In our area, we are very familiar with deer, see them frequently and probably have an “Oh isn’t that fawn cute” as well as an “Oh no, that doe has just eaten all my begonias!” relationship with them. The intent of this web page is to provide a broad perspective and some in depth information about deer.
Classification, Range and Habitat
The Province of British Columbia is home to three types of deer: mule deer, black-tailed deer and white-tailed deer. The black-tailed deer, the subject of this webpage, inhabits the Pacific coastal area and is generally considered a subspecies of the mule deer.
Black-tailed deer can be further divided into two subspecies: Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and Sitka black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis). The Columbian black-tailed deer is the larger of these two (bucks can weigh 200 lbs.) and range from California to British Columbia. Sitka black-tailed deer are smaller (bucks weigh about 120 lbs.) and range from British Columbia to southeast Alaska.
Deer like “living on the edge”. That is, they prefer to inhabit a forested area for shelter and protection but also be able to venture into an open area to forage. Urbanization continues to consume thousands of acres of their habitat. One result of such development has been that the “edge areas”, where humans have cleared the land to build houses and plant crops, have become preferred sites for deer to forage. The map below shows ranges of BC's black-tailed deer, ref: env.gov.bc.ca
Most deer species share some common physical traits. They have long, slim legs with two hooves at the end of each foot, short tails, four-chambered stomachs, and coats in shades of brown. In the summer the deer’s reddish-brown coat is thin. As Fall approaches the deer moults, and assumes a new winter coat of a duller greyish-brown that has two layers: a shorter, soft, dense inner layer that acts as insulation, and a longer, hollow, stiff outer layer.
These seasonal changes in the colour of the deer’s coat (reddish brown in summer and more grey-brown in winter) help to camouflage it from predators. The same principle applies with fawns, when the white spots that are scattered about their reddish-brown coat allow them to blend into the debris and vegetation on the forest floor.
A deer has a remarkable sense of smell which plays a vital part in three important areas of a deer's
life--avoiding predators, locating food and selecting a mate.
One of the deer's hearing advantages is it's ability to move it's large ears independently to detect, direct and triangulate sounds from all directions. Deer hear high-frequency sounds better than we do.
It has been estimated that a deer’s daylight vision is about 20/100. They appear to be far-sighted, can detect any hint of movement and observe other animals at great distance (described as binocular vision). With the head stationary, their peripheral vision is considered to be about 250-270 degrees in comparison with humans’ 120 degrees. They have excellent night vision because of their high concentration of rods, an oval pupil that acts like an aperture on a camera, and a layer of tissue that acts like a mirror and magnifies light. This tissue, called the tapetum lucidum, is why the eyes glow when you shine a light on a deer in the dark.
Stomach and Diet
An average-sized adult deer requires approximately seven pounds of leaves, stems, buds, and blades per day. To meet this very large requirement, deer spend almost all of their waking hours foraging for food.
Black-tailed deer are prey animals that also happen to be ruminants. Like cows and goats, they have four stomach chambers that allow a foraging deer to consume, minimally chew and then store large amounts in the first chamber (called the rumen). Later they bring this food back into their mouths and continue the digestive process by “chewing their cuds”. The advantage of this process is that great amounts of food can be ingested and digestion can be completed once they have run or retreated into cover.
The main components of a deer’s diet include shrubs, herbs, browse (the leaves, buds and twigs of woody plants), grass, berries, apples, acorns, nuts, and lots of green foliage. It also dines on mushrooms and lichens and munches on cultivated crops if it gets a chance. A deer’s diet changes during the year due to season, need and availability. In the spring deer are avid eaters of tender, new shoots and in the fall, as deer prepare for a lean winter season, they scrounge for fruit, seeds and nuts.
As a rule, only the black-tailed males have antlers. Antlers start developing at the age of 6-8 months and for the rest of its life, the buck will grow antlers between April and August and shed them between December and March. For the first 4 or 5 years, the antlers will increase in size each year until they reach their maximum size.
Among the fastest growing tissue in the animal kingdom, a large set of antlers requires great amounts of energy and nutrients and are proof of an animal’s health. Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle. New antlers are covered with a fuzzy, hair-like skin layer called velvet; a tissue rich with nerves and blood vessels that supplies the antlers with oxygen and nutrients.
When the antlers are fully grown, the velvet is cut off from the deer's blood supply and dies away. The velvet then sheds, and the deer can be seen trying to help this process by rubbing its antlers against trees and other structures. By the time mating season (rutting period) begins in late August, the velvet is gone and the antlers are a hard, bony material. The following YouTube video shows a buck named “Meatball” and documents it's antler growth from March through to September.
As the rut starts, males continue to rub their antlers on vegetation to mark areas with their scent. They begin to spar with one another to determine dominance. The sound of antlers rattling draws other males to the area to participate in this important part of deer social behavior. As the season progresses, sparring ends and serious competition for females begin. Posturing is often enough, but sometimes two equally matched males will fight. Fighting includes locking antlers and a massive pushing and shoving match that ends with the loser running away.
After the breeding season ends, the exhausted bucks may have broken antlers, battle scars and injuries. They retire and play no part in raising the fawns.
The mating season of the black-tailed deer is from November to December. After a gestation period of about 200 days, 1-2 fawns are born in late May or early June. Healthy fawns weigh between 4 and 8 lbs and are able to walk within hours of their birth. In the first few weeks, a doe does all she can to eliminate odours that will attract predators. She is careful to lick and clean the fawns, lead them to different bedding sites and reside at a distance herself after nursing the fawns.
