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White-tailed Deer: Life History, Biology, and Hunting

White-tailed Deer: Life History, Biology, and Hunting

a whitetail buck is skylined against the sunset.

Learn about white-tailed deer and how to hunt them

White-tailed deer are the most sought-after game species in the United States. If you’ve ever wandered in the woods, river bottoms, or fields west of the continental divide, you’ve probably seen a whitetail, or at least a few footprints, before. Here’s a deep dive into all things whitetails to help you plan your deer hunting strategies.

White-tailed Deer Taxonomy

White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), often referred to as simply whitetails, are mammals that are members of the Cervidae family. Other familiar North American cervids include moose, elk, mule deer, and caribou. Two defining features of the Cervidae family are that male cervids have antlers and that cervids chew their cud.

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A whitetail doe flicks her tail in a snowy woods.

Whitetail Life History: The Basics

Whitetail fawns are born in the springtime, often in May or June. Younger does, or female white-tailed deer, usually have just one fawn. Mature does often have two fawns, but triplets are not terribly uncommon. Fawns are born completely scentless and are able to see, walk, and even run when they’re born. Does leave fawns hidden away in areas of tall grass while they’re not nursing. This allows the fawns to remain safe from predators while does feed. Fawns are able to graze on their own in just a matter of weeks; that’s the age when you’ll likely see them out in the fields alongside their mom in the mornings and evenings.

Deer gestation periods last just a little bit longer than 200 days. For a fawn to be born in late May, a doe must breed during the fall. The period of time where bucks, or male white-tailed deer, are actively looking for does to breed with is called the rut. It’s very common to hear hunters refer to the best time to hunt deer as “the rut.” This is when testosterone levels peak in bucks.

In general, during the rut, bucks are known to make poor decisions. Instead of sneakily creeping through the woods unseen all day, they are willing to take risks to find a doe in heat. Chasing does in fields in broad daylight, fighting loudly with other bucks, and traveling to new areas are all things bucks commonly do when their judgment is impeded by hormones. You can use these tidbits of information to plan your deer hunting season.

However, the rut lasts for a small window of time, usually a two-week period in November. This timing changes depending on your latitude, so it’s important to also do local research when planning your deer hunt. Once the rut is over, bucks’ testosterone levels dip back down, and they go back to living their rather secluded life with a handful of other bucks in a bachelor herd or by themselves. In most places, you can still hunt whitetails after the rut is over during late-season hunts, but with the rut over, your chances of finding a large buck can decrease. However, your chances of finding does should remain the same.

Whitetail Antler Growth

While the does raise fawns, bucks grow their velvet. “Growing velvet” is a common piece of hunting jargon that describes the period of time from April through September when bucks are growing their new set of antlers. Each year, bucks shed their antlers in February. These are referred to as sheds. Once the previous year’s antlers have fallen off of their pedicels due to a significant drop in testosterone, bucks will begin growing a new set.

Each year as a buck gets older, his antlers increase in size, too. The velvet covering a fresh set of growing antlers is full of blood and nutrients. These resources are fed to the rapidly growing bone tissue that makes up a deer’s antlers. Around August or September, the velvet will begin to fall off, and deer will officially be “hard-horned.” 

Deer often rub off their own velvet on trees, branches, and even fence posts. Shaved spots on pole-sized trees where it looks like all the bark has been rubbed off are called just that: a rub. These are fantastic indicators of areas bucks are using because bucks often rub the same tree more than once. They’re doing much more than removing the itchy, dry velvet; they’re also leaving their scent for other deer to find. Both bucks and does communicate heavily through scent trails. Whitetails have amazing noses and can pick up whether that buck who rubbed that tree this morning was healthy, if he was sick, if he was ready to breed, if he had good genetics, and more.

Maven's logo over a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.
A whitetail buck walks with his nose to the ground.

