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Myths & Legends of the Whitetail

The Truth is Out There

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

I find all wildlife fascinating. I am even fascinated by the squirrel that visits my birdfeeder — although, not quite as fascinated as the dog. The fascination with regard to white-tailed deer transcends those of us in the field of wildlife biology. Even those far removed from the outdoors seem to know some fact about the white-tailed deer. I use the term "fact" very loosely. As sometimes the facts get a little sketchy. But to coin a phrase from my favorite '90s sci-fi show, The X-Files, "The truth is out there."

To take a more philosophical view, science is the search for truth. Theories are born and die daily in the scientific community. Sometimes theories that have been supported for decades succumb to death. And this is okay. After all, we are searching for the truth. But theories don't always die easily. Some people cling to them like that last bit of barbeque sauce that you just can't seem to get off your hands.

For example, there is a belief that dominant bucks do all the breeding. Though this is a decades-old theory of whitetail breeding ecology, new research has placed this theory on the scrap heap.

Other various falsehoods transform into facts through simple conversation. A plausible explanation for an observed event gets repeated again and again and, all of a sudden, that's the way it is. Or, the coup de grace, it is seen in print. In that case, it must be true. To borrow yet another phrase from the cult classic, "I want to believe." Some of us may be skeptical, but most of us are eager to believe obscure and sometimes outlandish reports.

One of my favorites is the theory that the Game Commission is receiving "kick backs" from the insurance and timber industries. This is interesting, considering evaporating funding has been an issue for this and numerous other state wildlife agencies for decades.

The conspiracy theorists will tell you to "trust no one," including me. And on some level I concur. Investigate these topics for yourself. Be a critical thinker. Ask questions. Be a scientist. Search for the truth. But remember, sometimes the answers aren't always what you might expect. So that is where we are headed for the next year in this Game News feature. We are going to bust some myths and lay waste to some tired old legends.

Deer Sex in the 21 st Century: Part 1

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

While the very mention of Bambi makes wildlife biologists wince in pain, they would have once begrudgingly agreed with the premise that the biggest, strongest, most mature buck (i.e. the Prince of the Forest) would likely be Bambi's father. The paradigm of white-tailed deer breeding ecology is that large dominant bucks do the breeding — period. For decades, observational research supported the idea that bucks maintain a strict dominance hierarchy in which physically mature males dominate immature males. Bucks at the top of this hierarchy possessed all of the breeding rights, and any hunter could recite this "common" knowledge.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the development of DNA testing. Trying to observe a specific behavior of wild animals, such as mating, is the proverbial needle in a haystack. And, in the past, when it came to reliably determining paternity, you were more likely to win the lottery. But now, that unique double helix string of nucleic acids can pinpoint exactly who your daddy is. A whole new world has opened regarding mating systems and paternity. Harbor seals, greater horseshoe bats and brushtail possums are just a few of the species on which DNA paternity studies have been conducted. And as more tissue was spun around in test tubes, interesting details surfaced, like multiple paternity. That's right. Individuals in the same litter can be fathered by more than one male. Deer mice, common shrews, black bears and grizzly bears have documented cases of multiple paternity.

What about white-tailed deer? Surely this cannot happen. There is a pecking order. Big mature males get breeding rights. It's common knowledge for cryin' out loud. Think again. In 2002, a study documented multiple paternity in captive white-tailed deer. Two years later, it was documented in a free-ranging population in Michigan. Since then, multiple paternity has been documented in every free-ranging white-tailed deer population that has been tested. A set of twins has a 20 to 25 percent chance of being half siblings. Which means a doe will mate with multiple bucks, casting a new light on her role in the "bedroom" saga. So the biggest, baddest, best looking buck doesn't get all the girls after all. In fact, a quarter of the time he can't even keep his hooves completely on one.

So if the Prince of the Forest isn't doing all the breeding, who is?

