the branch across the pre-orbital glands in the corners of his eyes. Several scrapes are then selected by an older doe who deposits her scent there when she is in brief estrus one month prior to the rut.
These scrapes are constantly checked for scents by several bucks, especially one month later. The bucks leave their scents in these scrapes, as well as the overhanging branches. A doe in full estrus selects the superior buck by scent checking these scrapes. She can determine the health of a buck through this scent checking.
This is Mother Nature’s means of selective breeding. One thing I have learned over many years of observing deer behavior is the doe initiates and controls the rut, not the buck.
The doe gives birth to one to three fawns. Fawns are born with white spots that serve as protective camouflage. They lose their spots at three to four months of age.
The white-tailed deer’s natural predators in Florida include coyotes, Florida panthers, bobcats, and dogs. These amazing deer have remarkable eyesight and a keen sense of smell and hearing. After more than 40 years studying and photographing deer throughout North America, I am amazed by their sophisticated behavior and how they use their senses to locate food, mates, and predators.
William R. Cox has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.