Natural history of White-tailed Deer

The Northern Woodland White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus ssp. borealis) is a species of deer found throughout Quebec, including the St. Lawrence Lowland region (Bernhardt et al. n.d.). Its name comes from the white underside of its tail, which can be seen when the deer is alarmed (Rue 2004).

Figure 1. The white-tailed deer’s trademark tail can be seen when the deer is alarmed. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stern, 2013.

Figure 1. The white-tailed deer’s trademark tail can be seen when the deer is alarmed. Photo courtesy of Sarah Stern, 2013.

Within the St. Lawrence region, white-tailed deer can be found in conifer and hardwood forests. These brown-coated mammals are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dusk and dawn (Feldhamer and McShea 2012).

Figure 2. Infrared game camera captures a white-tailed deer in the Morgan arboretum. Photo courtesy of Munib Khanyari, 2013.

Figure 2. Infrared game camera captures a white-tailed deer in the Morgan arboretum. Photo courtesy of Munib Khanyari, 2013.

A white-tailed deer’s diet is primarily comprised of browse and forbs; however, because they are opportunistic, they have been known to eat birds and other small animals. Northern woodland white-tailed deer are among the largest of the subspecies, with adult bucks weighing about 100 kg and adult does weighing about 66 kg. Male deer have antlers that grow annually and are used to defend territory or fight over a potential mate (Geist 1998, cited in Innes 2013). Antlers may also be a secondary sexual trait; a study from 2000 found a link between antler development and pathogen resistance, suggesting that antler development may be a signal of male genetic quality (Ditchkoff et al. 2001). Baby deer, called fawns, are precocial, but they lack the muscle strength to outrun predators. Instead, they have white spots on their back and are almost odourless, which helps them camouflage with the background. As the fawn grows older and stronger, it will develop stronger scent glands and lose its spots, as it will be able to rely on speed to escape from predators (Feldhamer and McShea 2012).

Figure 3. Scent glands are found all over the deer’s body, and are used for communication with other deer (Rue, 2004)

Figure 3. Scent glands are found all over the deer’s body, and are used for communication with other deer (Rue, 2004)

White-tailed deer are not a migratory species; studies have shown that they usually stay within the same range (about one square mile) for most of their lives. In fact, “large numbers [of deer] have starved to death rather than leave a yarding spot to move even a few miles to an area where there may be abundant food” (Rue, 1962). However, their movement varies between summer and winter; the deer retreat to denser parts of the woods during winter to seek shelter. The daily activity of deer primarily consists of searching for food, but during “rutting” or mating season, bucks can be seen sparring with other bucks and marking his territory by rubbing his antlers on a tree and scraping the ground with his hooves (Rue 1962; Rue 2004).


Aging methods

Aging a deer has always been a difficult task. The most common technique is to look at the development and wear of its teeth. While this practice is widely used and accepted (Severinghaus 1949, cited in Gee et al. 2002), a study on 106 deer jawbone samples reveals that it may not be very accurate. The researchers were unable to assign a specific age to the jawbone samples, but categorized them into 3 basic age classes (fawn, yearling and adult). Thirty-four white-tailed deer biologists then attempted to age the jawbones, and failed 60% of the time for samples greater than two years of age. The results found the method of using tooth wear to indicate age very inaccurate beyond that of the 3 basic age classes (Gee et al. 2002).

Habitat preference and sexual segregation

In 2002, a team of researchers used data from forest maps and field surveys to investigate habitat preference and gender segregation of white-tailed deer. They hypothesized that does would seek out dense, sheltered forest during growing season to protect their fawns. The map analyses did not reveal gender segregation, but the field surveys showed that habitat preferences differed by gender. While both sexes used dense forest in the growing season, the males eventually spread out into more open spaces later in the season. The researchers concluded that aerial maps are not detailed enough to be indicative of habitat preference (Lesage et al. 2002).

Deer density based on aerial surveys and pellet-based distance sampling

In 2008 to 2009, a team of researchers compared aerial surveys and pellet-based distance sampling to estimate deer density in 6 preserved forests near Chicago, Illinois. They compared density estimates obtained from the use of both methods, as well as costs, bias, and precision. It was concluded that collecting accurate data on pellet decay and decomposition rates, using a large enough sample size, would be a more efficient and advantageous way of collecting density data than aerial surveys. Data from pellet samplings were less costly, required less equipment and professional skill, and did not depend on snow covering the ground. To conclude, the team discussed the importance of further research (Urbanek et al. 2012).

