Distribution & Habitat
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. Deer are found throughout Massachusetts-with occasional sightings in Boston and other cities.
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.
Deer prefer forest-edge habitats or thickets intermixed with glades, wetlands, or abandoned pastures. They have readily adapted to the fragmented forests typical of most suburban residential areas. Agricultural lands located adjacent to woodlots or wooded wetlands also are favored by deer. From late January through early March, deer often congregate and seek shelter from wind, deep snow, and cold temperatures in stands of dense conifers, rhododendron, or mountain laurel.
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, stay together on the maternal range, in a familiar habitat from 1 to 2 sq miles in size. Males leave the maternal range as yearlings to adopt either a solitary existence or, more commonly, form "buck groups" consisting of 2-5 individuals. Bucks traverse larger areas than females. Typically New England white-tails travel no more than 5-15 miles.
The white-tailed deer is prized animal, both for its value to sportsmen and women who enjoy the opportunity to participate in a special outdoor and culinary experience as well as to other wildlife enthusiasts for its aesthetic appeal. Deer are a valuable natural resource. Their reproductive rate and adaptability to residential areas point to the need for be active population management. The key to managing deer is controlling their populations at levels suitable for both the needs of deer and people.
Increases in crop and landscape damage as well as deer-vehicle collisions are all indicators of high deer population densities. Deer can strip their habitat of its life-supporting qualities negatively impacting many other wildlife and plant communities. Without adequate food sources and cover, deer work harder for daily nourishment and often cannot build up the energy reserves they need to survive the winter. Undernourished deer are also more vulnerable to exposure and disease. In addition, they are typically smaller, with smaller antlers and a lower reproductive capacity.
MassWildlife uses hunting as a deer population management tool, mostly through regulating the number of does taken by hunters. In regions of the state where there are high numbers of deer/square mile, a large number of antlerless (doe) deer permits are made available to hunters in an effort to decrease the number of deer that could be born the following spring. Conversely, in regions where there are few deer (sometimes resulting from poor habitat quality), few antlerless permits for that area are allocated for hunters. Public support of management programs are essential to maintaining deer as a public asset to be enjoyed in by Bay State citizens and visitors now and in the future.
Deer & Disease
Fortunately no significant, widespread health issues currently exist in our deer population; however, white-tailed deer populations are susceptible to diseases. MassWildlife has an active, ongoing disease surveillance program for chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is one of our biggest deer health concerns. Check here for additional information on CWD , or visit the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website.
Lyme disease, often associated with white-tailed deer, is a bacterial disease transmitted by the bite of infected lacklegged ticks. Although adult ticks often feed on deer, these deer do not become infected. Deer are nevertheless important in transporting ticks and maintaining tick populations. Check here for additional information on Lyme disease provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health or visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
Tips from MassWildlife
Leave fawns (young deer) alone!
The arrival of spring and summer also means the arrival of newborn deer. Every year, the lives of some fawns are upset by people who mean only to help. Deer often leave their fawns alone for hours in order to forage for food. If left alone most times the mother will return.
If you are concerned that something may have happened to the doe, note the location of the fawn and check the next day to see if it is there. It is best not to hover or check-in a fawn that you find by itself. See Moving Wildlife. Hovering or checking in on the fawn frequently will only delay the doe's (adult female) return.
Do not take a fawn from the wild and try to care for it. This is illegal, unwise and in the end, usually harmful to the fawn. Instead call your local MassWildlife office and report your sighting and concern.
Do not feed wildlife
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 of humans and become accustomed to human hand-outs (habituated).
The Division of Fisheries & 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.