Ezo deer in Japan
The 60-member deer family includes deer, reindeer and elk. The largest deer are moose, which can weigh nearly a ton, and the smallest is the Chilean pudu, which is not much larger than a rabbit. Deer belong to the family “Cervidae”, which is part of the order “Artiodactyla” (even-toed hoofed mammals). “Cervidae” are similar to “Bovidae” (cattle, antelopes, sheep and goat) in that they chew the cud but differ in that have solid horns that are shed periodically (“Bovidae” have hollow ones).

Deer have a lifespan of around 10 years. A male deer is called a buck or stag. A female is called a doe. Young are called fawns. A group is called a herd. Deer don't hibernate and sometimes group together to stay warm. Particularly cold winters sometimes kill deer outright, mainly by robbing them of food, especially when a hard layer of ice and snow keeps them from getting at food.

Deer are hunted by humans and are prey of large carnivores such as tigers, cougars, wolves and occasionally bears. Deer meat is called venison. People have made buckskin jackets, moccasins and other items of clothing from deer hide.

Deer Characteristics

The top speed of a deer is around 30 miles per hour. Some deer can reach speeds of 40mph for short bursts and gallop for three or four hours at a speed of 25mph. Some deer can vertically jump 25 feet. The tracks of stags are bigger and broader than those of does. They have a more swaggering walk.

Some deer have hairs that stand erect and give off distinctive and strong odors.

Deer, cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, buffalo, antelopes, giraffes, and their relatives are ruminants — cud-chewing mammals that have a distinctive digestive system designed to obtain nutrients from large amounts of nutrient-poor grass. Ruminants evolved about 20 million years ago in North America and migrated from there to Europe and Asia and to a lesser extent South America, where they never became widespread.

Deer Antlers and Mating Behavior

Many deer annually grow new antlers in the spring and shed their old ones in the fall. The antlers of some species are covered by "velvet" (soft skin laced with blood vessels and covered with fine hair), which provided the antlers with calcium and other nutrients from the body. The antlers reach full growth and peak hardness in the early fall. After this the blood supply to the velvet is cut off. The velvet is rubbed off on bushes and trees in August after the summer.

Antlers are a kind of symbol of strength and virility intended to impress females and intimidate rivals. They are used by males to battle one another in the rutting (mating season). After the rutting season is over in the fall, the antlers fall off. Except for reindeer and caribou, only males grow antlers. Males usually grow spike like antlers when they are two and develop a full rack when they are full grown are age six.

Normally-placid bucks become fierce warriors during the rutting (mating season). Their eyes become bloodshot, their necks puff out and they charge any threat with antlers down. Battling bucks run head on into one another with their antlers and keep charging until one backs off. Sometimes two bucks become locked up and die together.

Scientist have been able to make a female red deer go into heat by playing a recording of a male red deer's mating roar. Deer fawns have dappled coats that match the broken light of the woodland floor.

Deer in Europe and Northern Asia

There are three main species of deer found in Europe and western Asia: 1) red deer; 2) roe deer; and 3) fallow deer. Fallow deer are found in southern Europe and northern Africa. They stand about three feet at the shoulder, and have a white-spotted summer coat and flat gooselike antlers.

Red deer were featured in the Robin Hood stories. Ranging across Europe as far east as Iran and as far south as northern Africa, they are distinguished by a long fringe of hair at the animal's throat. The hart (stag) stands about four feet tall at the shoulder and has spectacular many-pointed antlers. They fight fiercely and roar in the rutting season. They let out booming bellowing roars—as often as 3,000 times a day—to lure females. Their defensive calls often attracts unhitched females.

Roe deer have long been a favorite of hunters. They range from Britain across the length of Russia and Asia to the Pacific Ocean. Males stand two feet tall at the shoulder are known for making circular trails called "doe rings" when they pursue females in the mating season.

The highest concentration of large deer species in temperate Asia occurs in the mixed deciduous forests, mountain coniferous forests, and taiga bordering North Korea, Manchuria (Northeastern China), and the Ussuri Region (Russia). These are among some of the richest deciduous and coniferous forests in the world where one can find Siberian roe deer, sika deer, elk, and moose. Asian caribou occupy the northern fringes of this region along the Sino-Russian border. Deer such as the sika deer, Thorold's deer, Central Asian red deer, and elk have historically been farmed for their antlers by Han Chinese, Turkic peoples, Tungusic peoples, Mongolians, and Koreans.

Sika deer are a forest deer deer found in East Asia from Siberia south through China to Vietnam and Taiwan to the south and Japan to the east. These deer are divided into more than a dozen different regional subspecies, of which seven are found in Japan. The largest is the ezo-jika, which lives in Hokkaido. Sika are browsers that live primarily in forests — but are often seen roaming around farmland — and feed on tree leaves, fruits, flowers, buds, acorns and nuts. They have large eyes and a strange haunting whistle. Adults can have large stately antlers. White hairs on the rumps can flare out like chrysanthemums when the animals are excited.