Figure 4. Fresh deer scat found in the Morgan arboretum, 2013.

Figure 4. Fresh deer scat found in the Morgan arboretum, 2013.

Depredation caused by deer diet

White-tailed deer have been known to cause extensive damage to field corn. Up to 80 to 90% of deer diets are comprised of corn, which causes the loss of millions of dollars each year. A research study from 2006 revealed that deer prefer certain corn hybrids based on nutrient content and time of maturity. The deer displayed a preference towards earlier maturing hybrids that contained higher levels of digestible material. Additionally, in a study from 2005, 67% of deer-feeding activity ensued in herbicide-treated areas rather than in untreated areas. As deer mostly feed on the edges of corn fields, farmers could reduce damage to their crops by planting hybrids undesired by deer on the edges of fields to minimize depredation (Delger et al. 2011).

Figure 5. Evidence of deer browse at Mcgill Dean’s Cornfield, October 2013

Figure 5. Evidence of deer browse at Mcgill Dean’s Cornfield, October 2013

Figure 6. Trampled vegetation around edges of McGill Dean’s Cornfield, 2013.

Figure 6. Trampled vegetation around edges of McGill Dean’s Cornfield, 2013.


White-tailed deer living in the Morgan Arboretum are constantly surrounded by humans and we want to know if deer activity is affected by human activity (agriculture, cultural services, urban development, etc.). To measure this, we are analysing deer signs (tracks, scats and browse) in relation to a scale of human activity.*

Figure 7. Identification of white-tailed deer tracks (Elbroch and Murie 2005).

Figure 7. Identification of white-tailed deer tracks (Elbroch and Murie 2005).

Figure 8. Hoof print of white-tailed deer at McGill Dean’s Cornfield, 2013.

Figure 8. Hoof print of white-tailed deer at McGill Dean’s Cornfield, 2013.

We set up three quadrants for each rank of the scale, for a total of 18 quadrants, throughout the Morgan Arboretum, the McGill bird observatory and the McGill Dean’s cornfields. Thus, our research question is redefined as follows: How do human disturbances (agriculture, cultural services, urban development, etc.) affect the activity of white-tailed deer in the Morgan Arboretum and its surrounding areas during the month of October?

We hypothesize that deer will generally avoid areas disturbed by humans, unless food resources are readily available. Deer activity should be most abundant within the denser forests (ranks 0-2), and scarcer within the areas of greater human disturbance (ranks 3-5). Rank 4 (agricultural area), however, may be an outlier as we hypothesize that this particular human disturbance (i.e. corn fields) will be a source of food for the deer and thus increase deer activity.

For data collection, the 10m x 10m quadrants are set up using measuring tape and marking tape. Within these quadrants, we search for deer signs, which we count and include in our data table. We also note the date, time and temperature of our session, as well as a brief description of the type of vegetation, fauna, soil etc. found inside the quadrant or nearby it. Any deer tracks are then erased to avoid replication of data. For the other two visits, we go back to the quadrants on a different day and search for fresh deer signs.

Video 1. How to set up a quadrant and collect data

*Scale of area studied in relation to human activity:

  • 0: Dense forest without human activity (Morgan arboretum)
  • 1: Light forest away from human activity (50m+) (Morgan arboretum)
  • 2: Forest seasonally used by humans (McGill bird observatory)
  • 3: Forest within visual distance (up to 30m) of regularly used paths (Morgan arboretum)
  • 4: Agricultural area (McGill Dean’s Cornfields)
  • 5: Area near/on roads, parking lots, buildings, etc. (Morgan arboretum)


Video 2. Vlog of quadrant 0.3 (Dense forest without human activity)

Video 3. Vlog of quadrant 1.1 (Light forest away from human activity)

Video 4. Vlog of quadrant 2.2 (Forest seasonally used by humans)

Video 5. Vlog of quadrant 3.2 (Forest within visual distance of paths)

Video 6. Vlog of quadrant 4.1 (Agricultural area)

