Coles County Wild Things

Coles County Wild Things

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White-tailed Deer in Illinois

White-tailed Deer in Illinois

No matter how old we get, some lessons in life just have to be learned the hard way. Such was the case for me late in the evening on a recent dark, crisp night in October during what seemed like an innocent jaunt into town to the Post Office. As I suddenly caught a fleeting glimpse of two large, brownish-gray bodies with antlers in the glare of my headlights, I simultaneously heard and felt an abrupt jolt on the right front fender of my vehicle. Yes, after a lifetime of driving the same familiar, well-traveled highways and country roads without incident, I had finally hit a deer on Route 16.

Odocoilems Virginianus—White-Tailed Deer

The white-tailed deer in Illinois are creatures of the forest edge and open farmland that is often interspersed with woodlots and water-rich environments. They favor early successional habitats, meaning those whose plant life consists largely of dense brush and saplings so as to keep browse within easy reach for feeding. The heavy cover is used also for winter shelter and protection. Deer will frequently forage away from dense woods, but do require these wooded areas for survival. They are able to adapt and live almost anywhere as long as the habitat provides them with three basic things: good cover, food and water.

The type of food that the white-tail deer eat depends on the area where they live. They are herbivores (plant-eaters) and are browsers in most of their range. Browsing consists of nibbling off the tender shoots, leaves and twigs of shrubs and trees with their tongues and lower front teeth. They may also eat many types of grasses, clovers, berries, and vines, and acorns are a favorite food. In Illinois, farm crops and waste grain make up a large portion of their diet when available. As many of us know, deer may also invade our yards and gardens in residential and urban environments, causing damage to our plants, trees, and landscaping. The adaptability in their food choices is one reason that their chosen terrain is so widespread. While they do have preferences, when food availability is limited, there are not many plants that they won't eat.

The term "white-tailed deer" refers to the white underside of the tail which is held straight up like a flag when the animal is alarmed or running. Its summer coat is a bright, reddish-brown, while the winter coat is thicker and a duller, grayish-brown. Like the underside of the tail, the upper throat, belly, inner rump, and insides of the legs are also white. Adult males (bucks) can weight up to 300 pounds, while the females (does) average around 125 pounds when healthy.

White-tailed deer mate from October through January, with the peak occurring in mid-November. Gestation is about seven months, with most fawns born from late May through mid-June. They will weigh four to seven pounds when born and can stand and run within a few hours of birth. Since fawns less than one month old are unlikely to outrun a predator, they instead lie motionless in tall grass or other cover, lying very still with neck outstretched and head low to the ground. Their white spots on a reddish coat blend well like the dappled effect of sunshine on the surrounding plants and flowers. Their lack of scent also helps protect them from detection by predators. At four to five months of age, the fawns are weaned, but remain close to their mothers for a year or more, with some females staying as long as two years.

When do bucks and does mate? This occurs each year in the fall, during a time called the "rut". Males begin rutting as early as September, and at this point become entirely preoccupied with mating. They commonly use their antlers in contests with each other, putting their heads down and locking antlers while pushing back and forth in a test of strength to gain access to a particular female. The buck that wins the contest is usually the strongest and the healthiest. Winners of these head-on clashes are awarded mating privileges with the does in the vicinity. Generally, the bucks do not hurt each other in these matches, but there are exceptions.

How long will the bucks keep their antlers? Bucks start to grow antlers in May or June, and they grow and shed new ones every year. In the middle of winter, usually January through March, the antlers are shed. Changes within the buck's body cause them to fall off. This is not painful to the buck, and he will usually start to grow a new set in a couple of months. Generally speaking, as the buck grows bigger each year, so do his antlers. A buck's antlers are usually the biggest they will ever be when he reaches about five years old.

Besides Antlers, the eyes, ears, and nose of a deer are very important to its survival. Using these senses to detect and escape predators, they also help in their communication with each other. The sense of smell is probably relied upon the most, as the deer can tell what kind of animal is nearby just from its scent. By interpreting how old the scent is, a deer can even determine whether or not the danger is past. They also use smell to find and identify each other, a particular advantage for a doe when backtracking on her own scent to locate her fawn.

White-tailed deer are extremely cautious and acrobatic animals, leaping as high as eight feet and as long as thirty feet across. Their affinity for tender young trees and garden plants make them a worthy opponent in our yards and gardens every spring and summer, not to mention the havoc that they can sometimes wreak on winter-stressed trees and shrubs.

My too-close-for comfort encounter with a full-grown buck and his sidekick was an experience I don't want to soon repeat. The lesson learned? To be on the lookout for this native wildlife especially in early morning and evening hours when they're most active, and to remember that they can at any time cross the road in front of me, out of nowhere and quick as a wink. This time of year when deer are spooked by hunters in the woods and actively in rut (and therefore kind of crazy anyway), we need to be especially vigilant.

The deer I hit and his companion kept right on running that night. The police officer who wrote up the report and surveyed my damaged vehicle teasingly asked me if I thought I could pick the culprits out of a lineup if they rounded some up and brought them in. It all happened so fast, I don't think I could do it. But if they would happen to find the right ones and haul them in for questioning, I can say one thing for sure – they're going to insist that it was my fault.

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