The elk is the second largest member of the deer family after the moose. The European elk is almost identical to a moose. Thus when Europeans talk about an elk they are usually referring to what Americans call a moose. Efforts to end the confusion by using the term "wapati" (the Shawnee Indian name for elk) in the United States have failed.

Elk in North America once roamed all over Canada and the southern United States. Now they live mostly in the Rocky Mountain region. Like moose, they have a hard time living in places with white tail deer, which carry a snail-bourne meningeal worm that is relatively harmless to white tails but eats away at the brain of caribou, moose, elk and other kinds of deer.

The bull (male) elk stands about five feet at the shoulder, weighs between 600 and 800 pounds and have a large set of backward sweeping antlers that can reach a length of five feet and usually have five to seven points on each antler. The cow (female) weighs between 500 and 600 pounds and has no antlers. Males loose their antlers in March. The head, neck and chest are dark brown, the rump is white and the rest of the body is pale brown. The tail is a short stub.

Elk Behavior and Mating

Elk feed mainly on grass and leaves. They travel in herds and migrate from highland feeding areas in the summer to valleys and woodlands in the winter. Adult elks are large and strong enough to defend themselves against predators such as wolves, but sometimes calves are taken. In some places, elk are so plentiful they have overstretched their food supply, overgrazed some areas and become pests. Many elk starve in the winter. Sometimes they are fed hay paid for by the U.S. government.

During the rutting season, males challenge one another with "bugle calls" that begin with a high-pitched trumpet noise and descend down the scale to a loud roar. They then face off about 20 feet apart and charge and crash antlers together. Bellowing with rage they continue continue battling unto one bull backs off. The gestation period for elks is 249 to 262 days. Females usually give birth in May to one or two, sometimes three, spotted calves.

Wolf Attacks on Elk

For protection against wolves, animals like deer and elk group together, seeking safety in numbers. Describing a wolf attack on a herd of elk, Douglas Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, "The wolf pack before us moved from on elk band to the next, taking their measure. Sometimes the elk outran the wolves. One bull elk whirled so fast on a pursuer that a loose antler flew right off his head. Other drew together and stood their ground, warding off incursions with violent kicks."

"As an elk foreleg could easily smash ribs or dent a skull, the wolves tried bluff rushes, looking to cause a band member to panic and bolt. We could sense a battle momentum seesawing second by second, the outcome never preordained but rather a summation of each animal's skill, determination, and experience, plus a little old fashioned luck...One morning I watched a n elk disappear over the brow of a ridge with a wolf hanging on each shoulder. Three minutes later it reappeared—seemingly uninjured—and was soon grazing while the wolf pair loped off."

Deer Attacks

In he early 2010s, a man in Georgia who kept exotic animals died when he was gored by a red deer, and a man in California was killed after stumbling across a deer while going to pick tomatoes in his garden. In British Columbia in 2011, a man delivering newspapers was slightly injured when he was knocked down and stomped on by a doe. [Source: Marty Klinkenberg, Telegraph-Journal, October 13, 2011]

July 2015, Associated Press reported: “Authorities say a 72-year-old bow hunter was hurt in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin where he was attacked by the deer he had wounded with an arrow. Fond du Lac County sheriff's officer Jeff Bonack says the man was taken by ambulance to a hospital. The man was bow hunting shortly before 7:30 p.m. Friday with a crossbow when he wounded the doe with an arrow and went tracking the animal. Bonack says apparently the man was going through thick brush when the doe leaped out and struck him in the leg with her head. The man had been hunting with family members when the attack happened. [Source: Associated Press, January 5, 2015]

Donald Sellers, 79, was fatally gored and mauled by his pet buck in Gilbertown, Ala., in 2003. In August 2004, out of the mating season, a buck pummeled Gene Novikoff, 80, near Cameron, Mont. Novikoff suffered a broken rib. "He looked like he was in a bar fight," says warden Marc Glines of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Glines, who killed the deer, says it was "in need of psychoanalysis." [Source: Martin Kasindorf, USA Today, December 1, 2005]

Deer Attacks in 2005

In late 2005 there were a number of deer attacks in the western United States. Martin Kasindorf wrote in USA Today: “Deer are charging at people, causing injury and even death from thrusting antlers and pummeling hooves. Wildlife officials warn that getting close to deer is not a game. In a rash of incidents, aggressive deer have caused one death and several serious injuries. "People think of deer as Bambi, cute and cuddly, but they can be extremely dangerous in certain circumstances," says Steve Martarano, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. [Source: Martin Kasindorf, USA Today, December 1, 2005 ***]

“Ron Dudek, 73, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., died Oct. 17 of complications from antler wounds inflicted to his face by a male deer that Dudek encountered when he went to pick tomatoes in his backyard garden. It was the nation's second deer-assault death in two years. ***

