The sight of a deer in the distance often makes us stop in our tracks to admire these creatures from afar. But be still and quiet, because white-tailed deer are nervous and shy.
Today, we take deer for granted as part of our environment, always present but often unseen. They have a long history in North America, but they haven’t always thrived in Illinois. Learn more about white-tailed deer and the role they play in our natural habitat.
A conservation success story
Deer today are common throughout their natural range. It is estimated that between 8 million and 15 million of these hoofed animals live across North America.
In Illinois, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has adopted a deer management policy to “maintain a healthy and balanced deer herd.” Hunting and other measures are necessary to maintain a healthy deer population because they can exceed their carrying capacity, which is the number of organisms an area can support without degrading the environment.
In northern Illinois, the deer population can exceed the carrying capacity for a few reasons. First, if we experience mild winters, the deer have an abundant food supply. And we also no longer have a large supply of carnivores, such as wolves or cougars, that are natural predators of deer, which naturally helps control their population.
While the deer population today requires management to prevent it from getting so high that they are destructive to the environment, the opposite was true at the turn of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, deer were rare in Illinois.
Deer populations were critically low for a number of reasons, including changes in how land was being used and developed and the lack of hunting regulations. To protect the deer, lawmakers enacted laws to outlaw hunting, but it took decades for the population to recover.
A healthy habitat and a healthy diet
White-tailed deer can survive in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, grasslands, swamplands and desert-like areas. In Illinois, deer are well adapted to the mix of urban, suburban, rural, forested and agricultural pockets.
A good habitat includes an ample supply of food for deer, which are herbivores. Their diet can vary based on the season and what’s available in their home range. For example, in suburban areas they eat primarily grasses, while in agricultural areas they may rely more on crops such as corn and soybeans. They also eat twigs, leaves and fruits such as crabapple and apples.
In the summer and fall, they eat more high-protein foods so they can bulk up in advance of mating season and to help them survive winter, when food is scarce. When snow covers the ground, deer have more difficulty finding food and often have to paw at the ground to get to the vegetation under the snow.
The white-tailed deer is named for the physical features of its tail, but there’s more to a deer’s tail than the color. The tails can be between 4 inches and 11 inches long, and only the underside of the tail is white. They flash the white part when they are startled or alarmed.
Deer are mostly brown in color. The shade can vary from grayish-brown to reddish-brown. They have white fur on the underside of their tails and around their eyes, behind their nose, in their ears and along the inside of their legs.
White-tailed deer are the smallest of the deer in North America. They typically stand about 2½ to 3½ feet tall at the shoulder, and they weigh between 125 pounds and 300 pounds. Males are larger than females, and only the males grow antlers.
White-tailed deer are shy, preferring to remain unseen. They are crepuscular, which means they are most active from dusk to dawn, when they look for food.
Deer are mostly solitary, although the females, called does, and their babies, called fawns, create family units that stay together for a year or two after birth. It’s also not unusual to see large groups of deer foraging together at dusk and dawn.
Deer are fast and agile, able to run at speeds of 30 miles per hour. They can leap up to 10 feet in the air and jump as far as 30 feet. They are also able to swim.
We think of deer as quiet creatures, but they do communicate with other deer using different sounds, including bleats, grunts and wheezes. Deer are also able to communicate with one another by secreting oils from scent glands on their hooves.
The motherly nature of female deer was made famous in the classic Disney movie “Bambi,” but Bambi and his family were not white-tailed. Bambi is a mule deer, which is a related species of deer that live across much of the western United States, particularly the Rocky Mountain region.
Mule deer and white-tailed deer look similar, but mule deer have bigger ears and black-tipped tails. The does of both species are attentive mothers, but being a good mother involves often leaving the fawns alone so they aren’t discovered by predators such as coyotes.
A doe typically has between one and three fawns at a time, and they are born weighing between 4 pounds and 7 pounds. The babies can stand and even run just a few hours after birth, but they mostly remain motionless and hidden away for a few weeks after birth.
For the first few weeks of their life, the mothers will return to their fawns twice a day to nurse them. After about a month, the fawns will begin to eat grass and other vegetation, often following their mothers around while foraging for food. Young male deer will leave their mothers after about a year, while the females stay by their mothers’ sides for about two years.
Why they matter
Deer were important to Native Americans and early settlers because they provided a reliable food source and their hides and bones could be used for blankets, tools and other supplies. Today, deer are beloved by many and also provide recreational opportunities.
Deer serve as prey for coyotes in Illinois, but they have few other predators in our area. They help encourage plant growth when they forage on tree branches and buds, but in severe winters or when their population is too big they can be destructive to the vegetation in their habitat.
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