White-Tailed Deer

A Wisconsin State Animal

Able to leap tall fences in a single bound, the white-tailed deer is an animal of incredible beauty and power. The white-tailed deer is one of Wisconsin's official wildlife animals and North America's most abundant big-game animal. Read on to find out more about the white-tail.


Oh Deer...

The white-tailed deer is a large, brown animal found throughout Wisconsin. Deer prefer to live near forests and agricultural areas, such as crop fields, because these areas provide food and cover for them. Deer have hooved feet, slender bodies, and long, thin legs. Don't let their skinny legs fool you. Deer are able to run up to 40 miles per hour, jump 9 foot fences, and swim 13 miles per hour.

The male deer is called a buck. Bucks are easy to identify in the summer and fall because they grow a set of antlers (also called a rack) each year. The rack is made of bone and has points, called tines. Many tines on a buck's rack tell us that the deer is healthy and lives in a good habitat. A buck's antlers reach full growth in the fall. You may see a buck rubbing his antlers on a tree in early fall to get rid of the soft velvet that protected his new antlers. As the buck rubs off the velvet, the antlers will become ivory-colored at the tips. In the winter, bucks shed their antlers.

During the mating season, also called the "rut," bucks fight for territory and the privilege of mating with the most female deer. Bucks will crash antlers to claim this territory. They don't usually get hurt during the fights. A buck will also mark his territory by stomping on the ground to make "scrapes" on the land and rubbing his antlers on trees, called a "buck rub."

The female deer is called a doe. She gives birth to young, called fawns, in May or June. A doe may give birth to one, two, or three fawns at a time. A fawn's coat is reddish brown with small white spots. This coloring helps the young fawn blend in with the forest. Blending in with the habitat is called camouflage, and it is one way an animal adapts to its environment. The spots on a fawn disappear when the fawn completes its first molt (gets a winter coat), at about five months old.

The white-tailed deer is an herbivore—it eats plants. Deer graze on tree leaves, broadleaved herbs, and berries in the summer and acorns, grass, and herbs during the fall. During the winter, deer munch on white cedar, twigs, nuts, fruits, and corn and in the spring deer eat grass, wheat, and alfalfa. Deer have a four-chambered stomach that allows them to digest these plant foods. They gobble up their food quickly and hardly even chew. Later as they are resting, they cough up their food and re-chew it—so much for table manners.


Deer at the Dentist

It sounds silly, but deer are actually aged by checking their teeth, not by counting points on antlers. A trained biologist looks at both the type of teeth the deer has as well as how worn they are. Deer have a set of baby teeth just like humans. They are born with four teeth and in the next few months develop baby incisors and premolars. By the time they are about 18 months old, permanent teeth will have replaced the baby teeth. An adult will have six incisors and two canines in the lower front, six premolars and six molars in the lower back and the same in the upper back. A quick glance at the premolars tells a biologist whether the animal is a fawn, youth or an adult.

After all of the white-tail's permanent teeth have come in, biologists look for the amount of wear on the molars, which lose about 1 millimeter of height each year. The height of the tooth above the gum line on all three molars is used to determine deer age.

Signs of the Time

Deer leave many signs behind. These signs tell us some interesting things about deer. It's great fun to look for these signs.

If you get a chance to go hiking this fall, here are a few things to look for:

deer track

  • Tracks - Deer tracks are heart-shaped. The track is made by a deer's hooves, also called toenails. The pointed end of the track points to where the deer was going.
  • Trails - Deer travel in narrow paths called trails. Trails usually connect where the deer eats and where it rests. Can you find a deer trail? Where do you think the deer was heading?
  • Deer beds - Just like your bed at home, deer have places on the ground where they lay down to rest. These areas are called deer beds. Deer beds are usually surrounded by plants or shrubs to protect the deer from rain or snow. Deer beds are easy to spot in the snow. Generally deer beds are 3-4 feet long and 1 ½ feet wide.
  • Buck rubs - Bucks mark their territory by removing bark from trees with their antlers. This is called a "buck rub." Look for buck rubs on trees from September to November. Buck rubs are usually one to two feet high off the ground.
  • Feeding signs - A deer does not have upper teeth in the front of its mouth. The deer uses its back teeth to twist off twigs to eat. What would the end of a twig bitten off by a deer look like compared to an animal with pointed teeth?

(adapted from WILD in the City Series - White-tailed Deer by Beth Mittermaier)

Hunting Season

To learn more about hunting in Wisconsin check out Deer Hunting in Wisconsin (Leaves EEK!) on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources site. Also sign up for one of DNR's hunter education classes (Leaves EEK!).