“Karen Morris, 56, of Clearlake, Calif., was hospitalized for 12 days with head injuries in an attack by a young buck Nov. 17 outside her home. The horns bruised Clifford Morris, 68, when he came to his wife's aid. In Covelo, Calif., on Sept. 29, Arnold and Jeannine Bloom returned to their pickup after watering a friend's vegetable garden. A small buck ran up to the truck and knocked the man on his back, California Department of Fish and Game warden Rusty Boccaleoni says. When Jeannine Bloom swung at the animal with a piece of firewood, it turned upon her and ripped a hole in her arm. The next day, Boccaleoni shot and killed the animal. Game wardens shot five bucks on the streets of Helena, Mont., after the deer threatened staffers at a day care center and a teenager delivering newspapers. ***

“Kurt VerCauteren, a biologist at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., blames most of the trouble on the edginess of male deer during the fall mating season. And as suburban homes encroach on deer habitat, deer that are fed by admiring humans — or that browse on lawns and garden vegetables — lose their natural fear of people, VerCauteren says. ***

“In mating season, bucks sometimes wander into big-city downtowns and get into trouble. Arriving for work at the Minnesota state Capitol on Nov. 3, Gov. Tim Pawlenty heard shattering glass and was nearly bowled over in the parking lot by a buck bounding away from two windows it had broken. The California Department of Fish and Game in October issued a reminder not to feed deer — it is a misdemeanor here — and to "deer-proof" property. Aside from maintaining fences, homeowners can spray plants with deer repellent, VerCauteren says. The mating season for much of the country ended in November but extends to January in Florida. Problems could crop up again in spring, when does are protecting fawns, says Craig Stowers, coordinator of the California state deer program. ***

The family of California deer victims Karen and Clifford Morris is reacting good-naturedly to ribbing from incredulous neighbors. "It puts a whole new spin on (the country song) Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," says Tammy Black, the couple's daughter.” ***

Rabid Deer Attacks Woman Outside a Liquor Store

In July 2014, CBS6 reported from Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania: “A deer attacked a paint store manager after she tried to take a photo of the animal standing outside a liquor store. Rachel McGough said she spotted the doe when she arrived to open the store, KDKA reports. “There was a deer standing outside the liquor store,” McGough said. “Thought that was pretty funny, so I took a picture of it. And it started to charge me.” As she tried to back away, she said the doe began pushing her and she tried to fend off the animal. “Oh my God! This deer is going to kill me,” she said. “I had a couple of bags with me that I shoved at it trying to get away. One of the bags got looped around its neck, which allowed me to get a couple feet away.” [Source: CBS6, July 10, 2014]

“Two Good Samaritans hanging out at McDonald’s, had watched the deer cross the parking lot and then come over to McGough, ran over and tackled the deer. “Lucky the guys were there just in time to get the deer off of me,” McGough said. “If it wasn’t for them, I could gotten hurt. A hoof in the face or in my eye.” The men tied the doe up, which died before the Pennsylvania Game Commission arrived. “There had to be something wrong. Its head was scabbed over and it was foaming green from its mouth,” McGough said.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Mike Papinchak later said the deer tested positive for rabies. McGough said she was not bitten or scratched by the doe, but that one of the men who came to her rescue did receive some scratches. Papinchak said that it is not as common for deer to get rabies as some other animals, but said that there was no reason people need to be concerned about what happened.

Canadian Man Dies in Deer Attack

In October 2011, wildlife officials killed a herd of 11 deer kept by a man in northern New Brunswick, Canada after one of them attacked and killed the man. Marty Klinkenberg wrote in the Telegraph-Journal, “An autopsy showed that Donald Dube, 55, died of multiple internal injuries, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Sgt. Marc Violette. The victim had been trampled by an eight-point buck and stabbed with its antlers. Violette estimates that the deer weighed between 200 and 250 pounds. The incident occurred when Dube went to feed the herd, which he kept in an enclosure behind his home off Route 17 between Saint-Leonard and Saint-Quentin. Violette said the animals appeared to be white-tailed deer.[Source: Marty Klinkenberg, Telegraph-Journal, October 13, 2011]

Anne Bull, a spokeswoman for New Brunswick’s Department of Natural Resources, said the deer were euthanized at the family’s request. The province allows certain species to be kept in captivity for meat or hunting purposes — elk, red deer and fallow deer — but not white-tailed deer.

Violette said officers called to the scene on Sunday night said it looked as if the victim and the deer had been in a struggle. He was missing a boot and sock when found. “It looked like a situation where the victim was attacked and then the animal kept on top of him,” Violette said. Attacks by deer are extremely rare, but when they do occur most often it is during the fall mating season. “No doubt about it, the deer [involved in the attack] was in rut,” Violette said.

The circumstances surrounding Dube’s death were so unusual that it has attracted attention from media outlets as far away as Africa. “A buck is a very strong animal and they can become more aggressive when they are in rut, but I find it extremely unusual,” said Gerry Parker, an author and former wildlife officer in New Brunswick. “If it happened out in the wild, I would find that highly suspicious. “But in a pen, in confined quarters, strange things could happen.” Mark Drew, a farmer in New Limerick, Maine, who raises 1,000 deer a year primarily for breeding purposes, said: “When the rut comes in, you have to keep an eye on the males,” he said. “They almost look at you like a rival.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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