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Habitat Requirements of White-tailed deer

All living creatures have certain requirements in order to successfully survive and perpetuate their species. Generally, that is referred to as habitat in the wildlife world. No matter how many Disney movies you may have watched there is truly only one life objective for a wild animal, survive long enough to reproduce. When a wildlife species cannot adapt to its changing environment, move to an area better suited for its survival, or produce enough young to offset the population's mortality level we see a very low population level or possibly none of that species in a given area. Generally, game species never become extinct at least in modern times thanks to hunters! A hard thing for non-hunters to come to terms with, but none the less true. The revenue generated from hunting licenses and excise taxes on equipment is the funding source for the majority of wildlife habitat projects that are often managed by game and fish agencies. Private landowners such as us can get some financial assistance in improving habitat on our property through those state and federal agencies. Obviously, our goal as habitat managers is for healthy populations at high levels, but within the carrying capacity of the land. There by sustaining the game populations (indirectly countless nongame species) and creating a surplus that can be harvested. You will find that I will be focusing my efforts on deer, quail and turkeys. Having all 3 of those species, if they commonly occur in your general area, on your property is indicative of having excellent wildlife habitat in general. While these 3 species have some habitat needs in common, they also have unique needs that help them as a species. Let's take a look at the general habitat needs for the 3 species. I am sure moving forward in future blogs I will be expanding more deeply into those specific requirements.

White-tailed deer
White-tailed Buck

White-tailed Deer are the most widely spread large game animal in the US, with a great ability to adapt to new environments. Maybe to some extent too adaptable, displacing Mule Deer in some areas. Generally speaking, all us likely have white-tailed deer on our property. From a habitat perspective it then becomes do we have enough to hunt and maybe depending on the hunter's objectives the age structure that allows bucks to reach full maturity and therefore have large antlers. As mentioned previously, wildlife habitat in general terms encompasses these major categories; space, cover, food and water.

Space: Depending on your geographic area (I am located in eastern Kansas), home range (where the deer spends at least 90% or more of its time) size can vary from 30-40 acres to several hundred acres. 200-400 acres is fairly consistent among mature white-tailed deer bucks. Does tend to have smaller home ranges if you have excellent, well intermingled habitat. On smaller parcels of land if hunting is your main goal, then you need to create habitat that is conducive to deer usage during daylight hours. Space becomes more of a habitat goal when looking to hold deer on your property year-round. Does are fairly solitary during the fawning season. Being solitary attracts less predators to a location. A doe's home range still has all the same requirements as any other time of the year, but she seeks out areas unoccupied by other does. Bucks tend to form bachelor groups during the late Winter through early Fall. They are fairly tolerant of each other in the same space. Though come Fall and with the beginning of the rut bucks are less tolerant of each other, and some can become aggressive to the point of "pushing" other bucks out of smaller areas. Space becomes less of an issue when habitat quality is at its highest, and resources are not limited amongst the population.

Cover: Cover is different than space. You can have 100s of acres of Space, but without Cover you will not have wildlife. Generally, when we think of cover, we are thinking of bedding cover, to a lesser extent escape and fawning cover. Bedding cover provides protection from the weather and predators. Bedding areas also need to have some minor food sources as well, typically woody browse and/or forbs. Deer feed multiple times a day. They do not leave Cover during the majority of these feeding times. Bedding cover often consists of more mature over story trees or larger shrubs to provide protection from the weather (primarily excessive heat, to some extent cold in Northern climates) and wind depending on the season of the year. Browse being smaller shrubs, vines, young seedlings, and forb species. Cover that is too dense overhead creates excessive shade which prohibits under story growth. A good rule of thumb is that if you can't see more than 30-50 yards through bedding cover at a 36" height above the ground level you have good bedding habitat. This also leads to good cover from predators as deer can both visually hide and out distance themselves from predators if forced to flee in short but fairly dense ground cover. Great fawning cover tends to be in transition areas between bedding and major feeding areas. Such as fence rows and feathered field edges. Lactating does have high caloric needs, high in protein and close to where the fawns are bedded. Does do not travel long distances from fawns to feed and fawns birthed in poor Cover are more easily predated. Bucks need Cover during the time of the year when their antlers are actively growing that is more open. Velvet antlers are easily damaged in thicker cover. Both bucks and does seem to prefer areas with more wind flow during the warmer summer months if available as well to reduce flying insect pests and promote cooler temperatures. Keep that in mind if you have some varying elevation on your property. Hills tend to have a more open vegetative structure as well as better air flow.

Food: A white-tailed deer's diet is very diverse; they will consume dozens of different plant varieties throughout the course of the year. Not only is it very diverse they are known as "selective" feeders. Meaning they will pick out individual plants amongst many other types to forage on. Deer are pretty good at selecting for foods that contain (protein, carbohydrates) whatever their body is demanding. In areas of acorn production, nothing will out compete acorns for drawing power. It is hardwired into their genetic makeup. A deer's diet is comprised of 30-40% woody browse most of the year and can be over 90% at times. Deer also prefer food sources that they can fill their rumens (1st chamber of the digestive system) as quickly as possible so that they can return to the security of Cover to further digest the food. Deer are typically most vulnerable to predation when they are feeding. Deer often get a large percentage of their water needs directly from the food they consume depending on the time of year and moisture content of what they are eating.

Water: Deer may or may not require free standing water depending on the season of the year, and recent precipitation levels. Deer are very good at extracting water from the green plants they eat. In times of drought (reduced amounts of green plants) and higher temperatures water is required. In winter when vegetation contains less water, an open water source will be used as well. One thing I have found recently, and trail cameras verify is that water sources are visited and used regularly if they are located on a deer's normal travel route.

In the next blog we will take a look at habitat requirements for quail and turkeys.

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