COLUMN: White-tailed deer in Iowa

Michele Olson
Jones County Naturalist

     With Iowa’s white-tailed deer seasons upon us, I thought I would throw out a few interesting deer details for your hunting and holiday season trivia.

     It’s hard to believe that although white-tailed deer are now abundant in Iowa, in the late 1800s and early 1900s they were almost completely extirpated (gone) from the state. The disappearance of deer from the state was due to a lack of hunting laws during Iowa’s early European settlement. Through the creation of hunting rules and regulations, reintroductions during the early 1900s, escapes from captive herds, and the immigration of wild deer from adjacent states deer made a big comeback in the state of Iowa. Good habitat, abundant food, and a lack of natural predators have led to Iowa’s current deer population.

     White-tailed deer are known for their white tails, which they use to help communicate with one another and signal possible danger. Tail wagging signals no danger, tail flicking signals mild alarm, and tail flagging signals a high state of alarm. The white flashing of a deer’s tail is usually the last thing a hunter sees as the deer flees the area. Young deer will also use the white tail of adult deer as a guide to follow when fleeing danger.

     Male deer are called bucks and are generally larger than females (does), reaching heights of 30-40 inches at their shoulders. One of Iowa’s largest deer ever harvested was a buck in Monona County weighing in at 440 pounds. Deer from colder northern states are generally larger than deer from warmer southern states.

     White-tailed deer can run at speeds of up to 40 mph when fleeing danger and leap over obstacles up to eight feet high. They are also excellent swimmers and have been known to cross rivers even as wide as the Mississippi.

     White-tailed deer coats change with the seasons. Their winter coat becomes a darker gray, blending in with the drab colors in the winter woodland. The darker color also helps absorb sunlight, helping to keep them warm. In addition, their winter coats are several times thicker than their summer coat, and consist of dense layers of short white under fur and hollow guard hairs. These winter coats not only insulate, but also help to repel water.

     During the winter, the ratio of daylight to darkness will contribute to the dropping of the buck’s antlers. Iowa’s bucks generally “drop” or “shed” their antlers sometime between late December and the end of March. A deer’s antlers are made of bone and are shed each year. Genetics, age, and nutrition all help determine the antler size and shape, with peak growth between the ages of three and seven. “Shed” hunting is a fun winter pastime for many Iowans.

     During the winter deer may “yard up,” congregating in large herds where they can find good shelter, food, and water to survive Iowa’s extreme winter weather. Areas of dense conifer growth, shrubs, or other thick cover provide good shelter from Iowa’s harsh winter winds.

     Deer in town will also take advantage of available food sources including bird and squirrel feeders. They have even been known to stand on their hind legs to reach sunflower seeds from hanging bird feeders. Deer can be very entertaining!

     For more information on Iowa’s amazing deer or to learn more about Iowa’s deer hunting seasons visit the Iowa DNR website at



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