Deer Sex in the 21 st Century: Part 2

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Last month everything you thought you knew about the rut was turned on its ear. Tests confirm that does breed with more than one buck and 20 to 25 percent of the time twins aren't even full siblings. Has the deer world gone mad? How can dogma decades old just be tossed aside like yesterday's trash? It's simple. We call it science and research. Sometimes theories are supported, sometimes they aren't. Up until the turn of this century, DNA fingerprinting of deer was a pipe dream. It just didn't exist. All the research supported the theory of a male social hierarchy in which those at the top won the breeding rights with any and all does that crossed his path.

With the advent of DNA technology, however, now we can "see" what we couldn't before. This new knowledge may come as a shock to us, but deer sex has been happening this way for eons. It's just taken us 100 years to realize it. So what is going on if the "prince of the forest" is just another face in the crowd?

White-tailed bucks don't have harems or territories. They form a "tending bond" with a doe in estrous, staying with her for 24 to 48 hours. Does live in small groups and bucks chase individual does. The majority of does come into estrous at the same time. That means hundreds of thousands of does need to be bred during a 2-week period. Because bucks don't have harems or territories, they are stuck courting one doe at a time. That leaves the door wide open for all bucks to find one of those hundreds of thousands of does looking for a romantic encounter. No matter how dominant a buck is, he can be in only one place at one time.

Okay, but certainly the larger, more dominant bucks do more of the breeding. Sorry. An ongoing long-term study shows that most males only sire one fawn per season, and over their breeding lifespan, the average isn't even two. The most successful bucks still have few fawns, and breeding success cannot be predicted by antler characteristics. Yearling males, despite holding the lowest position on the deer dominance totem pole, even breed. In fact, yearlings are part of the breeding scene in all populations studied, even those with a large portion of males 3.5 years and older.

In the end, deer will keep having sex like they always have with no regard to our silly theories and assumptions. Everybody gets in on the action, so let the romance continue.

I saw a deer... with antlers!

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

It's kind of like Christmas. You know it is coming. Every February the Game Commission receives the same question. "I just saw a buck and he still had his antlers. Is it normal for a buck to be sporting antlers in late February?" The short answer is, yes.

I could end with that and be done, but, you critical thinkers and scientists out there are asking questions and searching for the truth. So, here it is. Antler growth is controlled by a variety of complex hormonal interactions that are "activated" by the environment; in this case, day length. Antlers begin growing when the days are lengthening, between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Antlers take three to four months to grow and velvet is shed as the days are shortening, just before the fall equinox. You're thinking, this is all well and good but that's not telling me anything about when bucks shed their antlers.

After the breeding season, the level of testosterone (a key hormone in antler development and retention) drops off markedly and the bone-to-bone bond between the antler and the pedicle deteriorates. It is the most rapid deterioration of living tissue known. Once this bond weakens, both antlers can shed within minutes, hours, or perhaps days of one another. What's left is a bloody pedicle, which heals quickly.

Still, you're wondering why some bucks remain antlered well into February, March, or even April. The answer is as simple as every buck is different. Do all children have their first tooth by six months of age? Certainly not. There are lots of late bloomers out there, including myself. I didn't sprout a tooth until 12 months old.

While it is typical for most bucks in an area to shed their antlers within a month or so of one another, it doesn't mean all of them will. Each buck has an individual antler cycle that plays a role in when antlers are shed. Each buck's antler cycle is independent of all other bucks and is thought to be related to the animal's birth date. Once that magic day arrives and the bone-to-bone bond disintegrates, the much-coveted head gear falls away.

So there is no reason to panic if you spot a buck with antlers in early spring. He is just exercising his individuality.

6 deer... 14 deer... 24 deer... 160 deer!

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Ever wake up in the morning feeling just a bit off with a slight sniffle. You don't think much of it but by noon you are completely wiped out and your symptoms have exploded – a nose that runs like a sieve, an annoying cough, and a throat that feels like sandpaper. It's because that nasty rhinovirus is reproducing at a spectacular rate and your immune system has been left in the dust.

The white-tailed deer is a far cry from the annoying abiotic RNA strand that stalks our upper respiratory tract. But one parallel can be drawn – amazing reproductive potential. How can this be? Deer are large mammals, reproduce only one or two offspring once a year, and are long-lived (up to a decade or more even in the wild). Myth #7: White-tailed deer populations grow and expand slowly.

