White Deer: Understanding a Common Animal of Uncommon Color

For millennia, people have regarded white deer with a mix of reverence, superstition and scientific misinformation. And it continues to this day. What's the real story of these ghost-like animals?

You’re driving through your neighborhood and see the usual suburban white-tailed deer in a vacant field. You’ve been seeing these deer a lot more lately, so you hardly take notice. Then a flash of white catches your eye. A white deer.

You pull over to look at this striking, beautiful animal. It seems precious, rare. But what exactly is it?

It turns out people have been captivated by white deer for centuries, and perhaps millennia. The ghost-like appearance of these animals has attracted myth, superstition and rampant scientific misinformation for an equally long period of time.

That misinformation continues to this day. And it stands to reason that, with whitetails becoming more abundant near population centers, more people will be sharing their own tales of these unusual creatures.

Here’s the real story of the white deer.

The White Deer of Story

As a young boy, one of my earliest memories is visiting my grandparents’ home and waiting for my grandfather to return from an afternoon of hunting the nearby woods. The stories he told helped instill my lifelong love of field sports and wildlife.

One morning, he came in from a squirrel hunt with a big smile on his face. “No one is going to believe this,” he began. “But I saw something I’ve never seen today.”

He was sitting against an oak tree waiting for squirrels when a flash of white caught his eye. He looked to see a large, “albino” buck approaching him. The deer sniffed, catching his scent – but it didn’t flee. Instead, it trotted towards him, stopping just a few feet away. He stuck out his hand and the deer allowed him to scratch its forehead.

For several years, stories of this deer roaming around the woods of Snydertown, Pennsylvania were common. As a boy, I imagined encountering this mysterious beast. But decades later, with countless time spent observing and hunting deer, I have yet to see a white deer in the wild. But I still hear the stories, many of them strange or even mythical.

White deer are real, but they may not be what you think.

Albino, Leucistic or Piebald?

Most people, like my grandfather, refer to white deer as “albinos.” While deer can be albinos, it’s exceedingly rare.

Albinism is a congenital condition defined by the absence of pigment, resulting in an all-white appearance and pink eyes. Many plant and animal species exhibit albinism (including humans). It’s difficult to accurately determine how frequently this condition exists in wild animals, because albino animals tend not to survive long. They have poor eyesight and are conspicuous, making them easy prey. Research suggests that albino alligators, for instance, survive on average less than 24 hours after hatching.

Leucistic squirrel. Photo © Conrad Kuiper / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Leucistic squirrel. Photo © Conrad Kuiper / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

The same undoubtedly holds true for deer, and in fact true albino deer are rarely reported. Instead, most white deer exhibit a condition commonly known as leucism, a recessive genetic trait found in about one percent of all white-tails. As with albinism, leucism can be found in nearly all mammals.

Leucistic animals lack pigment over all or part of their bodies Leucistic deer can be varying levels of white – some contain white splotches, some are half brown and half white, some appear nearly all white. Mixed brown and white animals are often known as piebald deer. (Confusingly, many deer biologists and hunters use “piebald” to describe all leucistic deer).

The nose is black, as in a “normal” deer, and eyesight is not usually affected.

Many other animals exhibit leucism. Birders often report seeing unusual white birds (rendering field guides nearly incomprehensible). White squirrels have become famous tourist attractions in several U.S. towns.

Leucistic deer generally can survive longer than albino deer. Still, they are not very well camouflaged in the forest, making them stand out to predators. In a habitat with its large predators still present, a leucistic deer’s chances of survival are slim.

As wildlife photographer and deer expert Leonard Lee Rue III notes in his recent book Whitetail Savvy (a must-read for deer nerds), “Many piebald deer also exhibit hunched backs, bowed legs, and short, rounded noses.”

Piebald whitetail deer. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Piebald whitetail deer. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Today, human hunters are the most common large predator over much of the white-tailed deer’s range. Humans bring their own selection pressures to hunting, and they’re quite different from those of wolves or mountain lions.

I’d guess that, because of that, you’re more likely to see a white deer today than at any point in the whitetail’s history.

The Curse of the White Deer

Imagine a Pleistocene hunter peering over a hill to see a white deer – something the hunter would undoubtedly never have seen before. What is this animal? It looks other-worldly: an apparition.

It is easy to see how such an animal might be viewed as sacred and off limits. That belief has informed hunting habits and even regulations to this day.

One of the most persistent legends is that a hunter killing a white deer will experience a long run of bad luck, perhaps never bagging another deer. This idea seems almost universal among hunting cultures. Hunting writer Peter Flack notes in his book Kudu that hunters across Africa believe misfortune (sometimes including death) will befall any hunter who kills a white antelope.

A piebald deer at the Seneca Army Depot in New York. Photo © blmiers2 / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
A piebald deer at the Seneca Army Depot in New York. Photo © blmiers2 / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

When game regulations were comprehensively enforced in North America in the early 1900s, conservationists believed that rare wildlife needed to be protected. White deer qualified as rare, so many state game departments prohibited hunters from killing them. This regulation remains in effect in at least three states and parts of two others.

The most interesting example of white deer protection is Seneca Army Depot in New York. The military installation was surrounded by a fence in 1941, essentially creating a 10,600-acre deer preserve.

The white-tailed deer proliferated and GI’s began hunting them. The hunters began noticing a few white deer around (which were leucistic, not albino). In 1951, the depot commander established a rule protecting these white deer from hunting.

A fenced reserve protecting the animals from predators, hunters targeting brown deer and inbreeding associated with an isolated population allowed this genetic condition to proliferate. Today, an estimated 200-300 of the 800 whitetails on the property are leucistic. It’s likely the largest concentration of these deer to ever exist.

