deer family

A whitetail doe and her twin fawns browse on the side of a DeSoto County back road. Soon they’ll lose those spots and strike out on their own.

“You call that a deer? My dog’s bigger than that!” Sorry to disappoint, but Florida is not known for its trophy bucks. Look, if you want big game, stick with fishing. We have Goliath grouper, tarpon, massive sharks and one of the world’s best largemouth fisheries. But big deer? Not here.

Adult whitetail bucks here average 100 to 120 pounds. The farther south you go, the smaller they get. Swamp bucks in the ‘Glades might weigh 90 pounds, and in the Keys (where the deer are different enough to get their own subspecies designation), some full-grown adult males are less than 70 pounds.

Why so small? Because they don’t need to be big. Up north, deer need more body mass to stay warm in cold weather and to carry more fat reserves for winter’s lean times. In the subtropics, those concerns are greatly reduced, and so is the size of the animal. Many other mammals — raccoons, bobcats, bears, skunks — show the same adaptation: Bigger where it’s cold, smaller where it’s not.

Although they’re not as large, Florida whitetails still behave much the same as their northern relations. They prefer edge habitats, where forest and field meet. It’s common to spot deer on the sides of rural roads, where the frequently mowed ditches constantly produce tender new growth. They also like agricultural areas such as semi-improved cow pastures, citrus groves and planted areas that adjoin swamps or forested floodplains. With an abundance of more natural habitat, deer are rarely pests in suburban Florida neighborhoods but may nibble rural gardens.

Edge habitat not only provides food but also vital cover. Whitetails enjoy browsing in the open but will bound into the trees when they feel threatened. These days, their major predators are hunters and vehicles, but 150 years ago, Florida panthers and red wolves kept the deer herd controlled and healthy. Perhaps one day, these natural predators will be back on the job. Until then, bobcats and coyotes do take some fawns and sick animals.

Locally, deer tend to be more active late at night and in the early morning. In the central parts of the state, they’re frequently seen from sunset to a couple hours after. But these are only the more likely times — you might spot whitetails at any time of day or night, and overcast days seem to encourage them to move around.

Unless you’re driving down the road, a deer will usually be aware of you long before you’re aware of it. When a deer detects potential trouble, the first thing it does is freeze. Most predators have good vision, but it’s much harder to spot something that’s holding still.

If the threat seems more imminent, the deer will stomp and snort (a warning to any other deer nearby) and then bound off with its flag-like tail raised high, exposing the bright white underside. Deer can cover ground amazingly fast, taking leaps that are 30 feet long and up to 12 feet high.

Deer are picky feeders. When plants are actively growing, they selectively eat the leaves and tender stems of many plants, including hog plum, pokeweed, blackberry, beautyberry, ragweed, Florida pusley and poison ivy. They also eat certain species of mushrooms.

During the dry season, when growth is less, they still eat leaves and grasses but depend more on acorns. Since hogs also take many acorns, an abundance of piney woods rooters may limit deer numbers — especially in drier years.

In most of the whitetail’s range, breeding happens at a fairly specific time. Here in Florida, there’s a huge range of possible times. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission biologists have documented breeding to occur in every single month except May. In our part of the state, most breeding occurs between July and October.

Bucks start to grow antlers in late winter or early spring. By midsummer, the velvet is peeling off and the rut is getting underway. Bucks will fight to establish a mating hierarchy. The fights are basically arm-wrestling competitions — males link their antlers together and then try to push each other down. Sometimes a serious injury results, but usually there’s no bleeding. It’s not an honor system: Losers experience diminished testosterone production, while victors produce more hormones.

Once the breeding season is over, the antlers fall off. With so many deer shedding antlers, why aren’t the woods carpeted in them? In a word, rodents. Squirrels, rats and mice gnaw the antlers to scavenge minerals. They’re very effective, and most antlers disappear within weeks of being dropped.

Fawns are born from late winter to early summer, usually in thick grass on the edge of an open field. The doe will leave her fawn lying still in the grass. It’s nearly scentless and stays motionless, so predators have a hard time finding newborns. Mama returns two to four times daily to nurse.

By a month old, the fawn is nibbling at nearby browse. At about four months, the fawn is weaned and spends its time foraging with its mother. She will chase off her yearling before giving birth again. A young doe may return or stay close by, eventually forming a family group. Bucks strike out on their own, which limits the amount of inbreeding.

While Florida’s deer may not be the most impressive of their species, they’re still amazing animals and it’s always a treat to spot one in the woods. Who says bigger is always better anyway?

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