It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a white-tailed deer! With a sprint that tops 30 miles per hour, a capacity to leap as high as 10 feet, and a knack for bounding some 30 feet from launch to landing, Odocoileus virginianus boasts prodigious athletic superpowers.
The state animal of Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin is no less impressive when it comes to cash accounting. Americans spend $7 billion annually—on equipment, travel, taxes, and licenses—to hunt and photograph the country’s most common large mammal. Meanwhile, farmers bemoan losses of more than $100 million each year in crop damage. Naturalists wail, too: In the mid-1990s, one scientist credited the ruminant herbivores with $367 million in damages annually through their destruction of emerging seedlings in Pennsylvania forests. For home gardeners—simultaneously enchanted by a frolicking fawn and driven to agony by the voracious appetites of a creature that consumes 4 to 6 pounds of plant material daily—the benefits and costs can’t be calculated.
Unregulated hunting throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century nearly extirpated deer from much of the United States. By 1930, just 300,000 remained. Today their number hovers at 15 million, a credit to hunting regulations that promoted the rebound, aided by the growth of the suburbs. Deer thrive in such transition spaces as subdivisions and office parks that afford both cover and delicious plant diversity, absent the natural predators—wolves, alligators, large cats, and the like—that once thinned sickly animals from the herd.
While deer nibble everything from mushrooms and lichens to tree bark and twigs, cacti, nuts, foliage, and an array of agricultural crops, their tastes shift seasonally to favor easily digestible new growth. Fawns learn browsing patterns from their mothers much as young brides once inherited prized family recipes.