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Outdoors with Ken Hunter… What Color is a Deer?

When I was just a young fella, my grandfather would take me hunting with him. His way of hunting deer was to hit the woods at a steady stride and cover as many miles as possible in a single day. Every mile or so he would suddenly stop and point and say, “There goes one.”

When I was just a young fella, my grandfather would take me hunting with him. His way of hunting deer was to hit the woods at a steady stride and cover as many miles as possible in a single day. Every mile or so he would suddenly stop and point and say, “There goes one.” I would look up just in time to see the rear end of a deer bounding off in the opposite direction. I guess those early “hunting experiences” explain why I thought a deer was a white, pointed thing that bounced up and down as it ran away — one day I saw one standing still sideways, and I realized they were actually brown.

Of course, everybody knows that deer are brown, even I know that now, but guess what — that’s not always the case. Deer, like a lot of other animals, can show up wearing a very different coat. Bears are black, but I have seen brown and cinnamon bears. Squirrels are gray, but I have seen black and white ones, and the same thing happens with deer.

Actually, white deer can show up white or partially white for two different reasons — a normally brown deer can be white due to a condition called albinism, or it may be because of leucism. Both of these conditions are inherited.

Albinism is caused by reduced production of melanin, which is a dark pigment found in hair, skin and the iris and is inherited when two recessive genes come together. This condition results in a deer being very sensitive to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and they seldom live a normal life span. Oddly enough, some states actually don’t allow them to be hunted — Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin have laws protecting them. Fortunately, Pennsylvania does not put them in “some kind of mystical or special realm,” and in fact, some here would consider them a special trophy.

The other cause of a white deer, or at least a partially white deer — leucism — is probably more common. It too is the result of recessive genes. These deer, also known as “piebalds” have a reduction of all types of skin pigment, not just melanin. Probably the most common type of leucism is the partial leucism where the animal will have patches of white mixed with brown; the ratio of brown to white can vary considerably.

Over the years I have seen several piebalds; I even missed one in the archery season many years ago. A good friend of mine took a nice piebald buck a number of years ago as well. I have even had the opportunity to photograph several piebalds, including a fawn, in the Lycoming County area. Hardly a year goes by that I don’t hear of someone seeing a piebald. I suspect too that they fare better than the albinos hence there are more sightings.

OK, so there are white deer and partially white deer, but there are no black deer — right? Not so.

A condition known as melanism, which is the darkening of body tissues due to an overabundance of a pigment known as melanin, can result in all black deer. There can also be variations of the black including dark gray or even blackish brown. This condition can occur in all animals, but admittedly it is scarce in deer — at least here in Pennsylvania.

I have personally seen a number of black squirrels and this summer I even had a young black groundhog in my backyard, but I have never seen a black deer, nor have most people. Oddly enough, over the past few years, I have had two different people advise me that they indeed did see a black deer — one was even a buck. While several years apart, the two sightings were within a few miles of each other. It’s interesting to note that in 2002 a hunter in Bucks County took a nice black buck of at least eight points.

Granted — a deer is not a white pointed thing bounding in the opposite direction, but they do indeed wear different coats from time to time.

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