The depot is closed and the future of the property – which has high development value – is uncertain. What will happen to the white deer if and when the fences come down? As has been the case throughout history, many people desperately want to save these deer, recognizing in them rarity that should be protected. The property actually is quite important to wildlife (and people) well beyond the white deer, too — The Nature Conservancy in fact is exploring options for protecting this place with other groups and stakeholders. From conservation values to community impact, tourism, and economic development, there is much to consider. The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to bring science to this conversation and consider the ways this land could best benefit nature and people in the years ahead.

White deer and
White deer and “normal” colored white-tail deer at the Seneca Army Depot in New York. Photo © Devin Kennedy / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

It seems that hunters in many parts of the country no longer have the cultural or legal prohibitions against shooting white deer. Many hunters find them interesting trophies. But society at large feels differently.

Hunters who kill albino and leucistic deer often find themselves the targets of internet outrage and even death threats. A hunter bagging a leucistic moose set off a firestorm of social media hate. Message boards fill with comments like “What kind of sick person kills such a rare animal?”

Many white deer protectors use the language of conservation: they see a rarity that should be protected, much as we would protect a California condor or black-footed ferret. Something so rare should never be killed by humans.

Let’s be clear, here. A leucistic or piebald white-tailed deer is a genetic anomaly. It would always be susceptible to predators, whether or not it was pursued by humans. The Seneca Army Depot is known for the white deer but there are actually many other reasons to protect it. These deer may indeed have cultural and historical value to humans, but let’s not confuse them with endangered species.

I too have been fascinated by these deer since hearing those stories by my grandpa. A white deer intrigues me as a student of deer. They’re fascinating to observe and ponder. But, in this era of over-abundant whitetails – when we desperately need scientific management to protect our forests and biodiversity – we must move beyond the idea of the white deer as a sacred beast.

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  1. Audra Stewart says:

    We recently saw a white deer passing through the neighbors yard here in Maine. What a sight! It was beautiful!

  2. Rob Groszkrueger says:

    The Native Americans of the plains thought the white buffalo was a sacred animal

  3. Keith Crowley says:

    There is an entire population of leucistic/albino whitetails in Wisconsin – most with pink noses and pale blue eyes – does, fawns and bucks. I have a gallery of images you can check out: http://www.lodgetrail.com/p362307117

  4. Troy Nemitz says:

    Great article. I was once lucky enough to get a few photographs of a Piebald Deer. It was the only one I have ever seen. I would love to get a better shot and look forward to the next opportunity I may get to try.

    Here is a link to my photo of the deer.

  5. Dusty pilgrim says:

    I for one have passed this idea of conservation and protection of all animals that are outside the norm… I was raised this way at camp, it hurts nothing to look beyond so as to save the animal from our hunt and pass the possibility that someone else will see it and share there story of how they to passed up a kill for the next generation…it’s not a legend or a legacy… Just good judgment, commonsense and camp edicacy!

  6. Carrie Smigla-Didier says:

    I understand that the white deer (or any other animal is just the sum of their genetics), however, they are a bit different, a bit special. They should, of course, mate with other normal colored members of their species to keep inbreeding to a minimum and keep the species as s whole more strong and varied.
    This is not my main point, however. You ended your discussion that people need to maintain the population levels by hunting. I challenge this assumption absolutely.
    Hunters don’t behave like actual predators in the wild would (because they aren’t). Hunters go after the biggest, strongest, healthiest stock they can find, especially the males with large antlers. Real hunters, the predators go after smaller, weaker, sometimes sick members of the herd, and sometimes baby members of the herd. They take members whose genes may be inferior. They usually make the herd stronger. This is the area I constantly struggle with in terms of hunting .

    1. susan delaney says:

      You are 100% correct. Hunters are not natural predators. Telling themselves that they are is infuriating .

    2. Hubert Earl says:

      Lol….yea people have been hunting since they walked out of the sands of Africa some 100,000 years ago but they’re not natural predators….lol

    3. Christopher Reiger says:

      Trophy hunters pursue the “biggest, strongest, healthiest ” animals they can find. “Real hunters,” which have always included humans (we are not above or apart from nature), do not necessarily do so, and many of us view the trophy-seekers as misguided.

  7. Kate Dempsey says:

    On one of my first day’s on the job at TNC in Maine 13 years ago, I was driving south from Bangor, Maine back to our office in Brunswick. I glanced in the median and there stood a white deer – I honestly thought I might have mis-seen. I am glad to read that it wasn’t a ghost! -Kate Dempsey, Maine TNC

  8. Elmer Scwartz says:

    In 1952 I was stationed at Sampson Air Force Base, across the road from the Seneca Arms Depot and saw the white deer many times. Sampson is now a State Park and could be used to extend the deers’ range. It would if, at least, part of the Park be allowed to become forest.

    1. Kelly Biery says:

      Those white deer along with the regular brownies come and go as they please. There have been many sightings in Sampson Park. Many sightings all around the Upstate region. Buffalo has a famous resident piebald that is all over the net. A small herd near Watkins Glen.

  9. Randi Levin says:

    Dear Matt, these beautiful creatures can also be seen in the Rocky Mountains! In fact we had a couple a Buck and Doe in my neighborhood several years ago and I do happen to live at 8000ft above sea level! ENJOY THEM BUT NEVER HUNT THEM!

  10. Larry kennedy says:

    The very first wild deer I ever saw was a white deer. Decades ago what in retrospect was probably a yearling was frozen in the headlights, standing in a ditch.
    I assume you would still need to cull the brown deer in this area if you were to preserve it as is.