A number of years ago, Alan Walsh was deer hunting on his parent’s property in Bradford County during Pennsylvania’s statewide rearms deer season. Here’s how it happened: four deer suddenly approach Alan’s stand, and one has nice antlers. He wastes no time finding the antlered deer in the sights, and instantly the blast from his Mossberg shotgun echoes through the hardwoods. The deer reacts to the solid hit and is momentarily on a death run until all is quiet.
As Alan approaches the animal, he notices something odd about the antlers. It’s a ten-point rack, but most of the tines are still covered with velvet, while some of the main beams are bloodstained from peeling. Velvet peeling usually occurs in early September, so it’s a puzzle to Alan why the deer hasn’t removed it. As Alan admires the unusual antlers, his brother Dick appears. Pointing to the oddity of the rack, Dick’s response is, “Is it a doe?” The two men take a closer look by lifting a hind leg. In disbelief they eye each other. This he is a she! Or is this she a he? Alan shot at a buck, but is this buck a doe or is this doe a buck? What’s going on here?
That evening Alan left me a phone message describing his freak deer. The next day I did some research on the phenomenon and found that antlered females do occur, but are very rare. Supposedly, the antlers most females sport are simply velvet-covered spikes caused by a hormone imbalance.
According to Leonard Lee Rue III, in his book The Deer of North America, antlered does fall into three categories. “In the most common of the three, the antlers never harden, nor does the velvet ever come off. Such a doe can breed and produce milk to feed her young. She is a true female. The antlers are formed under the stimulation of the pituitary, but the doe, lacking testicles, does not produce the male hormone testosterone needed to harden these antlers and complete the cycle.
“The second type of antlered ‘doe’ is basically a male, but its sex organs are abnormal. Usually such a deer has both reproductive organs, but not all are visible because they are up inside the body cavity. An animal of this sort never bears young. The antlers are like a typical male’s, often well developed with tines. They harden and the velvet is peeled off.
“The third condition is very rare. It occurs when a tumor in the doe secretes male hormones. Both male and female reproductive organs may be present, and the antlers may or may not complete their development. Most often they remain in velvet.”
Even with that information, it’s still difficult to determine which category Alan’s antlered doe would fall into. Only professional examination of the reproductive organs could have determined whether the deer was a true breeding female.
Other freaks among whitetails are white deer, black (melanistic) deer, and deer with manes. Referencing again The Deer of North America, Rue explains that most of the white deer seen are not true albinos but are mutations. In his words, “Protecting mutations is a disservice to the deer herd. Mutant deer are definitely inferior, degrading the deer they breed with by passing on harmful recessive genes.”
As freak deer occur, so do tragedies. Deer have been found dead from such things as being wedged between two trees, and impaled with sticks. They die from insect bites, predators, diseases, poachers, highways, and weather.
I have a copy of an old newspaper clipping that reported the bizarre tragedy of deer sliding to their deaths after a winter snowstorm turned to freezing rain, covering the hills and mountainsides with a thick layer of treacherous ice. In that Associated Press article, officials in Elk, Cameron, and Potter counties reported that deer were slamming into trees and logs from uncontrolled falls. Norm Erickson, the Cameron County game protector at the time, discovered twenty-six deer that had died in such slides in one twenty-four-hour period. Erickson feared there may have been 250 to 300 dead deer in areas which he could not reach.
Sparring matches between two bucks can sometimes turn tragic from antlers locking together or from one buck goring the other. I once found a ten-point whose left beam was held in place only by the hide that surrounded the pedicel. Severing the hide with my knife, I pulled the antler free. Attached to it was a large chunk of skull. This was the scene of a battle between two bucks that left one dead. Was it a knockdown drag-out fight, or did panic set in when their antlers became locked together? Whatever took place, the buck I found died instantly from a fractured skull. He had also suffered a broken ankle to a hind leg.
Fences are known to be tragic obstacles in the paths of deer. My brother Ronnie once found the frightful sight of a deer’s leg hanging between two strands of barbed wire. The snow-covered ground surrounding it served as a dinner plate for the scavengers who had completely consumed the rest.
A hunter named Wayne Anderson, from Milan, would have been better equipped if he’d slung wire cutters over his shoulder instead of his rifle. On the third day of hunting season one year, Wayne and three of his friends surrounded an area of thornapples and hardhack near his home in Ulster Township, Bradford County. Two of the men waited in ambush while Wayne and another man entered the opposite side. As Wayne followed an old fencerow through the thorny tangle of trees and brush, he came across the skeleton of a trophy buck. Wayne discovered that the deer had somehow become entangled in the fence and its twelve-point antlers were repeatedly wrapped with yards of barbed wire. What took place at this scene is anyone’s guess. Did the buck die a slow death after it was unable to free himself, or did the panic-stricken deer sustain a fatal injury in an effort to get loose?
Wayne finished the drive while carrying the barbed wire buck out without a shot being red. His friends jokingly accused him of having his buck “fenced in” long before the season started.
How about you? Ever happen to witness any whitetail freaks or tragedies?