I wasn’t sure which species to write about today . . . until a small herd of white-tailed does started browsing in the yard right outside our cabin.
Yeah, that pretty much clinched it.
The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the only member of the deer family that lives wild in Virginia. They make up for being the only species with huge population numbers.
The lack of natural predators (cougars, wolves) has allowed the deer population to explode. Even in a (small) town like Blacksburg, the deer numbers are estimated at 17 animals per acre. That’s about 211,000 deer within the town’s borders!
The deer outside right now, though, are country deer. They’re browsing the close cropped lawn around the cabin. (We’re at a wonderful cabin in the Grayson Highlands for a couple of days to celebrate our 20th anniversary with velvety black, star-filled night skies and, hopefully, a glimpse of the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park.)
They’re browsing at mid-day, which is either a sign that they’re unafraid of anything in the area – including humans – or that food sources are scarce. Usually, deer are crepuscular creatures; they’re most active in the dim hours of dawn and dusk, resting in the forest in the brightest hours of day and darkest hours of night.
During those dawn and dusk hours, their warm, cafe au lait fur blends in nearly perfectly with the leaf litter on the forest floor and the taupe trunks of trees.
The deer aren’t named for the brown fur, though, but for the white fur on the underside of their tail. When they feel safe and relaxed, their tail hangs down and its brown top completes their camouflage. When frightened, though, they pop their tails up like a big white flag while running away.
Biologists have two theories about why the species has evolved with an foot-long white target on their backside:
- The white tail serves as a signal to other members of the herd that there’s trouble nearby and helps the herd keep together as they move away.
- The white tail is what chasing predators focus on while following the deer, but since the deer are extremely maneuverable and run in a leaping, zig zagging pattern, the predators following the white tail flag run to the left (toward the tail) while the deer is already turning to the right. Confused, the predator loses a few steps with each turn.
The deer grazed for a half hour or so. We watched them from inside the cabin, enjoying every twitch and head tilt. With any luck, they’ll come back tomorrow.