White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)
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White-tailed deer are the smallest of the three members of the deer family found in Michigan, the others being elk and moose. They range throughout Michigan and are a game animal in this state. As a species, the extend from the southern edge of the arctic prairies in Canada, all the way to the northern bank of the Amazon River.
"White-tailed" refers to the distinctive white tail that when raised is a flag and provides a flash of white, signaling other deer when there is danger. Deer are graceful and swift runners (up to 35 miles per hour), but do not generally run long distances, preferring to seek the nearest shelter whenever possible. Male deer are called "bucks", females "does" and baby deer "fawns". These deer tend to live in female-led family groups of up to 25 deer and may live to ten years or more.
Their size ranges between 125 to 225 pounds, although really healthy bucks may be even larger. Their coat is a reddish-brown color in the summer, but becomes much more gray in the winter. This change helps to hide them as the colors of their environment change. Their tubular or hollow hairs provide insulation, allowing them to lie on snow without melting it, as well as creating enough buoyancy for swimming.
For the first few weeks of a white-tailed deer fawn's life, its mother will "cache" it in a secluded glade when she heads out to forage and then will return periodically to nurse the fawn. A fawn's spots help to hide it from predators. The spots fade in the fall, when the fawn is three months old.
Males and occasionally females have antlers, which are made from bone and are shed annually, usually mid-winter (new ones are grown in the spring). It may be surprising then that antlers are rarely found in the woods. Since they are rich in calcium and other nutrients, antlers are usually eaten by animals such as porcupines, rabbits and rodents soon after they are shed. Although older bucks generally do have larger antlers, the size and number of points of a buck's antlers are primarily dependent upon the amount of nutrients, vitamins and minerals in the deer's diet, not their age.
Deer have a good sense of smell, keen hearing and eyesight, but they are color blind, which is why they may not notice humans dressed in "hunter orange." They forage on a wide variety of plant materials, including twigs, fungi, and shoots.
White-tail deer are found in every Michigan county. Unlike many of our native species the white tail has flourished because of its ability to adapt to disturbed areas, alteration of forest habitat, and our hodgepodge of land use practices. White-tail use a wide variety of habitat types. Even in dunes, which are not usually thought of as deer habitat, white-tails are common summer residents. Although they do not migrate, white-tailed deer shift between winter and summer ranges during the year.
Deer are ruminants, like cows and have four stomachs. In the first stomach, called the rumen, microorganisms break down plant tissue. Like cows, deer will occasionally regurgitate food and "chew their cud" to aid in the breakdown of food particles. The remaining three stomachs complete the digestion process.
Deer have been a valuable resource in Michigan since the first Native Americans began to hunt them. Prior to European settlement, Michigan had an abundant deer herd in the south. The mixture of hardwoods, wetlands, bogs and forest openings was perfect for deer. There were few deer in the virgin forests of the north, which were inhabited mostly by elk and moose. The mature trees were so dense that sunlight could not reach the forest floor and therefore little deer food was available.
As farmers and settlers moved into southern Michigan, deer were exterminated by removal of cover and by unregulated shooting - deer were mostly gone by 1870. Logging of forests in the north produced an opposite effect--more openings, brush, and young forests - the northern herd climbed to estimated 1 million deer in the 1880s.
As railroads were developed and provided access into the wilderness, market hunters slaughtered hundreds of thousands of deer. Early measures to control market hunting were not very successful, but finally in 1895 a law, which really marked the beginning of deer management in Michigan, established a deer hunting season and limited the number of deer that could be harvested.
What followed were decades of ups and downs in the deer population resulting from changes in hunting regulations and available habitat, compounded by a lack of natural predators.
In 1914, Game Commissioner William R. Oates estimated that there were only 45,000 deer in Michigan and recommended changing regulations so only antlered deer could be taken by hunters, as this would increase the size of the deer herd. The deer herd began to rebound. Some of the increase was due to habitat changes as logged-over areas produced deer browse. In addition, shrubs and other deer foods developed in many areas that had been cleared for agriculture, but abandoned.
By 1930, the abundance of deer was recognized. The first discussion of deer-vehicle accidents began. There was also a significant amount of winter starvation and over-browsing in cedar swamps where field investigators reported a shortage of food and cover for the growing herd. Mr. Ilo Bartlett, the state's first deer biologist, reported that there were 1.125 million deer in the state in 1937 and he began to talk about the "Deer Problem." About 1/3 of the deer at this time were in the Upper Peninsula and 2/3 in the northern Lower Peninsula- only a very few deer were present in southern Michigan.
Despite the state's attempt to provide more hunting lands and to place more deer habitat in public ownership, the deer problem continued until the herd peaked at about 1.5 million deer in the late 1940s. At first with small hunts beginning in 1941 and then in larger ones, antlerless deer were once again allowed to be taken by hunters in an attempt reduce the size of the deer herd. However, before that could happen, the habitat for deer collapsed, due to a combination of pressure from a large herd and an increase in forested areas - mature stands of timber once again began to appear on formerly logged lands. The deer population once again dropped.
To answer the habitat problem, the Department of Conservation developed a Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP) and a goal of 1 million deer was established for spring 1981. The success of the DRIP, along with series of mild winters in the 1980s and artificial feeding of deer by the public, further propelled the herd to a new peak of 2 million deer in 1989. Signs of distress in the herd appeared again. Deer-vehicle accidents exceeded 40,000 per year with an average of 5 people killed and 1,500 injured each year. Crop damage reappeared.
In the late 1980s, the Department of Natural Resources reaffirmed its goal of 1.3 million deer in the fall herd (which was biologically the same as the 1971 goal of 1 million deer in the spring herd) and continues to work toward that goal. Unfortunately, the large deer herd has begun to have a significant impact on their own habitat and the habitats of other animals. In some areas, they have nearly eliminated certain plants, which may provide food and or shelter for other wildlife.
The build-up of deer in urban and suburban areas has also become a challenge. Other than fencing, nonlethal control methods have usually been unsuccessful or impractical, and lethal controls have eventually been applied. Management of deer in urban and suburban settings will provide many future opportunities for public education and involvement.