White-Tailed Deer

Odocoileus virgianos


White-Tailed Deer, photographed at Loxahatchee Slough Natural Area, Palm Beach Gardens, Palm Beach County, in December 2021.

The story of the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, in Florida is like that of many larger animals in the state: steady decline because of human exploitation until a light goes off in people's heads that a critical resource is about to be lost. Conservation measures are put in place and a recovery begins.

What's unusual about this deer is when the decline began — as far back as the 18th century, when trading in hides began to take a toll on the population. The decline continued into the 1930s when an effort to wipe out the cattle feaver tick by killing off the deer population nearly wiped out what remained of the animal in Florida. White-tailed deer numbered as few as 20,000 statewide.

Conservation efforts begun in the 1940s and importation of deer from other parts of the U.S. have rebuilt the population to the point where hunters regularly take more than 100,000 deer a year as the population sustains itself. Globally, white-tailed deer are considered "least concern" on the IUCN extinction scale.

White-tailed deers are the smallest member of North America's deer family. Their natural range extends from southern Canada to parts of South America. Although the species is the same, Florida white-taileds tend to be smaller than deer found in other parts of the United States. A typical Florida doe will weigh 95 pounds and stand 32 inches tall; a buck will go 125 pound and hit 36 inches. By comparison white-tailed deer elsewhere might stand six feet or more and weigh as much as 300 pounds. The Florida Key deer, a subspecies, is even smaller. Fun fact, there are four separate subspecies of white-tailed deer in Florida divided by geography: the Florida coastal white-tailed, O.v. osceola, found in the Panhandle and Big Bend area, the Florida white-tailed, O.v. seminolus, found in most of the Peninsula and the Virginia white-tailed, O.v. virginianus, found in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, are the other three.

The small size of Florida deer has several advantages. They don't have to eat as much to regulate their temperature in the Sunshine State's warm, subtropical climate. And it helps in places where the soil might not be as fertile and quality browse might be low.

White-tailed deer are a prime example of what is known as Bergmann's rule: Generally, members of the same species will be larger the farther north you go, smaller, the farther south. Bigger body mass helps animals endure colder temperatures, but maintaining large body mass in warmer climates becomes an unnecessary burden. It even holds true within the state: deer in North Florida can be nearly 50 percent larger than those living in South Florida.

White-tailed deer can live up to 20 years, but six years is the usual — the lifespan of males in a heavily hunted area might be shorter still. A doe requires a range of about a mile in order to find enough food to get her through the day; a buck about 2.5 miles. The range is smaller in the Everglades, where food is more plentiful.

In most of the country, rutting, or breeding season, begins in the fall and runs three or four months. In Florida, however, breeding can occur at any time, depending on the region and environmental conditions. In South Florida, the peak is July and August, with does giving birth in January to March, in synch with the winter dry season. Gestation is about 200 days. A doe might give birth to one to three fawns, depending in part on her nutritional intake — more with better browse, fewer with poor quality browse. Fawns are weaned at four months.

Fawns are able to stand, walk and even run shortly after birth, but they spend most of their time hiding from predators in tall vegetation. They have no scent, so predators can't detect their presence unless they're seen. Other than nursing, mom limits contact with her offspring so her scent doesn't attract predators. (The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says if you find a fawn that appears to be abandoned, leave it be; mom's almost certainly nearby.)

Deer are vegetarians, digesting their meals through a series of four stomachs. In turn, they are prey for the Florida panther and bobcats. The one advantage they have over their enemies is speed: they can hit the clock at 30 mph while running through the tangles of a forest. They're also good swimmers, which they'll use to stay alive.

Major threats to deer include automobile collisions, pesticides and hand-feeding by humans, believe it or not. In 2021, scientists discovered the Covid 19 virus in deer populations, but how it might affect the animals — and other wildlife — wasn't known. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently banned importation of deer into the state in order to prevent the spread of the deadly chronic wasting disease, which is taking a toll on deer in other parts of the country.

White-tailed deer are members of Cervidae, the deer family.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.