White Deer Q&A
What are white deer?
White deer are ordinary white-tailed deer with an extraordinary color. They are white or mostly white in color. The color is a genetic trait and is inherited but is extremely rare.
White deer that lack all color pigments are called “true albinos.” These animals are typically identified by their pink nose and eyes–the result of blood vessels showing through the skin and clear lens of the eyes. Light blue eyes can also indicate albinism (from White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest).
Deer that have brown eyes but with a white coat are referred to as white or leucistic deer. The mechanism for producing eye pigments is different than in albinos, so the eyes are not affected. Both white and albino deer are the result of different genes that affect different body processes.
Both terms (albino and white deer) are used very generally and are often mixed up. To further complicate the picture, there is a lot of color variation between the two types. Eye color is the only true indicator of which is which.
Fallow deer are a species of European/Asian deer that can have almost-white coats and are sometimes confused with albino white-tails. Individuals were brought to this country and released or escaped from captivity. Their antlers are palmate or flattened. Here is an interesting article on an Illinois herd: http://darien-il.patch.com/articles/argonnes-white-deer-dwindling-but-not-departed. There is also a herd of fallow deer in California.
Are the Leland deer true albinos?
Yes, some of them, but labeling is tricky. It’s those pink noses with brown eyes and other things that don’t follow the “rules.” The truth of the matter is that there are many genes involved in color determination (100 just in mice!) and many degrees of coat color. The science of white color is far from simple and the Leland herd proves it. Here’s a breakdown:
Eyes: None of the Leland area deer have pink eyes, and only a small fraction have blue eyes. About 90% have normal brown eyes. So, at best, only a handful are albinos.
Noses and hooves: The majority have pink noses and hooves. One doe has a pink nose with a black spot on it (making her very easy to identify).
Coats: Most are pure white, but a couple have been cream or tan over the years. Several are mostly white with a very small amount of brown. The white buck that was killed in Leland in 2012 (see home page) was completely white except for a single dark spot on its side. A few piebald deer with larger splashes of brown and white have been reported in the county, but are probably not related to the Leland-Plain white deer.
Defects: Absolutely none. Observers in the Leland area have never seen defects in any of the white deer.
What causes an albino?
It is not certain. Spontaneous changes occur in an animal’s genes which are then passed on to its offspring. Because the resulting gene is recessive, or easily masked by other genes, it doesn’t affect coat color unless a fawn receives a white gene from both its mother and father. The animal is then unable to produce normal skin, hair, and eye pigments.
Many animals (and people) carry genes for albinism that are never expressed and may have been in their family’s genetic make-up for generations. According to a Minnesota study, only 1 in 200,000 people are born albino, but 1 in 200 people carry the gene for the characteristic. The chances of an offspring getting an already rare gene from both parents makes the trait even more unlikely.
White genes may also be what are called leucistic and are simply very rare genes for white coat color. These genes are also recessive, so are often “covered up” or masked by normal coat color genes. It would again take two parents carrying the white gene to produce an offspring with the white coat.
For more information on the genetics of white deer, including a chart and pictures, click here.
How rare are albinos?
Exceedingly rare! In fact, the chances of an albino deer being born are about 1 in 20,000, according to John Bates, Wisconsin Northwoods naturalist and co-author of White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest. Other sources say the odds are closer to 1 in 30,000.
The 1 in 20,000 figure may be pretty accurate, since it corresponds to the results of a 1959-1961 study by a Michigan biologist (Larry Ryel) who counted 2 albino deer out of 35,986 hunter kills in the state. That is roughly 1 in 18,000–very close to the 1 in 20,000 occurrence of albinos in humans. Percentages will be higher in states like Wisconsin where the white deer are protected. In states where they are not protected, the number could be far less (only 30 of the 50 states even have recorded sightings for albinos). [From Whitetail Intrigue: Scientific Insights for White-tailed Deer Hunters by John Ozoga).]
Although these are the most commonly quoted figures for white deer occurrence, several more sources refer to a Wisconsin study that estimated the odds at 1 in 42,500. Still another source said the number of albino births could be as low as 1 in 100,000. Suffice it to say…if you ever see a white deer, you’re one of the lucky few.
Are there any other places in Wisconsin where you can find white deer?
