It is virtually impossible to drive anywhere in most regions of New York State today during the late afternoon and early evening hours and not see several whitetail deer. They are everywhere, either feeding in farm fields, standing by tree lines, or crossing the roadway. They are our most common large mammal, and never more so than right now. The extent of their current population is enough to stagger the imagination. And nowhere in this state is the whitetail deer more evident and observable than right here in the Finger Lakes.
The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates that New York’s current deer population exceeds one million animals. Other wildlife experts in a position to know consider that figure to be conservative, and place the actual population figure at closer to one-and-a-half million animals. Regardless, this state currently has the highest whitetail deer population in its history, and the overall number continues to grow with each passing year.
But it wasn’t always that way. Before the first European settlers arrived in what today is Virginia and Massachusetts, the whitetail deer was just one of many large forest dwellers. It is estimated that the population then was between three-and-a-half and six million deer in all of North America. Their population was limited naturally by several factors, including hunting by Native Americans, predators such as wolves and cougars, as well as limited forest openings and a general lack of under-story growth (browse). Competition with other species for the limited grass in natural burn areas was another factor. The grass had to feed herds of bison and elk, as well as deer.
The arrival of settlers changed all that, and a period of turmoil for the deer arrived. Clearings were carved out of virgin forests as farmers cleared land for crops. The whitetail deer was very adaptable, even back then, and soon learned to avoid humans while taking advantage of the new food supply they brought with them. The settlers took deer for their subsistence needs, and a “buck” skin became the primary monetary unit of the entire frontier for well over a century.
It was unregulated market hunting that almost sent the whitetail into the abyss of extinction. The first laws protecting deer and/or regulating deer hunting were not passed until late in the nineteenth century. By then the deer population had fallen to dramatic lows. It is estimated there were probably no more than 500,000 deer in all of America at the turn of the century, and sighting one or even finding fresh tracks became the talk of the town for weeks afterward.
Several factors intertwined early in the 20th century to insure the survival of the whitetail. By the end of 1910 every state had a viable force of game wardens to fight illegal hunting. And, at around the same time, many of the small family farms that dotted the landscape were becoming worn out, and could no longer support a family. They were abandoned to the natural forces that would eventually reclaim them to woodlands. In 1900 it was estimated that 95 percent of New York was cleared farmland. Today the state is more than 70 percent forested. That changing environment became ideal for whitetail survival.
The whitetails responded accordingly. Limited sport hunting for bucks only returned in the 1930’s. By 1950 there was some limited doe hunting to control the herd size in certain areas, and wildlife management efforts of that day were admirably successful. By 1970 every part of New York except certain portions of the Adirondack Park area had healthy populations of whitetail deer.
But a new trend began, probably sometime during the 1970’s. Parts of New York, as in the rest of America, were becoming more urbanized. Hunters had always been the primary tool used by biologists to keep the deer population under control. But years of conditioning hunters not to shoot does was hard to reverse as the need to remove female deer from the population became more urgent. And fewer hunters were going afield with each passing year. Older hunters began giving up sport hunting while youngsters were not being recruited in numbers sufficient to continue proper management controls.
Once again, the deer responded. Their numbers began to mushroom in many areas as the population exploded. And that is what people driving along back roads throughout the Finger Lakes region see today. Lots of deer almost everywhere they might look. There are several hayfields in the valley just south of the village of Middlesex that, on any given evening, contain from 20 to 50 or more deer. And the entire area surrounding the Bristol Ski Resort contains similar high numbers of whitetails.
The tremendous deer population isn’t unique to New York State. The national estimate on the number of deer in the continental U.S. stands at 21 million animals. Virtually every state east of the Mississippi River is currently experiencing record high numbers of whitetails. But, with few exceptions, the dramatic increase in their population can best be observed right here in the Finger Lakes region.