White-tailed Deer Range

The white-tailed deer are native to North America, Central America, and South America. The average size of whitetails changes based on latitude. Smaller whitetails are found farther south where it’s hot, damp, and densely forested. Larger-bodied whitetails are found farther north of the equator with some of the largest individuals being found in southern Canada. However, their large native range speaks to how adaptable these critters are; after all, they can be found in many different habitats.

Whitetail habitat has a few constants that you’ll always be able to look for when planning a hunt. Most notably, whitetails love edges. Have you ever driven through Iowa, your mind wandering while patches of field, forest, field, and forest flow past your window? Well, there’s a reason why Iowa has some of the best whitetail hunting in the United States. It’s because it’s chock-full of incredible deer habitat.

White-tailed Deer Habitat

All animals need three things to survive: water, food, and shelter. For whitetails, these variables can be found in a multitude of settings. Water is self-explanatory; ponds, streams, lakes, cattle tanks, and anywhere else you can find clean water count as a deer water source. Their food includes woody browse, forbs, and mast. Woody browse is what you’d expect it to be: woody branches or shrubs covered in leaves. Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants that are not grasses. Mast is the fruit from trees or shrubs and includes everything from acorns to mulberries. With all three of these food sources combined, whitetails can access both nutrient-rich and fiber-rich foods during different periods of their life cycle. 

Whitetail shelter looks different depending on where you’re hunting. In southern Maryland, for example, the land can be very swampy. Deer like to bed on small rises found in these swamps that are just a foot or two above sea level; these high spots don’t flood when the water rises, and are often deep in the swamp away from hunters and other threats. In Wisconsin, deer might bed towards the tops of hillsides where they can play the wind. The deer will be able to see anything approaching from below and be able to smell anything coming in behind them. This is why it’s important to always play the wind. 

In general, whitetails find shelter in mixed forests. Deer love edge habitat, or the border where two different kinds of habitats meet. Forest edges along agricultural fields, the edges of a river bottom where the cottonwoods end and the prairie begins, and other similar places all count as edge habitat. Whitetails love thickets, too, and they’re often where you can find the shed antlers. 

Depending on the quality of the habitat, deer may have home ranges of two to three miles. “Home range” is simply where a deer lives throughout the year. Larger home ranges generally mean that the habitat quality or food availability is lower. 

A tree stand set up in the white-tailed deer woods.

Whitetail Hunting

As previously mentioned, white-tailed deer are the most hunted big game in North America. In 2020, the United States had approximately 11.4 million deer hunters. That’s a lot considering there are an estimated 15.09 million total hunters in the States!

There are two basic strategies when it comes to deer hunting: ambush or spot and stalk. Ambush hunting occurs either on the ground, in a blind, or in a tree stand. The gist of it is that the hunter waits in a single strategically chosen location and waits for a deer to walk by within range. If you’re hunting with a bow, this could be anywhere from 5-50 yards. If you’re using a rifle, your range could be up to 250+ yards away, depending on your shooting ability and line of sight.

Spot and stalk hunting is the opposite of ambush hunting. Instead of waiting in a single location, you’re on the move. Spot and stalk requires a lot of time hiking and glassing, or looking through binoculars or a spotting scope. You’re hoping to spot a whitetail on the landscape before it spots you. When you do see one, you must play the wind to keep that deer from smelling you coming, and sneak up to it until you’re within shooting range.

There’s an array of tools you can use when hunting whitetails, too. Decoys, fake antlers for rattling, bait, hot doe pee, and so many other things can come into play on your deer hunt. Just be sure to check your state’s regulations to see which tools are legal to use and which are illegal. For example, baiting is illegal in most states with a high prevalence of chronic wasting disease.

Whitetails are beautiful, amazing critters that are a ton of fun to hunt, too. Watching their sleek shadows melt in and out of the forest in the wee hours of the morning is a lovely thing. Not only are they popular hunting quarry, but venison makes for delicious table fare, too. Once you decide to become a deer hunter, you’ll never go back.

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