NC State Extension Publications

White-Tailed Deer

White-tailed deer are common throughout the eastern United States. Adult males (bucks) weigh between 100 and 200 pounds, whereas females (does) weigh between 80 and 160 pounds. Fawns are born in late spring to early summer, have characteristic spotted fur, and stay with their mothers for their first year of life. Occasionally people encounter a fawn without an adult nearby. This is perfectly normal, as the doe leaves the fawn while she ventures away to feed. She will return to the fawn several times a day to care for it. White-tailed deer often live to be 5-6 years old, especially where hunting pressure is low.

Photo of a white-tailed deer with large antlers

White-tailed deer (buck) with antlers.

USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Image of a fawn resting in light cover

Deer fawn.

Tom Koerner, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Habitat Requirements

White-tailed deer are common in both urban and rural areas, adapting well to live in close proximity to humans. They are highly adaptable and use creek and river bottoms, forest plantations, croplands, mature forests, young forests, early successional vegetation, and urban areas. Deer usually prosper following prescribed fire, timber harvest, or other disturbances which produce new vegetative growth near ground level.

Photo of distant deer in a field near forest edge

Deer foraging in an urban greenway.

Liessa Bowen, Wildlife biologist  CC BY-NC - 4.0

Food

Deer eat a variety of hard mast (e.g., acorns, beech nuts), soft mast (e.g., blackberry, blueberry), forbs, tender parts of woody plants, fungi, and agricultural crops. In fall and winter, the high priority deer foods are hard and soft mast, especially acorns, along with woody evergreen plants, herbaceous vegetation, and fungi. In the spring and summer, deer eat tender woody browse, a diverse array of forbs, and soft mast as it becomes available throughout the season. Adult deer require 6 to 8 pounds of green food per 100 pounds of body mass daily. Reproductive rates and survival during adverse winter conditions depend on the relative body fat stored during summer and fall feeding.

The abundance and quality of foods available from summer through fall largely influences the reproductive condition of deer. Nutrition, age, and genetics govern antler development. Antlers emerge in the spring and grow throughout the summer. Antler rubbing begins in August and ends by mid-October. Breeding activity peaks from late October through December. Antlers are shed from late December to mid-April. In the Southeast, the greatest stress period for deer typically is during later summer when woody vegetation is high in lignin (i.e., not easily digestible) and before acorns begin dropping. This also is the time that does are lactating, which is an energetically expensive physiological process. Hence, it’s important to manage for extensive forb cover, which is a critical food source during this time of year.

Photo of deer feeding in a snowy field

Two white-tailed deer feeding in a snowy field.

James Purdue, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Cover

Cover needs vary somewhat depending on the time of year. During the summer, deer seek out cool microclimates, often along river or creek bottoms. Conversely, deer may bed in upland areas, including early successional vegetation communities, during other seasons.

Year-round bedding cover consists of dense young timber stands, fallow fields, old beaver ponds, or secluded hardwood swamps. Early succession vegetation, including fallow fields, frequently is used by does for fawning cover. Mowing or burning of these fields should be delayed until August to avoid killing fawns, though the best time for field management is late winter just before spring green-up

photo of a deer in forest setting

Deer in wooded area.

Michelle Smith, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

Water

Deer require free water occasionally. Lactating females need it daily. Succulent green plants only partially meet a deer's water needs, so a lack of free water may deter deer from using certain parts of otherwise suitable range.

Home Range / Population Concerns

A deer's home range is seldom more than 300 to 400 acres in the coastal plain, piedmont or mountain regions, although bucks may range wider in the fall. If not subjected to either-sex hunting, deer populations may quickly exceed available food supplies, though the increase in coyotes and other predators may suppress populations in some landscapes. Landowners should consult with a professional biologist to set harvest goals and strategies that achieve objectives and maintain the health of the herd.

Photo of running deer with white tails in full display to viewer

White-tailed deer running from danger.

Brett Billings, USFWS  CC BY - 4.0

White-Tailed Deer Management

Tips for Improving Deer Habitat

General

  • Retain 20% of the landscape in forest with mast-producing species (i.e. oaks, beech, and hickory)
  • Keep most clearcut harvests less than 40 acres
  • Use prescribed burning and disking (i.e., soil tillage) to maintain areas of early succession vegetation, which provide abundant forage in the spring and summer and provide bedding and fawning cover

Intermediate treatments

  • Pre-commercially or commercially thin forest stands to promote understory
  • Thin forest stands frequently (8 to 10 years), targeting basal areas of 50 to 60 square feet per acre in pine-dominated forest
  • When thinning, retain a variety of mast-producing species
  • Favor a mixture of red oaks and white oaks in the overstory to ensure acorns are available each fall (note: acorn crops vary annually so maintaining a variety of oak species helps reduce annual variation)
  • During thinning and other timber harvest, retain individual oak trees known to be the best acorn producers (note: this requires 3 to 5 years of observation and record keeping by the landowner)

Prescribed burning

  • Burn frequently (2 to 5 years) to maintain understory that provides browse, forage (forbs as food), and soft mast
  • Conduct most prescribed burning during the winter months to avoid removing summer cover for deer, though summer burning can improve seasonal food availability
  • Prescribed burning during the late spring/early summer (May through July) promotes forage and browse that is high in nutrition during the summer stress period when does are lactating

Other improvements

  • Leave small portions of adjacent cropland unharvested
  • Plant cool-season and warm-season food plots to provide year-round supplemental food for deer and to increase hunter success when hunting adjacent to plots in the fall

Managing land for white-tailed deer benefits other species as well. Rather than focusing solely on white-tailed deer, management plans should emphasize the broader communities of which deer are a part. Because deer thrive in a variety of vegetation communities, a wide variety of other wildlife can benefit from white-tailed deer management.

Species that benefit from white-tailed deer management.

Early Succession

Young Forest

Mature Forest

Cottontail rabbit

Cottontail rabbit

Wood thrush

American goldfinch

Ruffed grouse

Hooded warbler

Indigo bunting

Gray fox

Red-eyed vireo

Wild turkey

Yellow-breasted chat

Gray squirrel

Northern bobwhite quail

Chestnut-sided warbler

Raccoon

Red fox

Wild turkey

Authors

Wildlife biologist
Professor (Wildlife)
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Extension Professor
Forestry & Environmental Resources

Publication date: July 1, 2019
Revised: July 1, 2019

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.