I'd like to tell you a story about six deer in Michigan on the George Reserve. In 1928, two buck and four does found themselves all alone on 1,146 acres behind an 11.5 foot deer-proof fence. While the soil was poor, the reserve boasted diverse topography and vegetation. The University of Michigan inherited the George Reserve in 1930. Being an institute of high learning, researchers decided to learn about those deer, in particular, population dynamics. In a drive count in 1933, a minimum of 160 deer were counted. Knowing that ALL the deer were not counted, it was estimated that more than 220 were likely living on the reserve. For those of you keeping score, that's 88 deer/square mile at the very least. Those six deer had been very busy. Surely this must be a fluke.

Not if it happens twice. In 1975, the population was reduced to 10 deer, by 1980, it had grown to 212. It is important to note that this population growth rate isn't the maximum. With no mortality and maximum reproductive rate, the population of 6 pioneer deer could have grown to more than 300, and, the gang of 10, even more.

A deer population on excellent range can double in two years. And poor range conditions don't slow down the growth by much, with a population still being able to nearly double in four years.

With this kind of reproductive potential and superior adaptability, the white-tailed deer will always be a fixture on the Pennsylvania landscape.

Special Interests

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Ever tried to get money from an insurance company? You're a good customer, you pay your bill on time, and you've never filed a claim. So why does it take an act of congress to get a check for damages that are clearly covered by your insurance? Then they increase your rates because you made a claim. Isn't that why you've been buying insurance all these years?

Why would we think insurance companies are going to give away money if they don't have to? They aren't. But that doesn't stop people from believing there is some corporate conspiracy between insurance companies and the Game Commission. The word on the street is that the Game Commission is receiving financial kickbacks from insurance and timber companies for instituting policies to lower deer populations. Of all the myths and legends out there, this is the most ridiculous.

The deer program and the resulting policies are a product of the goals of the deer management plan, which were given to the Game Commission by "stakeholders" in 2002. Of the 19 external stakeholder groups invited to participate, 6 were sportsmen's groups. Their representation on the panel was double that of forestry and conservation interests and triple that of agricultural interests. So, who's the special interest group with disproportionate representation?

The goals this group unanimously agreed upon were: to improve and maintain a healthy deer herd; to reduce human/deer conflicts; to improve the health and sustainability of the ecosystem; to increase recreational opportunities involving deer; to increase citizen understanding of healthy ecosystems and deer herds; and to provide public and private landowners with the deer management tools they need to achieve their land use objectives. With the direction set, the Game Commission got to work recommending and implementing policies to achieve those goals. But, accomplishing those goals meant reducing deer numbers. Eight years later, a reduced but stable deer population is allowing those goals to be met.

The agency's annual budget is reported each January in the pages of this magazine. The next time someone mentions that the deer program is the result of some special interest group, be sure to tell them which special interest group it really is.

Decoding the Pattern

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

This is one of my favorite times of the year. We have securely closed the books on another winter. We are eagerly awaiting the weather report, anticipating the last frost and the green light for putting our much-beloved gardens in the ground. The unofficial start of the summer is within sight. The birds have returned and nesting is well underway. And, yes, our deer population is increasing. For this is the start of fawning season. Last year, I saw my first fawn on May 18. Using my keen eye and a good set of binoculars, I could see the white spots were arranged in a straight pattern, signifying that it was a male. Females have a scattered or zigzag pattern of spots.

From where this information originated, I'm not sure, but it is completely UNTRUE. Myth #11: the pattern of spots on a fawn's coat can't tell you what sex it is. The only way to tell the sex of a fawn is to inspect between its legs where the important parts are, just like the doctor did when you were born. In fact, it is impossible to distinguish the sex of newborns of most any species unless you physically examine them. And even then, it is sometimes still difficult.

Seeing the chocolate-brown coat dappled with white spots, it is hard to believe that it blends into anything. But this pattern is amazingly cryptic. Lying quiet and still, a fawn vanishes into the duff of the forest floor instantly. Spots run in two lateral lines from ear to tail on each side of a fawn's body. Other spots appear randomly on the body and flank. All fawns have this pattern, male and female.