Literature Citations

  1. Bernhardt T et al. n.d. The Canadian Biodiversity Website. The Redpath Museum [Internet]. Available from: http://canadianbiodiversity.mcgill.ca/english/species/mammals/mammalpages/odo_vir.htm
  2. Delger J, Monteith K, Schmitz L, Jenks J. 2011. Preference of white-tailed deer for corn hybrids and agricultural husbandry practices during the growing season. Human–Wildlife Interactions 5(1):32–46 [Internet]. Available from: http://www.berrymaninstitute.org/journal/spring2011/6__Delger.pdf
  3. Ditchkoff S, Lochmiller R, Masters R, Hoofer S, Van den Bussche R. 2001. Major-histocompatibility-complex-associated variation in secondary sexual traits of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus): evidence for good-genes advertisement. Evolution [Internet]. 55(3): 616-625; Available from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.proxy1.library.mcgill.ca/doi/10.1111/j.0014-3820.2001.tb00794.x/pdf
  4. Elbroch M and Murie O. 2005. The Peterson field guide to animal tracks, 3rd ed. Singapore: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 282-285.
  5. Feldhamer G and McShea W. 2012. Deer coat colors. In: Deer: the animal answer guide. Baltimore (MD): The John Hopkins University Press. p. 36-37, 92-93.
  6. Gee K, Holman J, Causey M, Rossi A, Armstrong J. 2002. Aging white-tailed deer by tooth replacement and wear: a critical evaluation of a time-honored technique. Wildlife Society Bulletin [Internet]. 30(2): 387-393; Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3784495
  7. Geist V. 1998. White-tailed deer and mule deer. In: Deer of the world: Their evolution, behaviour, and ecology. Mechanicsburg (PA): Stackpole Books. p. 255-414.
  8. Innes R. 2013. Odocoileus virginianus. Fire Effects Information System [Internet]. Available from: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/animals/mammal/odvi/all.html#131
  9. Lesage L, Crete M, Huot, J, and Ouellet J. 2002. Use of forest maps versus field surveys to measure summer habitat selection and sexual segregation in northern white-tailed deer. Canadian Journal of Zoology [Internet]. 80(4): 717-726. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/220501969?accountid=12339
  10. Rue L. 1962. The world of white-tailed deer. Philadelphia (PA): B. Lippincott Company.
  11. Rue L. 2004. Varieties and distribution. In: The deer of North America. Guilford (CT): The Lyons Press. p. 25-26.
  12. Urbanek R, Nielsen C, Preuss T and Glowacki G. 2012. Comparison of aerial surveys and pellet-based distance sampling methods for estimating deer density. Wildlife Society Bulletin [Internet]. 36: 100–106. Available from: DOI: 10.1002/wsb.116

About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

39 comments on “Natural history of White-tailed Deer

  1. This is so insightful and educative, great work!

  2. That’s so interesting! It is nice to be aware of the different species of deer. Its sad how humans inpact their species.

    • Thanks Dominique for your comment! Indeed it is but the more awareness we gain about the animals surrounding us, the more we can lessen our negative impact. Please share your new knowledge with the people around you.

  3. I always thought deer were herbivores. So how exactly do the deer catch birds? The inclusion of meat, bones and organs into their diet doesn’t mess up their digestive system?
    Also, I’m not sure I understand how you decided where each quadrant would be. Were you just placing them in spaces that a deer might come through and hoping that there would be signs? Essentially I don’t understand the methodology.
    Overall, though, good stuff.

    • Thanks for your feedback, Joe! Yes, White-tailed Deer are mainly herbivores but occasionally, they will treat themselves to small birds as a protein supplement if these are easily within reach (ie. if the bird is stuck in a net at the Mcgill Bird Observatory, chicks fallen from a nest, bird flying within snapping distance of their mouth). Mammals digest proteins easily, much more easily than fibrous plants in fact, so bird meat is not a problem to Deer. Also, they have molars and strong jaws for crushing and grinding plants so small bird bones are not a problem.

    • As for the methodology, we created a scale from 0-5 in terms of human disturbance. 0 being dense forest and 5 being parking lot/buildings etc. Within those scales, we randomly selected three areas to set up the quadrants. We tried to cover as many different areas of the arboretum as we could, but due to the sheer vastness and limited time, it’s not possible to cover everything.

  4. I didn’t know why fawns had the white spots on their backs, but it does make sense that they would use it for camouflage since they’re still too young to outrun predators. Also, I would never have imagined deer would eat small animals as they’re always depicted as gentle and herbivorous. That definitely came as a surprise. Very informative and interesting post!!