To better understand the whitetail deer situation in this area, it behooves us to learn more about the species itself. Fossil evidence indicates that the whitetail deer (Odocoileus
virginianus) evolved into its current form around 300,000 years ago. It survived the repeated glaciation of the North American continent, and thrived almost everywhere it found suitable habitat. Today it is a wide-spread species across America, having adapted to virtually every climate from sub-tropical Florida and the desert southwest to the more temperate east coast, and across most of southern Canada.
The whitetail is, first and foremost, a survivor. It’s keen sense of smell is probably its greatest asset. A deer can smell potential danger at great distances, be it a predator or human, and long before that danger comes into view or can be heard. Their sense of hearing is also extremely acute. They constantly flick their ears forward and back as they strive to pick up the slightest sounds that might alert them to danger lurking nearby. That is why, if it happens to be a windy or stormy day, there is little likelihood of seeing a deer grazing out in an open field where they are more vulnerable.
There are great variations in the whitetail’s normal size. A typical mature buck in Maine will usually stand around 44 inches high at the shoulder, and often will weigh more than 250 pounds. An adult Keys whitetail buck in extreme southern Florida, on the other hand, might not stand more than 30 inches tall at the shoulder or tip the scales at 60 pounds. The average buck in the Finger Lakes area stands around 38 to 40 inches at the shoulder, and will weigh around 175 pounds. Does are somewhat smaller, and a large adult female may stand only 36 inches tall and weigh only around 130 pounds. The largest deer on record weighed an astonishing 425 pounds!
Only whitetail bucks generally have antlers. The primary purpose for these two horn-like appendages on their heads is for fighting other bucks during the mating season or “rut.” Antlers begin growing in April, and reach full size and hardness by September. Then, during the entire rut period which may last from October to December, a buck seeks out as many does as he can find. If challenged by another buck over the rights to a doe, there might be a fight, with the victor usually winning the fair maiden. During January through March, the buck sheds its antlers and begins growing a new set within just a few weeks.
A doe becomes a breeding adult at the age of seven months. The following spring she will probably have a single fawn. After that, and for the rest of her breeding life, she will probably have twins if she is living in suitable habitat. If, however, she is living in ideal habitat, it is not uncommon for mature does to have triplets. And the opposite is also true, with does living under stressful conditions due to poor habitat or crowding by other deer more likely to have only a single fawn.
Fawns are “dropped” anytime between late April and June. While they are wobbly-legged at first, the nourishing diet of their mother’s rich milk soon gives them the strength needed for survival. They can be seen traveling with momma at around three weeks of age. By the time they reach eight weeks, they are fully weaned and feeding on the same tender grasses and legumes that have
sustained their species for eons.
The unique coloration of fawns, white spots on a tawny to brown background, along with the fact they are almost odorless, enhances their chances for survival. The white spots closely resemble splotches of sunlight on the ground. Their main predators, coyotes and free-roaming domestic dogs, find it very difficult to detect them even at extremely close ranges. I remember observing a fawn laying in a weed field while I was mowing, and I gave it a wide berth at the time. Some time later, while taking a water break, I saw a coyote come out of the woods, obviously on the hunt. It passed within five or six feet of the fawn, and never suspected the little critter was there.
Adult deer undergo a coloration change twice each year as they shed their hair coats. One shed begins in the spring, and leaves them with a rich, reddish-brown color. The hair in this coat is both solid and thin, giving the animal a sleek, almost skinny, appearance. In the fall, a new hair coat begins to grow. The deer appear more grayish, with shades of brown mixed in. This hair is much thicker, and it is also hollow. The combination of thicker, hollow hair means the deer is then equipped with an excellent source of insulation against the winter cold.
While it is true that whitetail deer are plentiful throughout the Finger Lakes region, their increased population is both a blessing and a bane. For those humans who enjoy seeing them feeding in fields, the opportunities to pursue their hobby are literally unlimited. In many cases they can park by the side of the road within just a few yards of feeding deer and, as long as they don’t make any sudden movements or loud noises, will probably be able to observe the critters to their heart’s content.
