The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


February 12, 2012

White-tailed deer history

Over time, many hunters develop an expertise about certain species. For some it’s waterfowl; for others turkeys are the obsession. But for many, if not most, it’s the white-tail deer.

Such expertise comes from years of field experience. It’s much more than getting into the woods a few weeks each November. It comes from becoming a student of the animal. The most successful hunters learn to think like deer because they understand how deer live.

Unfortunately, few hunters can study deer full time. So it’s nice to know there are references available from which to glean white-tail natural history. Some are classics. This is the time of year to keep a book by a favorite chair and do a little homework every night.

One of the first and best of these references was “The Deer of North America,” edited by Walter Taylor (1956, Stackpole, 668 pages). It opens with a fascinating chapter on the interactions of deer, Native Americans, and early pioneers. The rest of the book details our understanding of deer through the early 1950s. Any biologist who studied wildlife management in the 1960s probably owns this book.

“The George Reserve Deer Herd,” by Dale McCullough (1979, University of Michigan Press, 271 pages), describes the population biology of a deer herd confined within a two-square-mile fence. It is a more difficult read with lots of supporting equations, graphs and tables. But I’m unaware that such a controlled study has ever been replicated, so it’s worth the slog.

“White-tailed Deer: Ecology and Management,” edited by Lowell Halls (1984, Stackpole, 870 pages), is encyclopedic in its breadth of coverage, but thousands of research papers about white-tails have been published since 1984. However, its treatment of the history of white-tailed deer in North America is excellent. Chapters on behavior and nutrition give hunters a glimpse into the life of white-tails. Seven chapters detail management practices, from capture techniques and immobilization methods to habitat management and the care of captive white-tails. And the chapter on predation, written by legendary wolf biologist L. David Mech, explains how deer endure despite an impressive list of predators.

“The Rut: the Spectacular Fall Ritual of North American Horned and Antlered Animals” by Ron Spomer (1996, Willow Creek Press, 155 pages) is a lavishly illustrated and popular treatment of what is probably the most talked about aspect of big game mammals. Every outdoor writer who uses the terms “antler” and “horn” casually and interchangeably should study this book. After a summary chapter on these bony ornaments, Spomer treats white-tails and mulies, as well as pronghorn, mountain goats, elk, sheep, caribou, bison, moose and musk ox.

That brings us to the recent publication of “Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer” edited by David Hewitt (2011, CRC Press, 686 pages, $119.95). It is an instant classic that updates our knowledge and understanding of the most studied large mammal in the world. Though priced out of the casual wildlife enthusiast’s budget, this tome will be purchased, read and studied by wildlife biologists and managers, outdoor writers, and the most avid deer hunters. It deserves space on the shelves of every Pennsylvania public library and deer camp.

Hewitt has assembled the work of 35 white-tail experts. The book covers white-tail anatomy, physiology, nutrition, population dynamics, and ecology across its range from central Canada to South America. It also reviews the history of management of white-tailed deer, from early Native Americans through restocking efforts in the mid-1900s, and more recent deer population spikes that are increasingly difficult to manage.

As a source of information, “Biology and Management of White-tailed Deer” will be invaluable for years to come. BUT the binding is poor (I had to return the first copy I received), it contains only black and white photos, and it is grossly overpriced. It does come with a CD of all color photos included in the book, but the reader needs a computer to view the photos while reading the book. The use of the CD should reduce the price of the book by at least 50 percent. It’s a real stain on a terrific source of information.

— Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033, or by e-mail via my web site,

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