Fawns eventually lose their spotted coats and grow a greyish winter coat which provides camouflage in the fall forests. Winter is a hard time for fawns as food is scarce and their fragile bodies sometimes cannot outlast the cold, resulting in a 45-70% mortality rate.
Males and females are mature around 18 months. The natural lifespan of the black-tailed deer is 9-10 years. However, they can live longer, (17-20 years) if in captivity. Coyotes, cougars, bears, wolves, and golden eagles are the common predators of the black-tailed deer. Hunters and motor vehicles also take their toll.
Ever alert to the possibility of danger, deer rely on their keen sense of smell and binocular 270 ° field of vision. They communicate danger by raising their tail to show the white underside and escape with an agile bound that brings all four legs off the ground (stotting) and a sprint speed of 35-40 miles an hour.
Deer and Covid
Some of us may not be aware that some wildlife are contracting Covid. The following information is from the Government of Canada. There have been a few reports of the COVID-19 virus in free-ranging and captive wild species found in North America, including: mink, cougars, mule deer and white-tailed deer.
Studies on white-tailed deer have found that while the virus likely spread initially from humans, deer-to-deer transmission is also occurring. Recent research in Canada has found one instance of suspected deer-to-human transmission. This appears to be an isolated case with no further transmission. Based on available information to date, animal-to-human transmission is likely very uncommon.
Deer and Ticks and Lyme Disease
Deer do not carry the bacteria for lyme disease but they are a host animal for the black-legged tick (also called the deer tick) and a necessary part of its lifecycle. Ticks contract the bacteria as larvae when they feed on infected wildlife hosts, usually rodents. As an adult, a female tick will latch on to deer as a source of blood, a place to lay eggs and a means to get to new places, but the deer do not become infected.
Rabies and Wasting Disease
According to the BC Center for Disease Control:
- Bats are the only “natural reservoir” for rabies in our province.
- Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a fatal infection that affects species in the deer family (cervids) such as mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose and caribou, has not been detected in BC. However, cases have been detected in free-ranging cervids within 50 km of the B.C. border. This significantly increases the disease risk to B.C.’s cervid populations and requires a collaborative, coordinated effort in prevention and response planning.
Population Over Time
A brief summary of fluctuations in the deer population is presented in the next two paragraphs which are quoted from the Canadian Wildlife Federation.
“Canada’s native inhabitants considered deer almost as sacred animals for the food, clothing, and tools they provided. European settlers also quickly learned the great value of deer for their meat and the deerskins sold for money to European markets.
In colonial times, people regarded all natural resources as inexhaustible. Because of this attitude, deer populations came to the brink of disaster in the 1800’s. However, with milder winters, less hunting, protective laws, fewer natural predators, and human-made habitats that offer food and cover, deer populations have increased. They are now at levels where they are causing serious damage to natural plant communities, agricultural crops, and gardens.”
Is Your Garden Part of Their Diet?
If the first time deer visit your area they feed well, are not chased by predators, or disturbed by deterrents - you can be assured that they will return. Deer are creatures of habit. The dominant animals leave scents that will be followed by other deer. Your garden has now become part of their territory!
Avoiding plants that deer prefer, using plants they do not like, and incorporating a garden design aimed at discouraging deer may be the only way to save your landscaping efforts.
According to the Master Gardeners Association of BC “the most reliably deer-resistant plants are those with acrid sap like Euphorbia; strongly scented foliage like lavender, sages and oregano; dry-loving plants like Cistus and Halimium; fuzzy leafed plants like Stachys and Pulmonaria; also most plants with grey/silver foliage such as dusty millers.”
Click here to read the Deer "Resistant Plant List", or here for "A Quick Summary", (a list you can print and take with you when shopping), and also a quick summary of the top 25 plants here.
We recommend the following video for its stunning footage of black-tailed deer "living on the edge" in Washington State. Its a nice way to spend a few minutes with a cup of coffee or tea.
Mule and Black-tailed Deer in British Columbia, a pamphlet published in 2000, funded by Habitat Conservation Trust Fund.
Click here to view pdf from our library.
BCSPCA, a wide range of excellent article that focus on deer in BC. https://www.spca.bc.ca/?s=deer
WildSafeBC, A British Columbia conservation foundation - “Keeping wildlife wild and communities safe: Deer, Snapshot, Wild Facts, Safety, Conflict Reduction. ”https://wildsafebc.com/species/deer/
BC Ecosystem Explorer. Providing information for over 22,000 plants, animals and ecological communities in BC. https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/environment/plants-animals-ecosystems/conservation-data-centre/explore-cdc-data/species-and-ecosystems-explorer
Wildlife Collision Prevention Program, Making BC's roads safer for people and wildlife.
White-tailed Deer in British Columbia, a study published in 2000 and funded by the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund. https://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/whttail.pdf
Master Gardeners of BC. Presenting information on deer resistant plants. https://www.mgabc.org/content/deer-resistant-plants
Living with Wildlife in BC: Ungulates. Advice for agricultural and rural land owners.
Ticks in BC. Information provided by the Government of BC.
Black-Tailed Deer. Wixpedia.
Chronic Wasting Disease. Government of BC portal.