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white-tailed deer mother and fawn touching faces
Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

One of the largest wildlife species most New Yorkers are going to encounter, white-tailed deer can symbolize wildness, beauty, and a well-stocked freezer. People will try to attract them to their yards with feeders and salt licks (which are illegal) and food plots (legal).

On the other hand, deer can be destructive to homeowner landscapes and gardens, farmers’ crops, and woodlands. They are responsible for deer-vehicle collisions, and provide a blood meal for several tick species which carry disease-causing pathogens. Love them, hate them, or fall somewhere in-between, the controversy regarding deer management is not likely to go away anytime soon.

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What Do Deer Look Like?

Their long, slender legs, large ears, and agile brown bodies all say “deer”—but you really know it when you see their tails flip up, showing a fluffy white underside as they bound into the safety of the woods. Deer are smaller than you think—up to 3 ½ feet at the shoulder. Males carry antlers from spring through fall. And fawns are spotted.

white-tailed deer bounding through a grassy field
White-tailed deer are aptly named.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.
white-tailed deer fawn standing in tall grass
White-tailed deer fawns have spotted coats.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Their tracks are cloven, leaving well-worn trails through woods and fields. Sometimes you’ll find a deer bed, basically padded-down grass where deer sleep. In the early fall, “buck rubs” are damaged saplings with much of the bark worn off when males rub the vascular “velvet” from their newly grown antlers. “Sheds” (antlers that are drop off during the late winter and early spring) are another sign of their presence, although these are highly prized by rodents which chew them for nutrients.

deer droppings on ground
Deer droppings can show what deer are eating. Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

The appearance of deer droppings depends on the season and what they are eating. In winter, a diet of twigs and buds makes their droppings look like someone spilled a handful of hard black jellybeans. In summer, when deer have plenty of fresh grasses, flowering plants, leaves, and crops, the dropping are softer and tend to be clumped together.

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Why Should I Worry About Deer?

Deer eat four to ten pounds every day, depending upon sex, body weight, and season. If this is consumed out of your yard or garden, you’ll know it. Where woods are overpopulated with deer, they eat tree seedlings—a problem for forest renewal. Many woodland invasive plants proliferate because deer prefer native vegetation. Reduced plant diversity leads to less animal diversity, especially ground nesting birds.

young corn shoots with leaves chewed off
Deer damage to corn. Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Deer are a primary reproductive host of blacklegged, lone star, and Asian longhorned ticks. After feeding, the female tick will use the nutrition from the blood meal to create and lay eggs (2,000-8,000 depending on species). Based on their ability to move great distances, deer are also important dispersal hosts for ticks, moving them to new locations. Deer do not play a role in infecting ticks with the pathogens that cause Lyme and several other diseases, although they are the reservoir host of Ehrlichia chaffeensis.

Collisions don't only occur when cars hit deer. Sometimes deer jump into the side of cars. Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

And we must also be aware of deer along roadsides. According to the NYS Department of Transportation, there are an estimated 60,000 – 70,000 deer collisions annually. Most occur in the fall during deer mating season, with the highest risk two hours before sunrise and after sunset. Where you see one deer, more often follow. Brake carefully and don’t swerve. While it is best to avoid the collision if possible, from a safety and car insurance perspective, it is usually better to hit the deer than another vehicle or large object.

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Why Do I Have Deer in My Yard?

two deer at bird feeder
Deer are happy to take advantage of supplemental food. Photo: Paul Curtis, Cornell Univ. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Deer are an edge species, which means they like to mix their time between fields and forests. They have adapted well to our suburban environment’s abundant gardens and ornamental plantings usually free from predators and hunters. People will also put out deer food to attract them to their yards. This supplements natural food and boosts deer reproduction and survival. Feeding deer is illegal in New York, but the selling of deer food is not, which can be confusing for those with good intentions.

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How Do I Manage Deer in the Landscape?

Dealing with deer needs a community-wide effort. Make sure no one is feeding deer. Band together to get roadsides mowed so that deer can be more easily seen from the road. Coyotes will prey upon fawns, but in many places, deer have only one natural predator left — people. Experienced, careful hunters can reduce herds, supplying some food pantries with meat at the same time.

For property-specific recommendations, you can try:

  • Reduce availability of your plants and shrubs as food by laying deer netting (available at garden centers) over plants. This offers some protection.
  • Install fences. Deer don’t like to jump into small enclosures; a 4-foot-tall fence works for small gardens. For large gardens or landscape plantings, an 8-foot fence is best.
  • Some dogs also deter deer, but make sure you have a dog fence—chasing deer is not allowed. And deer will soon learn if your dog is restrained.
  • Plant wisely. For a list of plants that deer are less likely to eat, see the resources in the right hand sidebar.

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