Social Behavior of Whitetail Deer
Without question, humans have a huge impact on the behavior of a whitetail since it largely depends on the environment surrounding the animal. Comparably, research shows that the intelligence of a whitetail has much to do with the concentration of bowhunters and gun hunters in the area. Smart deer are typically the ones that survive. Those who survive will therefore pass their tactics along to their offspring.
The American Indians believed that the moon, wind and rain had a direct effect on the deer. Current studies show that deer activity varies depending on temperature, moon phases and even barometric pressure. Some veteran deer hunters believe that they can tell when it will rain by simply monitoring deer activity.
The most active time period for deer is at night. However, research on night activity is tough to conduct due to the lack of light. One reason for this nocturnal pattern is that deer find security at night, when most predators, including humans, are asleep. The deer's cautious nature is apparent when you consider that they never sleep in the same bed twice. This prevents predators from keying in on the deer's scent and waiting for the deer to return. In addition, deer do not sleep for long periods of time. Rather, they are in somewhat of a semi-sleep state--always alert of their surroundings.
Although deer are considered social animals who group together in herds, the sexes are divided. Whitetails are polygamous animals. Therefore, a family consisting of a mother, father and offspring are seldom heard of. Except for during the breeding phase, a buck will almost never be seen with a doe. Interestingly, and more importantly, deer use urine as a method of communicating with each other.
A fawn is newborn whitetail. These “babies” are generally weaned at 12 weeks. During that period, they spend most, if not all, of their time with their mothers; seeking a strong adult leadership to help them as they travel over long distances. Fawns typically learn certain behaviors while in small groups. This includes learning how to run, jump and react swiftly in the face of danger and predators. For the mother, adult doe, rearing fawns is easier when there is adequate cover for hiding. Fawns often find difficulty “hiding” after birth. The reason for this is because fawns are born in the spring, when plant growth is just beginning.
Fawns acquire their exercise through playful games with other fawns. These exercises help the youngsters develop their lung capacity in addition to helping them sharpen their minds and learning skills. However, fawns must be careful at this stage of their lives because they are at their peak of fragility. This period of time is also marked with behavioral problems that cause the newborn fawn to seek seclusion and become extremely aggressive towards intruders of their own species.
Yearly on, fawns use the natural camouflage of their hide as a critical means of survival. For instance, the white spots that are scattered among their reddish brown coat helps them blend well with the fallen leaves on the forest floor. When the fawn beds down for the night, they tuck in their hind and four legs and bend their head back to completely disguise themselves. After the fawn is weaned, it will lose this birth coat and replace it with a grayish coat which camouflages well with the deciduous forests. As the winter months arrive, their coat turns gray with reddish brown tips. A male fawn's face will grow darker while his belly remains white.
Winter brings long harsh climates for the fawn to endure. During this time, yearlings can die easily because food is scarce and their fragile bodies cannot outlast the cold snow. Fawn populations have been known to be cut in half during the course of a winter. However, those who outlast this difficult time can look forward to a new spring and with it, the birth of new fawns.
The doe is a female deer. She will lead a very separate life style from a buck; does will travel in small groups consisting of an older female and her relatives. This doe “leader” tends to be the one who breeds and fawns first in the group, as well as the one who picks the most favorable fawn raising area. Unless harsh conditions force them to relocate, does will stay within a familiar area for most of their lives. During the fawning process, does tend to pick an area close to water and thick cover; they will typically occupy the same area across many generations.
Over time, as populations increase and does' territories overlap, aggression towards other family groups frequently occurs. At the first sign of trouble, the doe will raise her head in alertness. As the other doe comes closer, the alert doe will rush at her adversary and kick with her front legs. This continues between both does until one doe gains dominance over the other.
The Gestation period of a doe lasts approximately 7 months. Adult does will breed between the months of August through January, depending upon the area's geographical location. Does are usually pursued by the bucks, although in areas with a small buck population, it is suggested that the roles may become reversed. However, little else changes in a doe’s life during the breeding season.
During the spring, does will give birth. Studies have shown that a doe has some control over when she will give birth. This selectivity allows the doe to insure that she has selected an area that is safe and free of predators. Just before a fawn is to be born, the pregnant doe will isolated her from the other does in order to seek a suitable area to give birth. A doe will usually birth between 1 and 4 fawns with approximately 15 to 20 minutes separating each newborn. The average death rate for a single doe’s fawns is between 10% - 15%. This is typically the result of predators and birth defects.
A doe will usually nurse its young for as long as it wants; however, the doe is quick to wean its young when the time comes to do so. Three weeks after birth, the fawns will begin eating from the surrounding vegetation. After 10 weeks, the doe rejects any attempt for the fawn to nurse; the fawn is now on its own. However, during the nursing period, the doe looks after its young with constant love and care. Many times, in an effort to lure predators away from their young, does will run in another direction (away from the fawn), thus distracting the predator. This care is reflected throughout the life of the doe and her offspring, as evidenced by the familial grouping of the doe and her relatives.
A male deer is called a buck. The size of the buck depends on many factors, including longevity, his herd's sex composition, age, and environmental conditions.
The most unique feature of a buck is his antlers. Antlers are bone which project outward from the bucks head. Antlers are believed to have evolved as a weapon to gain dominance over other bucks during breeding season. Each winter, the buck will shed his antlers, only to grow a new pair the next spring.
Deer are sociable, but only within their own sex. Therefore, upon reaching a mature age, around 16 months, a young buck leaves the female group where he was raised and sets out to find a male group of his own. When he arrives in this new group, he must prove his worth among his peers via competition. Only by rising in rank will a buck become the dominant herd sire.
Dominance is very important to the male deer. If challenged, a larger buck will go into a stare down with all the other bucks. Out of fear, most bucks will avoid eye contact. However, if a brave opponent is found, the two duelers will lock antlers, and then pull away. This occurs several times until one buck yields from the fight due to injuries.
The demeanor of a dominant buck is that of a proud and unafraid animal. With head held high and tail extended straight back, a dominant buck will seem to prance. Dominant bucks have distinguishing dark hair tufts covering his lower leg. These hairs become erect and move rhythmically as the deer walks in order to dispense the buck's unique glandular scent which distinguishes him as the sire of the entire herd.
A dominant buck may sometimes travel freely over an enormous range, including areas which are occupied by several other fraternal groups. He is called the dominant floater. A dominant floater may also posse’s high levels of testosterone. Dominant males commonly die young due to the stress involved with the breeding season. Many dominant bucks enter the winter months with low fat reserves due to the constant competition for a mate.