University of Illinois Extension

Wildlife Directory

White-tailed Deer ( Odocoileus virginianus )

Cervidae
A white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) doe is followed by her fawn. Photo courtesy of Michael Jeffords, Illinois Natural History Survey.

Did you know?

  • The white-tailed deer is the state mammal of Illinois.
  • A white-tailed deer can jump 8 feet high or 30 feet in length.
  • It is illegal to feed deer in Illinois because of concerns about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) (Part 635 of the Illinois Administrative Code).

Description and Identification

This young white-tailed deer (<i>Odocoileus virginianus</i>) still has its spotted coat. 
Photo courtesy of Adele Hodde, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The white-tailed deer is the only native species of deer in Illinois, and are readily identified. They stand three to three and one-half feet tall at the shoulder. Adult males (bucks) weigh 150 to 250 pounds, and adult females (does) weigh 100 to 150 pounds. During the summer the fur of both sexes is reddish brown to tan, and in winter is grayish-brown. The upper throat, belly, inner rump, and insides of the legs are white, as is the underside of the tail, thus the name "white-tailed" deer. Young (fawns) have a reddish coat with white spots that they molt at three to five months of age. Typically only males grow antlers. Unlike horns, new antlers are grown and shed each year. Antlers begin growing in early spring and may be shed as early as December. However, deer with good genetics and proper nutrition may retain their antlers well into March.

Tracks

White-tailed deer (<i>Odocoileus virginianus</i>) track. 
Photo courtesy of Adele Hodde, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The heart-shaped tracks of white-tailed deer are easy to identify. There are no other wild animals that make similar tracks in Illinois. On soft ground the dewclaws may also make a mark. Another sign that deer are in the area are the presence of deer beds and browse lines. Additionally, bucks will rub trees and may make scrapes (small patches of disturbed ground that the buck urinates on to mark his territory).

Droppings

White-tailed deer droppings are easy to identify. Deer leave piles of dark, cylindrical pellets one-half to over one inch long. The droppings will look similar to those of rabbits, but deer will leave much larger deposits of droppings.

Habitat

Illinois deer occur in or near wooded areas, particularly those along streams or adjacent to farmland. Deer frequently forage away from woods, but require wooded areas for survival. Deer are now found in very developed urban areas of Illinois.

Researchers have reported average home ranges of 0.44 square miles for does living in agricultural areas of Illinois and 0.17 square miles for does living in forest preserves near Chicago. Bucks tend to have larger home ranges than does.

Distribution and Abundance

Some white-tailed deer (<i>Odocoileus virginianus</i>) are adept at living in human-altered environments. 
Photo courtesy of Adele Hodde, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

White-tailed deer occur in every county of Illinois. There are more deer in Illinois today than when the European settlers first arrived. However, Illinois has not always had large deer populations. By the late 1800s, deer had been nearly exterminated from Illinois. Some small populations remained in the state and others likely moved in from adjacent states but the deer population remained very small. Thus a restocking effort was begun in the 1930s. The population grew quickly due to better habitat (more edge habitat created by humans) and the lack of predators (wolves and cougars had been extirpated and human hunting was banned). By the late 1950s deer populations in Illinois had grown large enough to allow a hunting season. The first modern deer hunting season was held in 1957 in 33 counties. Some form of hunting, firearm or archery, now occurs in every county and the annual deer harvest exceeds 150,000.

The highest densities of deer in Illinois are associated with wooded areas of the watersheds of the major rivers, especially the Mississippi, Rock, Illinois, and Kaskaskia, and in the Shawnee Hills in the southern area. The highest urban deer densities in the state occur in urban or suburban natural areas, remnant open spaces, and forest preserves that prohibit hunting. White-tailed deer are adaptable and opportunistic animals. They will take up residence in areas with little natural vegetation, such as intensively farmed regions and suburban municipalities where they feed in residential areas.

Reproduction

Does leave their fawns unattended for several hours at a time. However, the doe is nearby, even if she is out of sight. 
Photo courtesy of Willowbrook Wildlife Center.

White-tailed deer mate from October through January, with the peak occurring in mid-November. Gestation is about 7 months, with most fawns born from late May through mid-June. Fawns weigh 4 to 7 pounds and can stand and run within a few hours of birth.

Does often use the same fawning areas they used in previous years. However, sometimes fawns end up in strange places, such as in window wells or on sunny porch steps. If you find a fawn by itself do not move it. Fawns less than one month old are unlikely to outrun a predator. Instead, they lie motionless in tall grass or other cover. Their spotted coat helps them blend into their surrounding, imitating dappled sun on vegetation. Their lack of scent also helps to protect them from detection by predators. The doe stays nearby, though not necessarily in sight. She returns to the fawn regularly so that it can feed. The fawn and doe make sounds and use their sense of smell to help them locate each other. If the fawn is threatened, the doe will snort and stamp her front feet, and will charge the predator to drive it away. As the fawn grows and gets stronger, it will begin following the doe as she forages. Fawns are weaned at 4 to 5 months of age.

