The moose may be our biggest land mammal, and our state mammal, but in Maine and across the country, there is no doubt that the white-tailed deer is king. In terms of time and money spent in their pursuit, whitetails exceed all other species combined. The mere sight of one quickens the pulse and dilates the pupils of hunter and nonhunter alike.
But why? At first glance, it seems something of a mystery. But as you study them and learn just how remarkable they are, it becomes clearer.
They are, arguably, the most adaptable species on earth. No land mammal has as wide a geographical range. Theirs spans from northeastern Quebec, west across Northern Ontario through central Manitoba, and Saskatchewan into eastern British , then south through the United States, Mexico and Central America into northern South America.
Within that range, the species occupies an extremely diverse array of habitats. From northern boreal forests to southern bottomland hardwoods, from the foothills of the Rockies to open grassland plains, from Pacific rain forests to southwestern desert, from the Midwestern grain belt to the Northeastern gridlock, the whitetail not only survives but thrives.
In order to do so, it has adapted both behaviorally and physically, in the latter case differentiating into some 30 subspecies. The largest whitetails are from the borealis or dacotensis subspecies, which occur in the extreme northern U.S. and Canada. Some weigh more than 300 pounds – my largest, from Saskatchewan, approached that mark in dressed weight.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are tiny Key deer from Florida and eight or 10 other recognized subspecies in Central and South America that top out at a live weight of about 50 pounds. My smallest, the weight of which I will not divulge, came from southeastern Alabama.
Whitetails also can display a great deal of variation in color. In general, the darker and more humid the habitat, the darker their coat. Meanwhile, deer in drier, more open habitat tend to be paler. Coat color also varies with season, at least for some races. In most areas, deer sport a light, reddish-brown coat in summer and a darker gray-brown coat in winter, the latter of which consist largely of hollow hairs that trap air, providing excellent insulation.
There even can be noticeable variations among individuals within the same herd, some being slightly lighter or darker brown or gray. Then there are the oddballs and the piebalds.
Although rare, all-white true albinos do occur and are distinguished by having light or pink-colored soft parts and eyes. Some deer can be all or mostly white, but are not true albinos if they have brown eyes or any dark patches of fur. More common are deer with a pied or mottled brown-and-white pelage – referred to as piebalds. Much rarer are melanistic deer, the coats of which are nearly black.
One of the whitetail’s most attractive features are its antlers. Lots of critters have horns – cows, sheep, goats, lizards – but only members of the deer family have antlers. Antlers are deciduous, which means that like the falling leaves, each winter they drop to the ground, and each spring, a buck must grow an entirely new set.
The antlers of young bucks are typically small because most of the mineral nutrition they take in goes toward skeletal growth. Once they reach maturity, however – at age 4 – excess nutrients can be redirected to antler growth, and under the right conditions, they can produce some truly magnificent examples.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of whitetails, the likes of which probably never occurred in North America. In some areas, they have reached what some refer to as “nuisance” levels. Yet unlike some other nuisance species – Canada geese, for instance – whitetails remain respected.
And even where they have become overabundant, they remain wary and elusive. When asked what is the most challenging big game animal, hunters who have pursued game around the world invariably give the same answer: white-tailed deer.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: