White-tailed deer are some of the most beautiful and majestic creatures on the North American continent. Over time they have adapted to widely varying ranges of climate and habitat to such a degree they are prolific in urban environments and rural locales. Their laudable adaptability, healthy populations, and majestic beauty endear them to both sportsmen and naturalists.
Odocoileus virginianus, as it is known by its scientific name, occupies some corner of every country on the North American continent — from Canada to Mexico and most of the United States. These countries comprise the natural range of the white-tailed deer from its ancient origins. In 1972, the South Carolina Legislature voted to officially dub the white-tailed deer the official state animal.
In North America, these deer played a vital role in the development of Native American culture, providing not only a source of food, clothing, and shelter, but also serving as a muse for much of their art and oral history traditions. Native American tribes subsisted on these creatures by harvesting them, cooking the meat, and then tanning the hides for clothing and shelter. Also, much like contemporary hunters, they told stories of their hunt around a fire under starry skies. Early European settlers also subsisted from the white-tailed deer population, but eventually hunting for subsistence gave way to agriculture, and hunting white-tailed deer became part of sporting life for most people instead of a means of survival.
White-tailed deer vary widely in size and weight, but in South Carolina white-tailed deer males generally average around 175 pounds and females average around 120 pounds. Either sex will generally live about 10 years in the wild under normal conditions. Their prolific habitat range in South Carolina spans the entire state. They favor a mixture of various trees, shrubs, and grasses as food sources and bedding, along with water from sources such as a lake or stream.
White-tailed deer are upright and walking within hours of their birth. As they grow, their spotted hide eventually develops into the reddish-brown fur most commonly associated with the species. Yearling males do not generally have full antlers their first year, but as they develop into larger and older specimens, their antlers grow thicker with more pronounced prongs. The males, known as bucks, shed their antlers every year and grow another pair, generally growing larger sets with each subsequent year. The period when a buck’s antlers are growing is called being “in velvet” as a short fuzzy fur covers the entirety of the rack. This covering drops off as the weather cools, usually by the end of September or early October.
Mid-October in South Carolina marks the beginning of their mating season, during which the buck will typically chase a female, known as a doe, five or six days before mating. Then he will remain with her for a few days and keep other bucks away. The pair will separate, and the buck will breed with as many does as possible until the end of the breeding period, also known as the “rut,” which may run as late as mid-January. Gestation for a white-tailed deer lasts an average of 200 days. If a newborn fawn is found in the woods, SCDNR advises to leave the fawn alone because human scent may cause a doe to abandon the fawn.
With healthy populations of white-tailed deer in every county of the state, South Carolina allows hunters to harvest several deer per season. Deer meat, also known as venison, makes tasty table fare as a centerpiece or substitute of any recipe requiring the use of red meat. Though harvesting an adult deer of any size is legal, most sporting life enthusiasts prefer to take more mature bucks and does, not only to challenge themselves but to ensure the population of white-tailed deer remains healthy. The Boone and Crockett Club provides a definitive method of measuring a harvested buck for trophy purposes based on the proportion of its antlers and whether the antlers are “typical,” meaning proportional to most white-tailed deer and usually symmetrical, or “atypical” meaning the antlers are disproportionate to most white-tailed deer, often with asymmetrical prongs.
Though their abundant numbers are encouraging, white-tailed deer still warrant attention. Overpopulation threatens the species with disease, such as a contagious neurological disease known as chronic-wasting disease, and starvation in some areas, whereas habitat loss due to development poses a large threat in others. Fortunately, South Carolina and most other states provide funding and resources to ensure the white-tailed deer endures for this generation and many more to come.