Fewer than 25 percent of does breed in their first year. Bucks do not typically breed until their second year. Deer density and food availability help to determine whether or not young deer will breed. Adult does that receive adequate nutrition will produce twins, and may have triplets or quadruplets. Thus, it only takes a few years for deer populations to grow considerably in the absence of control measures.

Food

A deer browse line evident in a Arborvitae hedge. 
Photo courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture.

Deer are browsers in most of their range. Browsing is nibbling off the tender shoots, twigs, and leaves of trees and shrubs with the deer's lower front teeth. In Illinois, farm crops and waste grain can also be an important part of the deer diet. Additionally, deer eat many kinds of vines, grasses, and clovers. Acorns are a preferred food. In an urban environment, deer may damage plants in vegetable gardens or landscaping.

Deer are ruminants and have a four-chambered stomach like cows. The first stomach chamber stores the food. The moistened food then returns to the mouth for further chewing, a process known as chewing the cud. The cud is then swallowed and is digested in the other stomach chambers.

Behavior

A white-tailed deer stretches to reach food in the winter. 
Photo courtesy of Adele Hodde, Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Deer are often found together. Family groups include an adult doe, her fawn(s), and her female young from the previous year (matriarchy). Bucks do not typically associate with the does except during the breeding season. Bucks may group together in small bachelor herds. Large numbers of deer may be seen together at prime food sources, particularly during late winter when food can be in short supply.

Deer become active at dusk when they leave their beds to go out and feed. They may rest during the night and forage again near dawn, or they may continue feeding throughout the night. During the winter they may need to feed during the day to find enough food.

Longevity

A study conducted in central and northern Illinois reported average life spans of 5.5 years for does and 2.5 years for bucks. The oldest doe in the study was 18 years of age and the oldest buck was 9 years of age.

Damage Prevention and Control Measures

Deer can cause damage by browsing trees, shrubs, or other plants. Bucks may also damage woody plants by rubbing their antlers on them. Deer are generalists and will eat a tremendous variety of plants. If food is abundant they will feed heavily on plants they particularly like. If food is scarce they will feed on almost any plant.

Habitat Modification

If adding ornamental plantings to your yard, select plant species that are less susceptible to deer browsing. The Morton Arboretum has produced a list of plants that deer tend to avoid. Some of the plants that seem to be less susceptible to deer include ornamental alliums (Allium), daffodils (Narcissus), and wild ginger (Asarum canadense). Also try planting thorny, prickly, or smelly plants. However, this approach does not always work. For example, deer will eat the buds, blooms, and smaller stems of ornamental tea roses. They also eat raspberries, blackberries, and poison ivy. Plant boxwood or short-needle spruces instead of yews or arborvitae. Illinois natives such as black-eyed susan and foxglove do not seem to be preferred by deer. For a more complete list of perennials that are deer-resistant, visit the Gardening with Perennials website. Pachysandra is a good ground cover, and ferns fair better than hostas. Deer love apples and cherries, so you may have to use tree protectors or fences to protect your fruit trees. If food is scarce due to a severe winter, or if the population of deer in your area is high, the deer may eat plants they do not normally prefer and usually leave alone. A deer will eat just about any plant if it is hungry enough.

Exclusion

White-tailed deer are excellent jumpers. In order to keep deer off of your property a fence will need to be at least eight feet tall. Electric fences can help minimize deer damage. They can provide a less costly alternative and can be erected seasonally prior to predicted deer damage. There are a number of possible fence designs depending on the size of the area to be protected and the population of deer in the area. Specific fence designs can be obtained from your District Wildlife Biologist. For more information about deer fences, visit the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management.

Individual trees or plants can be protected by placing a five foot tall wire cylinder around the plant. Tree protectors such as Vexar, Tubex, plastic tree wrap, or woven wire cylinders can all help protect new plantings. Placing netting over bushes or other plants can also be used temporarily on a seasonal basis to deter deer.

Repellents

There are several products approved for use in deer damage control. Repellents will reduce the damage that deer cause to vegetation but will not eliminate it. The repellant's effectiveness depends upon local deer density, the availability of other foods, the palatability of the plants being protected, and the regularity with which the repellent is used. Repellents may prevent deer from eating the plant, but they will not deter damage caused by antler-rubbing.

Repellents can be expensive and must be reapplied as the plant grows and after heavy precipitation events. Always read and follow label instructions of the product. Some repellents are not for use on plants intended for human consumption. Below are some commonly available repellents. To be most effective, it is best to start using repellents before damage begins. Researchers have found the following products to be effective at reducing deer damage.