  5. Great article! One thing was not clear to me. Can you please explain more about why the deer won’t venture further into a corn field if that is where their favourite food is?

    • Probably, the deer dont like to venture far into the corn fields. its dense in there. And deer usually like to feed in areas where they have good a visual of their surrounding environment. Where they can easily spot predators and run away. Inside the fields, the deer would feel more vulnerable. And why spend so much energy carving your way through the fields when you can munch on the periphery.

  6. Dear Betty, Johanna, Hussan, Emma, and Meghan: I received your email inviting me to check out your work this morning. Thank you for the invitation. I do not teach wildlife biology, but I do quite a bit of research that in the field (especially related to white-tailed deer), and this was a lot of fun to read. As a professor, I am constantly challenged to find new ways to teach and learn; what a great idea! It’s pretty clear that you each learned a lot and that you enjoyed the project. Very well done!

  7. Thank you for your feedback and for sharing, Dr. Wolverton!

  8. I presume that the white tailed deer we have in BC are related to the Northlands white tail deer but their habits seem to be different. What is the relationship between them? We find them in our yard at any time of the day, not primarily at dawn or dusk. A neighbour built a six foot high fence around his garden but it wasn’t high enough to keep the deer out. We also can’t have tulips in our gardens as they seem to be favourites of the deer.

    • Hi Marg,

      Thanks for your comment!

      The white-tailed deer found in BC are the Northwest White-tails, or Odocoileus virginianus ssp. ochrourus. They are the same species of deer, but a different subspecies. The deer throughout Canada and other temperate regions tend to be larger than their Southern cousins.

      Deer usually are active at dawn and dusk, but it’s definitely possible to see them at other times of the day too. They have huge variety in their diet, so I’m not surprised that they like to come into your or your neighbour’s garden. They probably see it as a huge feast!

  9. This is really cool! I love all the information you guys put up. Do you know any common ancestors of the white tailed deer?

    • Thank you Anthea. The White tailed deer is one of North America’s oldest large mammals. Some fossils of this species found, date as far back as 3.5 million years BP.
      The white tailed deer are thought to have evolved from a similar species called Odocoileus brachyodontus that existed from about 3.9-3.5 million years BP.

  10. Interesting and informative blog post. You state that the male’s antlers grow annually. Can you elaborate on this? I am not clear if they lose them and then grow them back yearly or they continue to grow bigger each year. As well, how easy is it to break an antler and does that section grow back?

    • Hi Krista,

      Thanks for your comment! Yes, deer antlers do fall off every year and grow back during mating season. Bucks only need them for sparring with other bucks and to defend territory. To conserve energy during the winter, it is easier for them to lose their antlers.
      If a buck breaks its antlers, they will not grow back until the next year. Breaking of the antler generally does not harm the deer unless it occurs during the development of the antler. During the growth of the antler, there is a soft tissue filled with blood that can get infected if the antler breaks. Once the antler reaches maximum growth, it hardens and chance of infection lessens. Hope this answers your question!

  11. This was a very interesting blog. Thank you. I was particularly interested in three things that you mentioned. One was that these deer sometimes ate small birds and animals. Another was that young white tailed deer are almost odorless – isn’t natural adaptation wonderful!

    The final thing that I found interesting was that the deer don’t move from their particular territory. I was thinking about the work in permaculture by Allan Savory. He started his career in parks wildlife management in what would become Zimbabwe. He argues that land is healthiest when there are a mix of grazing animals and predators. In the natural environment predators keep grazing animals moving. The herds of animals will take one or two bites of grass, they will deficate in the area and massage the soil with their hooves but they will keep moving to escape predators. This provides the land with what it needs and prevents overgrazing. When we remove predators then the grazing animals stay in one place and do damage to the soil. More recently Savory has argued that large herds of livestock, if they are kept moving, can mimic this natural pattern – see http://www.ted.com/talks/allan_savory_how_to_green_the_world_s_deserts_and_reverse_climate_change.html. (around 9 minutes in the talk he talks about the natural pattern but you can see his discussion of this elsewhere if you’re interested).

    I wonder what you think of this.

  12. Sorry, I think I didn’t actually ask my question about the deer moving: Is it really natural that the deer are not migratory or have they developed this pattern because they are lacking predators?

