Ways of the Whitetail

By Matt Seek | May 1, 2019
From Xplor: May/June 2019

Let’s follow some whitetail deer for a year and see what life’s like in the thundering herd.

Milk Mustaches for Everyone

This mama deer is feeding milk to her babies. The fawns were born in early June. As newborns, they were barely bigger than bread loaves. But within an hour, they could stand on their skinny legs and take their first wobbly steps. Now — thanks to mom’s milk — look how big they’ve grown!

All that growing wears them out. Like most babies, fawns need lots of rest. They curl into balls and snooze in tall grass or soft leaves. Sunshine streaming through overhead vegetation casts spots of light on the ground. The fawns’ spotty fur helps them blend in with this speckled backdrop.

Double Trouble

A mama deer usually gives birth to twin fawns, but singles and triplets aren’t uncommon.


There’s a Fawn on My Lawn

If you find a fawn in your yard, don’t worry. The little deer isn’t an orphan. Mama whitetails often leave their babies by themselves.

Young fawns are nearly odorless. To keep from soiling their babies with their stronger scents, does visit just a few times a day. If danger approaches, a fawn’s heartbeat slows down, and its breathing nearly stops. Predators can’t smell the fawn, hear its heart, or see the tiniest twitch of movement.

So if you find a fawn, leave it alone and keep pets inside. Rest assured that mom will return to take care of her youngster.

Herd Words

Female deer are called does (rhymes with nose). Male deer are called bucks. Young deer are called fawns.

Arms Race

While mama deer are busy raising babies, bucks are busy growing new headgear. Antlers sprout in spring. At first, they look like furry bumps covered in fuzzy, blood-rich skin called velvet. But as summer sweats on, blood vessels carry calcium and other minerals to the stubby antlers, and they grow bigger and bigger. At the peak of growth, a deer may add half an inch to its antlers each day.

The sunny months are a peaceful time for bucks. They hang out in small groups, eat together, and groom each other like oversized house cats. During summer, bucks behave like they’re best buddies. But once autumn arrives, they turn into fierce foes.


Buck Battle

Crack! Crunch! Crash! Mud flies as two bucks scuffle through the underbrush, pushing each other around with their antlers. The bucks are equal in size, and their shoving match stretches for several long minutes. Finally, with a grunt, one of the white-tailed warriors gives up and trots away. Usually, neither deer gets hurt during these buck battles. The strongest, pushiest deer earns the chance to mate with more does. Fluffier in the Fall Each hair in a deer’s thick winter coat is filled with air. The air acts as insulation to keep the deer toasty.

Fluffier in the Fall

Each hair in a deer’s thick winter coat is filled with air. The air acts as insulation to keep the deer toasty.

Hardcore Headgear

By late August, blood stops flowing to the antlers, and they quit growing. The velvet dries out and peels off. Bucks rub their hardened headgear on trees and bushes. This scrapes off the itchy velvet and polishes the antlers until they gleam. The scuffed-up bark left behind on the tree tells other deer where the buck has been.

Four Stomachs to Fill

To a deer, the world is one big salad bar. They clip tender green leaves and pluck berries from bushes, using their nimble lips to take only the tastiest nibbles. In the fall, they gobble down acorns, turning the protein-rich nuts into layers of fat and shaggy fur coats that will keep them warm during winter.

The next time your tummy growls, think of a deer. When a whitetail gets hungry, it doesn’t have just one stomach to fill. It has four! The extra chambers help deer get as many nutrients as possible from tough-to-digest plants.

Hello, Deer

Whitetails communicate with each other in a variety of ways.


When whitetails are startled or annoyed, they stamp their hooves hard on the ground.


A scared deer may blow out a raspy, high-pitched snort. Does call to their babies with soft grunts. And when fawns want their mommies, they bleat like lambs.


Bucks paw up the soil and leave their scents on the scrapes for other deer to smell. If a doe is interested in a buck, she may leave her scent on his scrape, too.


Deer swish their tails lazily from side to side when they’re relaxed. But if a deer gets scared, it raises its tail like a flag and flares out the white hairs on the underside. This warns other deer of danger.


Deer Defenses

Sproing! White-tailed deer are the kings of spring, able to leap over 8 feet into the air. They can run 35 mph for short distances and swim up to 13 mph when they have to.

A deer’s nose knows when danger lurks nearby. Whitetails detect odors up to 1,000 times better than humans. They use their super sniffers to pinpoint food, find fellow deer, and detect sneaking predators.

Each of a deer’s ears is like a mini satellite dish, able catch the slightest of sounds. A whitetail can turn one ear in one direction and the other in a different direction. This helps it hear in two directions at once. Shhhh! It might hear us.

Survival Season

Winter brings lean times for whitetails. Blankets of snow cover up food, and deer often collect in crop fields to search for crumbs of grain that farmers missed. Howling winds force deer to huddle in cedar thickets, and bitter temperatures send them to south-facing hillsides to seek sunshine.


Antlers Away!

Don’t feel bad for this buck. He didn’t break his antler. It fell off on its own.

When mating season winds down, the bone tissue that joins a buck’s antlers to his skull begins to weaken. Soon the antlers become wobbly, like loose teeth. By February, most bucks have dropped, or shed, their well used headwear.

Lost antlers don’t go to waste. They become “vitamins” for squirrels, mice, and rabbits. The buck-toothed critters gnaw on them and use the calcium in the antlers to build strong bones and teeth.

Spring into Antlers

Once a buck sheds his antlers, a new pair immediately begins growing.

The Doe Says Go

When tender shoots push up through the soggy spring soil, female deer search for safe habitats in which to have their babies. Before giving birth, a doe chases away her young from the previous year. This ensures that her new fawns have the nursery all to themselves. Sometimes a doe’s older kids don’t want to leave. So she has to show them tough love by swinging her sharp hooves at them. The yearlings stay away for a few months, but in the fall, young females rejoin their moms. Together once again, the young does help their moms teach the fawns the remarkable ways of the whitetail.

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This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White