But too many deer also cause a lot of problems. Crop losses sustained by farmers are, in an increasing number of cases, severe. Deer are voracious eaters, and can quickly destroy whole crops in a field if enough of them are feeding there. Since their appetite for farm crops is so varied, including corn, soybeans, sunflowers, all types of hay, sorghum, tomatoes and even the tender young shoots of Christmas trees, it is readily apparent that too many deer can spell disaster for many area farmers.
They don’t restrict their feeding to only farm crops, either. Expensive ornamental trees and shrubs planted around houses can also fall victim to their eating habits. Rose growers can be especially victimized as deer seem to relish the tender new shoots and flower buds on these otherwise thorn-covered plants. And the ever-popular arborvitae doesn’t stand a chance if deer are anywhere nearby. It seems to attract them much like sugar water attracts bees.
Too many deer also adversely affects automobiles, literally. It is not uncommon for there to be a dozen auto-deer accidents on any given night during the fall months. And it isn’t just a case of cars running into deer, either. More than a few drivers have actually passed by deer only to have them suddenly turn and run right into the side of the vehicle. Regardless of why it happens, striking a deer with a car leaves a sickening feeling for anyone who happens to be involved in the accident.
And after the accident comes the insurance claim. Auto insurance rates have been steadily climbing as the deer population increases. Those companies are paying more money in damages as a direct result of increased accident rates, and they are raising policy holder’s rates just to keep ahead of the red ink these situations can cause them.
As if that were not enough, there is a far more ominous problem to contend with. The whitetail deer population has shown its greatest growth during the 1990’s, a decade during which western New York has experienced a series of relatively mild winters. And meteorologists are now predicting a return to more “normal” winters as the cyclic shifting of the climate swings back the other way. If the Finger Lakes region experiences a seriously cold winter with deep, crusted snows, our whitetail deer herds could be facing mass starvation.
As long as the deer can travel to good food supplies, they will survive. But deep snows can cause them to “yard up,” or group together in a relatively small area. They can become trapped there if the snow levels do not recede. And, if the available food supply is used up and they cannot get to another source, they can easily starve to death.
But for now, I suggest we accept the positive side of a large and very healthy deer herd.
View them wherever they may be found, and enjoy the shear beauty of their grace and sleekness. Be careful not to startle them, but just enjoy one of the great wonders that nature has given us, and the Finger Lakes has put on display.
The White Deer of Seneca
In central Seneca County there is an abandoned Army ordinance storage facility once known as the Seneca Army Depot. Its 11,000 acres are famous to wildlife lovers from around the world because it is the home of all-white whitetail deer. The current white deer population is estimated to be between 400 and 500 individual animals. They freely intermix and interbreed with a similar population of typically ‘brown’ colored deer also contained inside the security fence.
The white deer of Seneca are not albinos. They have brown eyes and brown or black hooves. Many have varying amounts of brown hair showing on an otherwise white body, earning them the title of “piebald” deer. The most unusual aspect of this unique population, aside from their naturally white color, is that they are no different than the ‘normally’ colored brown deer seen roaming farm fields throughout New York!
So how come some of the deer at Seneca are white? Scientists think it may be a kind of throwback from the glacial periods. It is scientifically assumed that, during the glacial periods, there were both white and brown deer. But due to the near constant snow cover, predators naturally selected against brown deer because they were more easily seen. Over several thousands of years, white became the dominant color of the species, genetically speaking.
When the glaciers receded around 12,000 years ago the brown deer once again became the predominant coloration. White deer were reduced because they were now the easier seen by predators. But their genes still contained a dominant white chromosome. The isolation of the Seneca Army Depot deer population simply allowed the dominant genes to reassert themselves under the protection of strict hunting regulations that, for many years, prohibited the shooting of any white deer.
by Len Lisenbee
Len Lisenbee makes his home in Potter, and is a frequent contributor to Canandaigua’s newspaper, The Daily Messenger.