Wildlife - Species

White-tailed Deer (Odocolleus virginianus)


White-tailed deer are easily identified by the white underside of their tail, which is visible as the animal flees. They have a reddish-brown coat during most of the year, but their fur turns a grayish color during the winter. Adult white-tailed deer have a white belly and throat patch and a white band across the nose. Males grow their first set of antlers, which are shed on a yearly basis, during the summer of their first year. Antlers get progressively bigger as the deer matures; however, the size of a deer’s antlers is more related to the general health of the animal than to its age. White-tailed deer stand approximately 1 meter (3 ft) at the shoulder and are approximately 2 meters (6 ft) long. They range in weight from 20 to 160 kg (50 to 350 lbs), with an average of about 60 kg (125 lbs). Males generally are larger and heavier than females. Young, called fawns, exhibit white spots on their fur until after their first year.

Preferred Habitat and Biology

White-tailed deer range from southern Canada throughout all of the continental United States except for portions of the far West. They inhabit all of South Carolina, from coastal marshes to mountain forests, but have a preference for mixed young forests, old fields, and croplands.

The following discussion of whitetail natural history is summarized from Moore (1978). Male and female deer reach sexual maturity at 1.5 years of age or during their second fall. White-tails are polygamous breeders, with one male mating several females during the breeding season, which extends from late August through January. The gestation period ranges from 190 to 210 days. A doe giving birth for the first time generally bears a single fawn, with successive birthings often producing twins Sex ratio of new-borns is generally even with more males born in overpopulated herds and more females born in expanding herds (Verme 1985). Most deer herds in the ACE Basin are overpopulated and would produce slightly more male fawns than female. The mother nurses them for 8 months, after which time the young deer may remain with their mother for up to 1 year before setting out on their own. Many reproductive characteristics of the population, such as timing of breeding, fertility rates, conception rates, age at first breeding, and sex ratios, are dependent upon population density, habitat conditions, and genetics (Jacobson and Guynn 1995).

Male fawns exhibit rudimentary antler growth, resulting in small knobs known as "buttons." Noticeable antler growth, usually two or more antler points, occurs on second year or yearling bucks. Antler development is largely dependent on adequate nutrition. Older deer generally have heavier, better-developed racks than younger animals if nutrition is comparable.

Bucks shed their antlers each year unless there is injury or physiological stress. Shedding typically begins in late December and peaks in mid-February, with few antlered deer seen by early March. Once shedding is complete, new growth immediately begins, with mature antlers present in 3-4 months. During summer, antlers are soft, engorged with blood, and covered with a hair-like membrane called "velvet." Antlers become solid and hard in late summer or early fall when annual growth is completed. The "velvet" is sloughed or rubbed off on shrubs and trees.

White-tailed deer are fairly social animals. As such, they employ two means of communicating with each other. The first method of communication involves the white patch under a deer’s tail which is only visible as the animal flees. It is thought that this behavior maintains a social group’s cohesiveness in a dangerous situation, such as when escaping from a predator. Each individual animal has a better chance of survival by staying in a group. Thus, the white patch serves as a "flag" for other deer to follow. Another important means of communication among deer is scent. Seven glandular areas on the body of a deer have been identified. Glands produce chemicals that are secreted at particular times for specific purposes. For instance, deer may get information on dominance status, reproductive state, sex, and condition from sniffing each other's tarsal gland, which is located on the inside of the hind legs.

Deer are diverse foragers, eating twigs, leaves, bark, and other herbaceous material such as grasses, weeds, and soft-stemmed plants. Deer also eats acorns, other nuts, fruit, mushrooms, algae, and mosses. Soil type, succulence, and seasonal occurrence of forage species affect utilization of food by deer. They forage primarily at dusk and dawn, but may also feed during the day.

Species Significance

White-tailed deer are eagerly sought-after by hunters throughout their range. In South Carolina, deer hunting season varies in the different Game Zones and Wildlife Management Areas. Generally, it extends from August 15 to January 1.

The white-tailed deer is not an endangered or threatened species. However, deer populations in some areas of the United States are not healthy. They have out-of-balance male to female ratios, which puts a social and reproductive stress on the population, and poor nutrition. Among the contributing factors are increasing numbers of deer with few natural predators, human encroachment into deer habitat, and poor deer management strategies. Their abundance in some parts of the country has even earned white-tailed deer "pest" status.


Golley, F.B. 1966. South Carolina mammals. Charleston Museum, Charleston, SC.

Jacobson, H.A. and D.C. Guynn, Jr. 1995. A primer. p. 81-102. In: K.V. Miller and R.L. Marchinton (eds.). Quality whitetails: The why and how of quality deer management. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Miller, K.V. 1994. Why the white tail? Quality Whitetails 1:30.

Miller, K.V. 1995. Deer scent communication: What do we really know? Quality Whitetails 2(2):16-17.

Moore, G. 1978. Natural history. p. 174-175. In: J. Culler (ed.). Carolina's hunting heritage. South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, Columbia, SC.

Ozoga, J.J. 1995. Whitetail welfare. Quality Whitetails 2(1):19-21.

Verme, L.J. 1985. Progeny sex ratio relationships in deer: Theoretical vs. observed. Journal of Wildlife Management 49(1):134-136.

Webster, W.D., J.F. Parnell, and W.C. Biggs. 1985. Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Whitaker, J.O. 1980. The Audubon Society field guide to North American mammals. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.