Yes. There is a population of white deer near Boulder Junction in north central Wisconsin, with smaller populations in Manitowish Waters and Land O’ Lakes (all in Vilas County). These deer are protected and have been enjoyed by the local residents for many years. In fact, historical records indicate that white deer may have lived in the Boulder Junction area since the early years of white settlement. Articles on the white deer near Boulder Junction can be found at:
An excellent “In Wisconsin” episode (Wisconsin Public Television) features the white deer of Boulder Junction. Jeff Richter and John Bates, co-authors of White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest, are interviewed by host Patty Loew. Both men reveal the wonder and beauty of seeing the white deer. http://video.wpt.org/video/1510278527/
There are also small local populations of white deer in Trempealeau and Buffalo Counties (west central Wisconsin), Clark and Wood Counties (central Wisconsin), Port Washington (east central Wisconsin), and Jefferson County (south central Wisconsin). Occasional other sightings of white deer have occurred around the state.
What about in the rest of the country?
There is a very famous population of white deer in an old army depot near Seneca Falls, New York. Because the deer were fenced and protected for more than 60 years, the population increased to over 200 out of a total herd of 800 deer. The depot was recently decommissioned and the deer and their habitat are now threatened by industrial, business, and development interests. A group of concerned citizens, Save the White Deer, Inc, is attempting to preserve both portions of the depot and the deer. For more info and a fascinating story, go to: http://www.senecawhitedeer.org/
2020 Update: Parcels of the army depot property was eventually sold. The group working to protect the white deer (now called Seneca White Deer) was not able to purchase land for the deer, but successfully cooperated with a new landowner to build a visitor center and offer tours to see the white deer. However, high rent for the property made it impossible to continue, despite the popularity of the tours, and they have since closed (see front page stories on Seneca White Deer).
Can other animals be albinos?
Albinos show up, albeit very rarely, in about all animal populations…even in insects. White rats, white mice, white guinea pigs, and domestic white rabbits are all albinos and have pink eyes. They are not considered strange at all–and certainly not defective or mutant. Humans, of course, can also be albinos. Interestingly, Siamese cats (which are highly prized) are a type of albino where color expression is influenced by temperature–hence the darker paws and ears.
Here is a beautiful portfolio of white animal pictures:
And here is an excellent article on albino animals from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources: https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/young_naturalists/young-naturalists-article/albino_animals/albino_animals.pdf
How can brown parents have an albino fawn, or a white parent a brown fawn?
The gene responsible for albinism is a recessive gene, meaning it can be carried by an individual but not expressed. Offspring must receive one gene for albinism from each parent, since a single brown gene will produce a brown coat.
albino parent x albino parent = albino fawns
So it either takes two albino parents, or one albino and one brown parent with an albino gene, or two brown parents, each carrying a recessive white gene, to produce an albino fawn–and it’s still a roll of the dice in the latter two cases because just one brown gene will produce a brown fawn. Since white genes are very rare to begin with, the odds are extremely low that two white genes would occur in a single deer and produce the white coat. (To see an excellent chart showing this inheritance, click here.)
The Leland population has had white does with white fawns, white does with brown fawns, and brown does with white fawns. Two does last year had one fawn of each color, and another had triplets: two brown and one white. Fawns can have different colors because they receive different genes from their parents. About 25% of fawns also have different fathers. (https://www.qdma.com/5-common-myths-whitetail-fawns/)
Are albino deer weaker than their brown relatives?
What Leland residents repeatedly say–and insist–is that the white deer are more aggressive than their brown herdmates. The two colors readily intermix, but when food is up for grabs, and push comes to shove, it’s the white deer that are doing the shoving. This is corroborated by the observations of Mike and Marshia Crowley, who live near Boulder Junction, Wisconsin amidst a population of white deer:
“..the white deer that visit us can be quite aggressive toward most brown deer and stay in a pretty tight group. In fact, we have videos of four white does fending off a whole herd of brown deer in competition for food. We also have videos of white does protecting their regular-colored fawns. You can see about two dozen of these clips that we’ve posted at youtube.com/mmnorthwoods.” (From “Our Wisconsin” magazine, February/March 2013 issue)
Is albinism a defective trait?
Because pigments are involved in the development of the retina or back of the eye, the eyesight of pure albinos can be affected. However, according to the people who have watched the white deer in the Leland area and in Boulder Junction for years, there is nothing unusual or defective about the deer. They look and act like any other deer, are just as healthy, and live just as long. (The “Old Doe,” the first white deer seen in the Leland area, lived to be 13, and a much observed Buffalo County buck lived to be 12.)
