White-tailed Deer in Massachusetts
White tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), are found throughout Massachusetts including on the islands Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Deer are found throughout Massachusetts. Usually found in rural or suburban areas, they occasionally show up in cities. Deer usually seek out forest-edge habitats or thickets intermixed with glades, wetlands, or abandoned pastures. They have adapted easily to the fragmented forests typical of most suburban residential areas. In fact, deer densities are often higher in suburban areas than in rural areas because of the abundance of supplemental foods, including landscaping plants.
White-tailed deer have long, slender legs; large ears; and a tail that, when the deer is alarmed, flares erect to reveal the white underside for which the animal is named. They belong to the Cervidae (deer family), which includes elk, moose, caribou, mule deer, and many others. White-tails can reach a total length of approximately 6 feet and a height of approximately 3 feet.
Weight depends on the age, sex, and physical condition of the animal and on the quality and quantity of food available to it. Bucks (male deer) generally range in weight from 100- 250 pounds, whereas does are somewhat lighter at 70-150 pounds. In addition to being larger than does (female deer), bucks also have antlers that grow each year and are shed after the breeding season. Occasionally (very rarely!), does with antlers have been documented.
During the summer, the upper coat of the deer is reddish-brown with
short, thin, straight, wiry hairs. In winter, the coat changes to a
grayish-brown, with long, thick, hollow hairs that are slightly crinkled
and provide excellent insulation against the cold. The belly, the throat,
the areas around the eyes, the insides of the ears, and the underside
of the tail are white year round. Fawns (very young deer) are chestnut-brown
color with conspicuous white spots on their back and sides that provide
camouflage from predators. These spots fade by 3-4 months of age.
White-tailed deer are crepuscular, meaning that they are most active at dawn and dusk. Deer may also be active at other times of the day, especially during the breeding season in late fall. Typically, an adult doe, her fawns, and in some cases female offspring from the previous year will all stay together on the maternal range, in a familiar habitat of 1-2 square miles in size. Males leave the maternal range as yearlings to adopt either a solitary existence or, more commonly, to form "bachelor groups" consisting of two to five individuals. Typically white-tails in New England travel no more than 5-15 miles, with bucks traversing larger areas than does.
In Massachusetts, breeding takes place between late October and early December. At this time, bucks are more active throughout the day than usual. Rutting bucks often chase does across roads without hesitation, so drivers should be extra cautious during the late fall. Slow down, and stay alert to avoid vehicle-deer collisions.
After a gestation period of about 28 weeks the fawns are born, sometime between late May and early July. Depending upon her age and physical condition, a doe may produce one, two, or three fawns, each one weighing about 4-6 pounds and able to walk within an hour of birth.
Please leave fawns alone! Every year, well-intentioned people upset the lives of some fawns that they find by trying to "rescue" them. Does often leave their fawns alone for hours at a time in order to forage for food, and the fawn's camouflaged coat keeps it inconspicuous. If the fawn is left where it is seen, the mother will usually return later in the day. Hovering or "checking in" on the fawn may, in fact delay the mother's return. If you are concerned that something may have happened to the mother, note the location of the fawn and check back the next day to see if it is still there. Even if it is, do not take a fawn from the wild and try to care for it. This is not only illegal, it is unwise, and, in the end, usually harmful to the fawn. Instead, call your local MassWildlife office and report your sighting.
White-tailed deer are herbivores and they consume a wide variety of herbaceous and woody plants. Food preferences depend on the kinds of plants growing in an area and the season of the year. Typically, deer eat green leaves, herbaceous plants, and new growth on woody plants in the spring and summer. In late summer, fall, and early winter, hard and soft fruits such as apples, pears, and acorns are a major part of their diet. In winter, the deer feed on evergreen leaves, hard browse (twigs, shoots, hardy leaves, and buds), or bark from trees. In poor habitat, deer may become undernourished and thus more vulnerable to exposure and disease. These deer are also typically smaller, with smaller antlers and a lower reproductive rate.
Massachusetts has a robust and healthy deer herd statewide as most
of the state offers adequate deer habitat year-round. Biologists estimate
there are about 85,000 to 95,000 deer statewide. Densities range from
about 10 deer per square mile in northwestern Massachusetts to 45 to
55 per square mile on Nantucket Island.
White-tailed deer are well-adapted to surviving southern New England winters. Between late January and early March, deer often congregate and seek shelter from wind, deep snow, and cold temperatures in stands of dense conifers, rhododendrons, or mountain laurels. In addition to being able to use stored body fat, their metabolism decreases during the winter, which allows them to survive on limited quantities of food and accommodates the winter diet.
To Feed or Not To Feed Deer?
Please resist the urge to feed wild animals, as this activity results in more harm than good for Bay State wildlife. Supplemental feeding, especially in winter, can actually harm deer by increasing travel, raising their metabolic rate, and giving them a false sense of food supply. Deer may be enticed to remain in an area that doesn't provide good winter habitat. Feeding wild deer can also concentrate deer in high numbers, making them vulnerable to predation and vehicle collisions as well as to increased disease transmission and the development of "problem" traits such as when they lose their fear humans and become accustomed to human hand-outs (habituated). The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) discourages landowners and neighbors of conservation lands from feeding deer - and other wild animals - at any time of the year, but especially in the winter.
Deer & Landowner Conflicts
Landscaped yards, orchards, and vegetable crops may be eaten and destroyed by deer and other wildlife. To be sure that the damage was caused by deer, be sure to positively identify the clues left behind by the animal. Deer lack upper incisors (the blade-shaped teeth at the front of the jaw), so twigs browsed by deer look as though they were partially clipped, with a trailing, ragged edge. By contrast, a twig that is neatly snipped off, with a clean, smooth cut, was probably eaten by a rabbit or woodchuck, both of which have strong, sharp incisors. There is no provision in state law or regulation for compensation to landowners for deer damage. Thus, it is to the benefit of landowner to try to prevent crop and planting damage by deer before a significant problem develops.
- Scare Tactics: If you are sure the damage was caused by a deer, your first choice is to chase all deer off your property whenever you see them to make them wary and uncomfortable there. Loud noises, lights, and even a spray of water from a hose can be useful deterrents.
- Commercial repellants: Animal hair, and urine may be placed directly on plants to repel deer. All repellents are billed to reduce, not eliminate, deer damage. To achieve this reduction, they must be applied consistently and reapplied as directed. Repellants are not effective for large-scale deterrence.
- Fencing: The best choice is to build a fence to keep deer out: This is the most effective long-term solution for managing deer damage. A variety of different fence materials can be used. Fencing should be at least 8 feet high. Electric fencing is also an option, as deer quickly change their behavior to avoid the fence.
- Hunting: Removing deer by hunting during the regulated hunting season is another effective option, although other deer may move in after a few seasons if deterrence is not continued. Landowners who don't hunt can consider inviting sportsmen and -women on to their property during the deer season. Please see the Massachusetts Hunting and Fishing Abstracts or contact your local MassWildlife District Office. Landowners may also wish to check on municipal bylaws concerning shooting and hunting. More on deer management and hunting.
If all options have been exhausted and you are still having a problem, please contact your local MassWildlife office for further technical advice or support.
White-tailed deer are an important natural resource in Massachusetts. They are legally protected as a big game species for which a management program and established hunting season exists. For more detailed information, visit the White-tailed Deer fact pages.