The Wild Truth
By Winslow Umberger
Among the joys of mountain living is the delightful experience of watching whitetail deer in the wild. Small and graceful, the whitetail gets its name from its long, broad tail, which is brown above and white below. Our vast forests, open fields and streams offer outstanding habitat in which to mate, bear young and thrive. Happily, beginning now, deer sightings will increase as they emerge from their sheltered stands of evergreens in search of food.
Currently on the prowl for tender buds and shoots of new growth, it was feasting on red and white oak acorns that helped sustain them over the winter. “These nuts are an important food source for them,” says Justin McVey, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). “If given a choice, deer definitely prefer the milder tasting white oak acorn. The tannin content of red oaks makes for a bitterer tasting acorn, but, since not every tree produces every single year, they feed on what’s available.”
Wintertime is not just hunkering-down time; it is also mating time. “The whitetail deer’s peak breeding season is around December 3,” says McVey. “If a doe fails to mate, she will go into another cycle 28-30 days later, birthing the first fawns in late springtime. The ‘fawn drop’ in our area, however, is spread out and it is not unusual to see young ones in December.”
The deer’s grayish, thick winter coat thins out in early spring, resulting in a shorter coat, reddish-tan in hue. Male deer will shed their antlers and begin to grow new ones. Comprised of a honeycomb, bone-like tissue, it is the fastest growing tissue on earth—growing up to one-half inch per day beginning in spring and continuing through summer. Spring season is also fawning season, with does birthing one, two or sometimes three fawns. When fawns are born, the mother still needs to graze. Before she goes off to forage, she hides her fawn from danger. “This is the time when well-meaning citizens try to rescue what they believe is an orphaned fawn. The fact is mom has ‘told’ him to lie there and, instinctually, he won’t move a muscle until she returns,” says McVey. “And, while fawns are not odorless, this practice keeps them generally safe from predators.”
Encountering a small herd of grazing deer is a thrilling sight. If they catch sight of you or, more likely, hear you, they will take off running, flipping up their tails as a warning flag to other deer that danger is near. Enjoying their activities in the wild is appropriate; enticing them to your property with deer apples and salt licks is to be discouraged. “We encourage folks not to feed wildlife,” says McVey. “There is actually no biological argument for humans feeding wildlife. Moreover, deer congregating at a well-meaning ‘feeding station’ are more at risk of catching diseases from one another.”
Altering the natural behaviors of wildlife is never a good idea. The only human intervention that may be necessary is when one comes across a truly orphaned fawn. In that case, calling the NCWRC wildlife intervention line at 866.318.2401 is advised. McVey’s recommendation: Just enjoy these fascinating and graceful creatures from a distance and rejoice in the fact you will have ample opportunities to do so for many seasons to come.
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured and orphaned native wildlife and support our area’s licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Learn more at AppalachianWild.org.