Jeff Richter, author of White Deer: Ghosts of the Forest, has seen 40-50 different albino deer and watched them over 12-15 years, with thousands of hours of viewing time. He claims he has “never noticed any (of the white deer) to be impaired in any way.”
Another outdoor writer comments: “The albino deer, other than their color difference, are in every other way the same as regular colored deer…their health is not compromised by the recessive gene.” (http://www.nyantler-outdoors.com/albino-deer.html)
Human studies may also show that albinism is primarily a color difference and does not affect overall health or strength:
“In the United States, most people with albinism live normal life spans and have the same types of general medical problems as the rest of the population.” (http://albinism.org/publications/what_is_albinism.html)
“The albinistic are generally as healthy as the rest of the population….with growth and development occurring as normal, and albinism by itself does not cause mortality.” (wikipedia.org on albinism)
Doesn’t their white color make these deer more vulnerable to predators?
White deer stand out like a sore thumb…unless they have a backdrop of snow. In winter they have the camouflage advantage. Although “common sense” says they are easier to see against a summer background, a couple of studies noted no difference in predation between white and brown deer or produced mixed results (see “Addressing the Issues” page).
“Scientists have explored how an albino’s white coat or missing camouflage affects them as prey. Sometimes albinos are noticed and captured more easily than normal animals. But in other instances, predators didn’t seem to recognize them as food. (Would you recognize white hamburgers as good to eat?) In studies where animals had many places to hide, predators captured albino and normally colored animals at the same rate. Coat color did not make a difference.” From Minnesota DNR bulletin on albinism: https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/young_naturalists/young-naturalists-article/albino_animals/albino_animals.pdf
White color does seem to make a difference to certain human hunters, the biggest “predators” most of these deer will ever have to deal with: “Because of the fascination that the albino deer create, they are more apt to be killed by hunters. Not only because they stand out more due to their white color, but because many hunters see them as a rare trophy.” (http://www.nyantler-outdoors.com/albino-deer.html)
Aren’t white deer sacred to Native Americans?
Native American tribes, although they had cultural differences is many other areas, almost without exception considered the white deer special or sacred. The deer were often called “Ghost Deer” and were a symbol of spirit (or actual spirit) and an omen of good luck. It was considered very bad luck for a hunter to kill a white deer.
For some interesting stories and legends on white deer in Native American culture, check out the page “Culture and History” (White deer in myth and legend). Although white deer held an exalted status among Native Americans, they have been considerably devalued by those who now view them as merely defective members of the deer herd rather than spiritual messengers.
What is the hunting status of white deer in Wisconsin and other states?
It is currently illegal to shoot albino and white deer in Wisconsin. White deer were protected in all of Wisconsin for many years, but an exception was made in CWD (chronic wasting disease) management zones in the southern part of the state from 2008 to 2013. This included Leland, which is on the outer edge of the zone. The theory was that “white deer are just as apt to get the disease as brown deer,” but overlooks the incredibly small number of white deer that are in the CWD zone and elsewhere.
States with legislation to protect white and albino deer and the year the law went into effect: Wisconsin (1940), Illinois (1983), Iowa (1987), and Tennessee (2001). Iowa also prohibits the killing of piebald deer with coats over 50% white. The fact that other states prohibit the hunting of white deer shows that they are special enough and valued enough to be given protected status.
States that lost white and albino deer protection and the year it was removed: Michigan (2008), Minnesota, Oklahoma (2012), and parts of Montana (any deer more than 75% white) (1997 to 2013). The fact that state protection can be removed shows, unfortunately, how precarious any white deer law is.
Why are the white deer special?
White deer have for thousands of years and in many cultures been considered special or sacred. The Celts considered white stags to be messengers from the “other world” and their appearance was said to herald some profound change in the lives of those who encountered them.
In the Legend of King Arthur, the white stag is the creature that can never be caught. King Arthur’s repeatedly unsuccessful pursuit of the white stag represents mankind’s quest for spiritual knowledge. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the pursuit of a white stag brings the kings and queens of Narnia through a portal and tumbling back into a closet.
And virtually all Native American cultures revered white deer.
Whether you subscribe to the myths and superstitions of white deer or not, there’s no doubt they are beautiful and special to see. Most people describe them as striking, mesmerizing, and even magical. There is a reason people are so awed in their presence and so devastated when one is killed.
See “The White Deer Experience“ page for more of the profound reactions and thoughts people have when they see a white deer.