Did you know you can tell how many days old a fawn is by counting its spots? Just kidding. The average number of spots on a fawn's coat ranges from 272 to 342. And each spot ranges in size from 0.24 to 0.51 inches in diameter. The number, size and pattern of spots are unique to every fawn.

This myth seems to have a lot of staying power, even though I can't find one resource that even suggests there is a rhyme or reason to the spot pattern of a fawn. I guess it is like some of those old wives tales passed down for generations. Not much truth in them, but they sure sound good.

Boring Brown

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Kermit the frog laments in his famous song that "It's not easy being green." Well, try being boring brown. If Kermit thought he blended in, he didn't know very many deer. White-tailed deer are notorious for hiding in plain sight. It starts from birth and continues throughout their life. They, like many species, have a magnificent coat that is often overlooked or taken for granted by those who admire them. That is until something goes awry.

We all get the occasional blemish. It is a right of passage through our teen years. As adults, our sparse use of sunscreen can leave us with various specks and spots. Some of us are even afflicted with (dare I say) warts. Well, we can take comfort in the fact that we are not alone. Deer get warts, too, sort of.

Remember that boring brown coat that no one pays any attention to. Well, stick a cutaneous fibroma on it and see what happens. All of a sudden that deer becomes the talk of the town. Did you see that deer? It's got something growing on it. Will it spread? Should we quarantine the town? Round up the kids, bring in the dog, impose a curfew!

Relax, it's just a wart. Cutaneous fibromas are commonly known as deer warts and are caused by a virus. This virus causes hairless tumors to grow on the skin. These tumors vary in size from ¼-inch to more than eight inches in diameter. The smooth black to gray hairless skin that covers the tumors can have a roughened surface, and the word most often used to describe their appearance is "grotesque." Transmission of the virus that causes cutaneous fibromas is thought to occur through biting insects and possibly by direct contact with various contaminated materials that might scratch the skin. But fear not, the virus poses no known threat to people or domestic animals. That's a relief.

Thankfully, fibromas are merely surface blemishes. While they are, to say the least, unsightly, they cause concern to a deer only when they interfere with sight, respiration, eating or walking. In fact, they usually cause more anxiety among the general public than the deer itself. But like most blemishes, these, too, fade into memory. Without other complicating factors, fibromas regress after about two months in most deer. As a result, no wart remover is necessary.

So when you consider the alternative, being boring brown isn't so bad. And deer find it's rather easy being brown.

Pinto Deer

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

Remember what I said last month about being boring brown and that no one pays attention to that magnificent brown coat unless something is amiss? Well, try being a white deer in a brown deer world. While the whitetail coat has many functions, camouflage is arguably the most important. It's hard to blend into a forest or field when you're a beacon of white.

As abnormalities go, this is the one most noted by people. Everyone knows what a deer is supposed to look like. When there is white where there is supposed to be brown, people talk. And what people usually say is wrong. I can't count how many times I've been told that "I saw an albino deer," from folks who were out scouting or on a hike or in a field or on the way to the grocery store.

Albinos are very rare. Albinism is the complete lack of pigment. That means pink eyes and white hooves. It is caused by a malfunctioning pituitary gland. This leaves these animals very sensitive to sunlight and exposure. As a result, they usually die at an early age.

What people mistakenly call albinos are really piebald. The piebald condition is an inherited genetic trait. It causes blotches of non-pigmented areas that vary in size and distribution. The result is a wide range of patterns. Some deer have speckles or whitewashed flanks or the markings of a prize pinto. Others are almost completely white. But if they have the brown eyes and black hooves of the classic white-tailed deer, they are still piebald, not albino.

Although piebald deer are the most common when compared to albino or melanistic (black coat produced by the overproduction of melanin) deer, they are reported at rates well under one percent in the population. Having a white or partly white coat isn't the only thing that makes piebald deer different. They also typically have some other abnormality that may include dorsal bowing of the nose (Roman nose), short legs, curving of the spine, deviated limb joints (turned feet), and internal organ malformations. Those with severe defects die at birth or shortly after. Limited observations indicate that piebald deer can breed with "normal" deer and produce both normal and piebald fawns. All attempted matings of two piebald deer have failed to produce offspring. With less than one percent in the population, I don't think two piebald deer meet in the wild very often. While it may be important for people to set themselves apart from the crowd, I have a feeling that the whitetail is more than happy to just blend in.

