Daily Globe outdoors columnist
Last week I wrote about some of the interesting facts about white tail deer fawns. I heard from many of you this past week that the deer topic was interesting to many of you, so I decided to add another column with additional facts about white tail deer in general.
The white tail deer is normally associated with forested habitats. The fact of the matter is that white tail deer cover almost all of the United States, and areas with broken forests is actually a preferred habitat over heavy forest. The lands from the Rocky Mountains and west have mostly black tailed deer, or as they are better known, mule deer.
White tail deer almost went the way of the bison. While bison were reduced to around about a thousand animals, white tail deer were hunted down to a U.S. population of only about 300,000. Today with proper management they now number in the range of 30 million.
The smallest of these lives in Florida, and as we move to the northern part of their range, which is Minnesota and Canada, they get bigger. The average across the board is that an adult buck will weigh around 100 pounds. In our area they can grow larger, and the largest ever properly recorded was about 403 pounds dressed, meaning the internal organs had been removed. This deer on the hoof was estimated weighing 511 pounds alive. It was taken in Tofte in Minnesota back in 1926.
In Florida a white tail deer will run from 75-110 pounds. Texas deer are smaller in size, as well, but are known to have much bigger antlers for their body size. Many hunters seeking big horns hunt in remote and secluded locations trying to run across a buck that is old. The older the deer, the larger the antlers in general.
Most deer hunters think a deer needs to make it to about 4-5 years of age to grow really nice antlers. Big horns are a combination of age, nutrition and genetics. Some deer can live to an old age and never grow big antlers. Some serious deer hunters will actually distribute commercially packaged bags of feed supplements hoping the deer in their area will consume the product and grow bigger antlers. This is turning into a very big business; these efforts to grow larger and bigger deer.
The issue in southwest Minnesota is that there is almost no place in the county that a deer can stand in the open and not be seen by binoculars from a road in November. It is estimated by those resource managers that I talk to that about 70 percent of the bucks get harvested every year in the farmland zones of Minnesota.
Think for a moment along these lines. If Nobles County was to start a year with 1,000 bucks, at the end of that first season 300 would remain. If the following year 70 percent of those 300 were harvested, that would leave 90 deer. If 70 percent of those 90 were harvested in Year Three, then 27 deer would make it to the age of four. Take one more season into account, and of the 1,000 deer that were present at the beginning, there would only be 8.1 of them to make it to the ripe old age of 4.5 years old - the age when the antlers can grow very large.
I personally think that there is no way that eight deer make it to 4.5 years of age. The reason for this is that the desire to harvest a very large antlered deer is so strong that the hunting pressure on these few remaining large deer is much higher than the hunting pressure overall. This means that these large deer will be harvested at a higher rate than the overall population. So with a road every mile and limited places to avoid detection, this is why southwest Minnesota has so few really large deer.
Deer were thought to eat only vegetation. This has been disproven in the past few years. While vegetation makes up most of their diet, they have been documented to eat live pheasants chicks from a nest along with young song birds and even mice. They were photographed eating the birds caught in mist netting designed to protect fruits and grapes. I never knew a deer would eat another small animal.
Deer in our area almost never die of starvation in the winter. There is usually enough forage for them to make it through the winter. I do know of one yearling deer that died on my wildlife property in the severe winter about 5 years ago. I tried to feed it some alfalfa but it was too weak. It was the only deer that I have personally seen die from starvation in southwest Minnesota.
Deer up north have more problems. When the snow gets really deep the deer cannot run across the top of the snow. Wolves, on the other hand, can. When I was visiting a friend in Hayward, Wis., several winters ago the snow on the level was 4-5 feet. If a wolf came across a deer the deer stood no chance.
They explained that with wolf numbers on the rise that the deer were almost completely wiped out in many areas. This is where wolf hunting is a good idea to me. There is room for both, but the deer need the help now and the law prohibits doing so at this time.
Deer can eat just about anything. Pine needles, acorns, tree branches, grass and even cattle forage if it is not fenced tightly. I planted a shrub called a caragana because it was not supposed to be eaten by deer. That severe winter about five years ago I would take a wildlife trip out to our property and see the deer eating my caraganas. I would holler out the window and they would look over at me and just keep eating.
When our winters get really tough and the deer are desperate for something to eat they will even eat the boughs of my eastern red cedar trees. This is a food source of last resort and I have many of these cedar with limbs only on one side. My red-twig dogwoods nearest the grove don’t have a single leaf below five feet. This is the browse line and the deer eat everything they can reach.
I don’t try to stop them. If they can’t eat on a wildlife property where can they find a meal? By and large the farmland zones are pretty kind to deer from a food perspective.
Deer have a four-part stomach with each section doing something special that allows them to eat a wide variety of items. Most digestion takes place later while the animal is bedded or otherwise protected in some form of cover. They can even eat mushrooms and poison ivy with no ill effects.
For the most part, with the exception of wolves up north, almost all of the predators of adult white tail have been eliminated or dramatically reduced by humans. Cougars and other predators exist in very small numbers, and this has allowed the white tail to thrive and expand. The top two deer predators in southwest Minnesota are humans and vehicles. In some states, not Minnesota, up to 20 percent of deer mortality is car collisions.
They are a magnificent animal and the DNR just released its harvest info for this upcoming season. Doe tag numbers will be reduced and the goal is to increase the population of this animal to more historic norms. I love seeing them and sit in my deer stand for many hours just watching, with no intention of shooting one unless it is a deer of a lifetime. I mentor kids and adult women and are now 5-for-5 in the past five seasons with a new hunter harvesting their first deer from my stand. It is truly worth the effort to see the smiles on their faces.
When you see a white tail deer, know that nature had prepared them for survival. All we need to do is allow them enough space to do their thing and we will have deer for many centuries to come.