  13. Hi Laura!

    That’s a great question. Looking back at our blog, I think we should have emphasized that deer do not always migrate, but sometimes they do. White-tails tend to stay wherever there is an abundant supply of food, an absence of predators, and sufficient warmth and shelter. If resources are unavailable, they may migrate to a warmer area, or somewhere with more food available.

    To answer your question, I would say that the white-tails specifically in the Morgan Arboretum do not migrate very far due to the lack of predators. There are no wolves in the arboretum, only coyotes and red foxes. White-tails in other locations may migrate; it all depends on their location and surroundings.

    As a side note: Savory’s Ted Talk was very interesting. It reminds me of something I read in Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, which talked about how the absence or overpopulation of one species can entirely disrupt the whole balance of the ecosystem. For example, the sagebrush lands of the West have been completely destroyed in a campaign to replace the land with grass to be grazed by cattle. The destruction of the sage has caused a severe decline in the sage grouse population due to the fact that sage was a huge component of their diet and nest-building. In a classic example of mutualism, the sage grouse loosens the soil beneath the sage, allowing it to thrive as well.

    When the United States Forest Service sprayed 10 000 acres of sagelands to kill the sage bushes, they also killed ribbons of willows, a primary resource for moose and beavers. Populations of moose and beavers dropped. With that decline, the building of dams decreased as well, which drained out a lake and killed all the fish living within it. Waterfowl were no longer able to feed on the fish, so their population dropped too.

    Although this example isn’t related to deer, I think it’s fascinating how the decrease or increase of one population can so severely affect the population of many others, like a domino effect.

    The absence of a wolf population is probably what allows the white-tails in this area to congregate and thrive.

    Thank you for the very thought-provoking question!


    Further reading:



  14. I heard that milking deer is becoming popular in New Zealand, as it makes a very robust cheese. I much prefer the idea of them roaming in the Arboretum! 🙂

  15. A very descriptive and interesting post! I especially liked how you included video footage as well as photos to demonstrate how you operated in the field.

  16. Very informative. I grew up with lots of white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania, but there’s so much more to learn. Deer can eat birds?

    • Hi Sarah!

      Thanks for your comment!
      Yes, deer occasionally eat birds when given the opportunity. They do not actively hunt birds; instead, they will sometimes snatch up vulnerable birds such as baby birds in nests or birds stuck in a net.

  17. Thank you very much for your detailed and thoughtful response – and for the references. That’s very interesting and I will follow up on it.

  18. Great work team – I look forward to reading your findings! You state that deer will search out dense forest during the breeding season, but what about during the rest of the time. Is dense forest equally ideal in spring, fall, and winter? As you may or may not know, the Morgan Arboretum also is very popular with dog walkers and many dogs roam off-leash, even in areas they should not. How might you predict the abundance of dogs and their scent may affect deer presence in the arboretum?

    And yes, deer are not always the gentle herbivore they are thought to be. They are common nest predators for ground-nesting birds, as ample nest camera evidence shows http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/deerpred/results.htm

    • Hi Barbara,

      Deer tend to remain wherever there is ample resources, including food, space, shelter, and water. Dense forests are usually preferable for females because they offer protection for the young and provide plenty of food. In the study by Lesange et al. in 2002, it was revealed that males spread out from the dense forests to wider, more open areas later in the season.

      It’s possible they do this to increase their range of territory, but it’s difficult to say given the broad, general data they found.

      The abundance of dogs and their scents definitely do affect deer presence. When we visited MSEG (Mcgill Student Ecological Gardens), we were told that deer avoided their section of crops because many dog-walkers passed by that area. The crops near the forest (where dog-walkers did not pass through) were constantly being eaten by deer.

      Thanks for the link! That’s absolutely fascinating!


  19. […] me! Students set up beautiful hypothesis test of deer behaviour. Awesome! Great research blogging by students from McGill […]

  20. Greetings! Very helpful advice in this particular post!
    It’s the little changes that make the most significant changes.
    Many thanks for sharing!

  21. I live in Rawdon (Québec) Canada. We always see deers all year round on our property. We tend to notice in the last years that some of them are high on their legs, rather long body and long pointed nose, with paler fur. Some others are lower, heavier built, darker fur, shorter neck and shorter nose. The darker shorter ones seem to be more into pushing and bullying other deers then the tall pale ones. Could anyone suggest the names or identifications of the sub species of both. Thank you and i find what you write very interesting.


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