  • Deer Away® Big Game Repellent (powder or spray) The active ingredient in these product is putrescent whole egg solids.
  • Deer Away® Deer and Rabbit repellent (Get Away Deer and Rabbit Repellent) The active ingredient in this product is capsaicin and isothiocyanate.
  • Plantskydd™ The active ingredient in this product is edible animal protein.
  • Bye Deer® Sachets The active ingredient in this product is sodium salts of mixed fatty acids. To be fully effective, this product should be placed at the top of the plant so that rainwater that dissolves the product will fall onto plant surfaces.
  • Deerbuster's™ Sachet The active ingredient in this product is meat meal and red pepper. To be fully effective, this product should be placed at the top of the plant so that rainwater that dissolves the product will fall onto plant surfaces.
  • Hinder® The active ingredient in this product is ammonium soaps of higher fatty acids. This product is the only product approved for direct application to plants intended for consumption. However, this product was not as effective in trials as the products listed above.
Home Remedies

Home remedies are not generally effective, but do work in some cases. Some people have had success in deterring deer browse by hanging bars of deodorant soap or bags of human hair around valuable plants. While bars of soap can be effective, the protection they offer extends only about three feet around the bar. Human hair, blood meal, and bone meal all weather very quickly and lose their effectiveness.

Public Health Concerns

Deer in Illinois are subject to a number of diseases but only a few have public health implications. Deer-vehicle collisions are a significant danger.

Diseases That Affect Humans
Lyme Disease

Deer are an important link in the life-cycle of the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis) (also known as the deer tick). Deer serve as hosts for the adult stage of the tick. Black-legged ticks can be carriers of a bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) which causes Lyme disease. Humans can become infected when bitten by a tick that carries the bacterium. Deer do not transmit the disease, but coming into contact with deer can increase the risk of exposure to ticks. Lyme Disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early. For more information about Lyme Disease please visit:

Ticks carried by deer can also be carriers of Erlichiosis, Babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (more).

Deer can also carry Toxoplasmosis

Diseases That Affect Deer

Note: These diseases are not known to be transmittable to humans.

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

This disease was first found in Illinois in 2002 in Winnebago County. Since then it has been located in deer in several northern Illinois counties. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources provides a map of CWD-positive deer. CWD is a fatal neurological disease, and poses a serious threat to deer populations in areas where it occurs. Studies to date have found no evidence that humans can contract CWD from contact with deer or from eating venison (muscle). It is recommended that the brain and spinal cord not be eaten, and that contact with spinal fluid be avoided. For more information about CWD please visit:

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD)

This disease likely occurs every year in Illinois. The last major outbreak was in 1998. EHD is caused by a virus spread by biting midges or gnats. The disease is often fatal and causes fever and severe internal bleeding. The impact on deer populations is not predictable because outbreaks depend upon weather conditions that influence the size of the midge population. For more information about EHD, please read this article from the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

Ecological Role

White-tailed deer are the largest native herbivore in Illinois and are an integral part of the Illinois landscape. However, when they are present in large numbers they can damage or destroy the understory of a forest and can suppress populations of rare native plants. It is not uncommon to see deer browse lines in natural areas or along fence rows in Illinois. Coyotes and bobcats probably prey on very young fawns, but white-tailed deer in Illinois have few remaining natural predators. Therefore, hunting is an important tool to help control deer numbers. As deer populations have increased, citizens have become more concerned about damage to agricultural crops, deer-vehicle collisions, and damage to native ecosystems.

Legal Status

In Illinois, white-tailed deer are protected under the Wildlife Code as a Game species. Deer can be legally hunted in Illinois during set seasons in the fall and winter. Deer hunting regulations can be found in the Hunting and Trapping Digest on the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) website.

Homeowners are not permitted to remove nuisance deer. For additional information on removing deer causing property damage contact your local IDNR District Wildlife Biologist.

It is illegal to take live deer from the wild unless you are a wildlife rehabilitator who is licensed by the IDNR or you have received a permit from the IDNR.

White-tailed deer killed/injured as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle may be legally possessed by an individual if the following criteria are met:

  1. The driver of a motor vehicle involved in a vehicle-deer collision has priority in possessing a deer. If the driver does not take possession of the deer before leaving the collision scene, any citizen of Illinois who is not delinquent in child support may possess and transport the deer.
  2. There is no limit to the number of deer that may be possessed under these circumstances.
  3. Individuals who claim a deer killed in a vehicle collision shall report the possession of the road-kill deer to the Department of Natural Resources within 24 hours via the IDNR website at http://www.dnr.state.il.us/law3/images/Road_kill.pdf or report the possession of the road-kill deer by telephoning (217)782-6431 no later than 4:30 p.m. on the next business day.
  4. Except for any law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties, it shall be illegal to kill a deer crippled by a collision with a motor vehicle.
  5. No part of a vehicle-killed deer can be bartered or sold.
  6. The State of Illinois is absolved of any and all liability associated with the handling or utilization of vehicle-killed deer. This does not, however, relieve involved parties from reporting other liabilities to appropriate agencies as required.