Deed Please

By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

A few facts about Pennsylvania: it's 46,043 square miles (44,888 are land, 1,155 are water); there are 3,368 square miles of state forest, 2,284 square miles of State Game Lands and 1,159 square miles of national forest; it has more than 121,000 miles of public roads; the state animal is the white-tailed deer; it is home to the oldest continuously operating brewery (D.G. Yuengling & Son, 1829); it was the sight of the first commercial production of pretzels in the U.S. (Lititz, 1861); and it ranks highest among all 50 states in the percent of persons born in the state who still reside in the state (more than 84 percent). Who knew?

Now this is supposed to be a column about deer, so what do all those facts have to do with our state animal? Not much, but, now you know why beer and pretzels are part of the culture and why everyone in the state seems to know everyone else. But I digress. The real point is that only 15 percent of Pennsylvania is publicly owned. The rest is owned by those Pennsylvania-born residents. You're still waiting to see how deer fit in, aren't you? Myth 13: All the deer are on private land because everyone hunts on public land. Consequently, there are no deer on public land.

Anyone with basic math skills can see that is impossible. Last year's deer harvest was more than 308,000. If the majority of harvest was coming off of public land, it would be more than a 40-deer/square mile harvest. Don't believe the numbers? Okay, let's look at actual deer, then.

Two hundred and thirty-one does were fitted with radio-collars in WMUs 2G and 4B. Deer were captured on both public and private land. While hunting was the most common cause of mortality, about 80 percent of does survived in 2G and 70 percent in 4B. Bet that 20 to 30 percent killed was on public land? Wrong again.

Living on public land did not necessarily mean a doe was more likely to be harvested by a hunter. On 2G, which has the highest percentage of public land of any WMU, the harvest rate on private land was four times greater than on public lands. For 4B, harvest rates for does on public and private land were nearly identical.

The fact is that a deer is just as likely to be harvested on public land as she is on private land, so there is no need for her to be concerned about whose name is on the deed.


By J.T. Fleegle
Wildlife Biologist

The definition of profiling is the act or process of extrapolating information about a person based on known traits or tendencies; specifically: the act of suspecting or targeting a person on the basis of observed characteristics or behavior. For example, a married 30-something female, like me, is much less of an insurance risk than a single male teen. As a result, my rates are lower. Profiling occurs in business, law enforcement and deer. That's right — deer.

There is nothing wrong with profiling if there is reliable data to back it up. Teen drivers are four times more likely than older drivers to crash, and they account for 30 percent of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries among males. It's hard to argue with those numbers. How does this relate to deer, you ask? How often have you or someone you know judged a buck based solely on his antlers?

Of all the grand and wonderful things about a deer, the one that gets the most attention grows from its head. The never-ending chatter about antlers is enough to drive any sane person completely mad, but there seems to be an insatiable appetite for them. Most, if not all, conversations about antlers revolve around their size.

Myth #3: The size of a buck's first set of antlers is an indication of his future potential. Many people assume that a young deer with spikes is "inferior" to one with a basket rack. That's a lot of pressure to be putting on a deer's first attempt at "manhood" in the deer world. It's hard to grow antlers when you are still trying to build bones, especially if what you have to eat isn't up to par. However, this doesn't stop those who don't have to grow antlers from judging those that do.

Yearling antler measurements, such as antler beam diameter, are often used as a measure of herd health, as they are sensitive to environmental conditions. But this fact has yet to deter any profiling. So, in 2008, some research was done looking specifically at yearling antler size and how it related to their "adult" antlers. After eight years, 12 different study sites and hundreds of deer, what was found? By the time a white-tailed male reaches 4.5 years of age, there is no difference in antler measurements regardless of the size of their first set of antlers as a yearling.

Perhaps this will bring justice to the falsely accused.