Wildlife

White Deer: Understanding a Common Animal of Uncommon Color

February 3, 2016

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

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 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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56 comments

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

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

  3. Matt
    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!

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

    2. 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.

  5. 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

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. Let’s see; I don’t understand your argument: the white deer MAY have cultural and historical value to humans but we need not consider them an endangered species. Then, an overabundance of white tails? Who determined what number is “over abundant” and why?? If scientific management to protect our forests and biodiversity is so important…are you aguing that the white deer need not be included in such a human directed activity??

    1. Sigh. I thought Miller covered this quite well, but his point went in one ear and out the other. To be more blunt: leucistic and albino deer are abnormal and a detriment to the deer population. Keep one as a pet if you like (please do if you can remove it from the wild population), but if we value WILDlife, then abnormal wild animals should be allowed to be killed off by predators whether animal or human, and if necessary culled. If this problem were to be allowed to grow unchecked, then in time we might find that the white-tailed deer species (please look up the meaning of “species”) had been rendered endangered by the population’s unfitness for survival. Abnormal populations are not and/or must not be protected by law or by ignorant sentiment.

  10. I understand the fence at the old Seneca army depot has been cut and a hunter has installed many lethal traps. The land is now public and no longer protected by the government. Why hunting has been allowed is a mystery. The white deer have always drawn tourist to the area. The NY DEC recently arrested 2 men and issued 12 tickets for illegal hunting. The traps were found because a girl was walking her dog in the area and her dog was killed by a trap. She had to watch her poor dog die.
    PETA recently got involved due to the inhumane nature of the trap. Pits were dug and body gripping traps were set greater than 6 inches. She had to watch her poor dog die. A recent count suggest the numbers of white deer are less than half what they used to be. The area is in need of your help.

  11. My adult son suggests that some of the deer could be adopted by interested people rather than killing
    Them. Surely that be a solution to part of the problem.

  12. I feel that the white deer at the Seneca Army Depot should be protected. I know that my family looks for them. when we camp across the street from the Depot at Sampson State Park which is also full of our history. These spaces are unique to New York State and should be preserved.

  13. A 10,600-acre white deer preserve?
    Where do I send my donation?

    YIS. a beaver, an eagle, and a good ol’ bear.

  14. At least they have the winter advantage of camouflage in snowy areas. Beautiful animals.

  15. I lived in Seneca County, New York for many years and would pass the Seneca Army Depot on my way to and from work daily. It was a beautiful sight to see these beautiful creatures standing just inside the fences and especially in the fog when they would look like apparitions. It would be a shame to eliminate the he herd, maybe there is somewhere else in the country that part of the herd could go and still be protected. They do not really have a fear of the world as we know it. They are special animals.

  16. White deer should be off limits to hunters. They have enough problems already.

  17. Do you suppose that the unicorn was actually a version of the white deer? Other “mythical” animals actually genetic anomalies? Might some of these more unusual creatures actually been benefitted by their “stangeness” in not being pursued, but being avoided? Would welcome facts, ideas, possible recognitions!

    Marilyn

  18. From what has been reported many times in this area (Rochester which is relatively near the Seneca Army Depot), piebald refers to a black and white color combination. Skewbald refers to a brown and white combination and would therefore apply to the Seneca white deer.

  19. I once saw a huge white majestic looking deer back in the 90’s in Southern NJ along the banks of the Delaware River. An awesome creature it was. I’ll never forget it.

  20. Great Story! It would be great if the Nature Conservancy gets involved: an organization with good sense, no fanatacism. We used to see small herds of white deer and some intermingled with the brown herds south of Aurora, NY. Legends abound, stories of how the white deer of Seneca Depot got around the Fingerlakes or swam across one lake or another, or crossed on ice to mix with the herds in southern Cayuga County. Thanks for a good read.

  21. I never saw a white deer tho obviously they would stand-out to be hunted by humans and other predators….can an albino reproduce?

  22. I have been camping at the park there. I ope it can turn into a protected area-not just for the deer but for people to enjoy it’s beauty.

  23. Matt, My dad worked at Seneca Army Depot when I was a kid, and my parents remember seeing the white deer. Very cool to read your blog, which I plan to share with them. Cate

  24. I have seen white deer in the wild in Virginia. Why should we have to make such a strong case for preserving such a beautiful and rare animal?

  25. I agree with Matt. We must see the larger natural picture which includes predators and prey. Once coyotes are introduced to Seneca the white deer may be targeted. There are also more many more species that need our protection. White tail deer will survive in abundance no matter what. Once man has upset the natural balance of nature it will take man to help put it back. Michael Ach

  26. There is also an artist in northern Wisconsin who has photographed many of these deer. I do not know how many live in that area, but the photographs are beautiful. I am sorry, but I don’t remember his name. We saw the photos at an art show near Tomahawk, WI.

  27. So are you suggesting that because there is an over-abundance of whitetail deer in general, you would be content if all the white ones are hunted out of existence? It is doubtful that preserving the small population(s) of white deer in and of themselves would bring such a great burden of to our forests. Other comments are quite accurate in that human hunters take down the biggest and best specimens which is a detriment to the population. This was a disappointing end to your article. And perhaps, although not “scientific” there is something to be said for the fact that most humans are inclined to instinctively preserve what we perceive as special like the white deer!

  28. seen a piebald deer on skimmer hollow rd .next to the Nature Conservancy lands , eating apples (less than 1000 ft from the land )
    never would I shoot one !
    peter brown

  29. Hi Matt,
    A white doe showed up in our back yard about two weeks ago. We live in Central New York State, approximately 50 miles from the Seneca Army Depot. Who should we contact about her? We’d like to do what it takes to protect her.
    Thank you.

  30. Just saw a leucistic deer cross hwy 28 near the Modoc boat landing turnoff today in South Carolina. Two deer crossed the road, one normal color and the second was all white except the head and ears. Is this unusual in this area or is this a common occurance here?

  31. I sent a comment just now about the doe we have been watching.

  32. I have a doe that has twins every year on my property – this year (this morning) I was able to see her progeny – one of the fawns is white! Beautiful!

  33. I saw a white deer run across the road, about 1 1/2 weeks ago. I had never seen one before and didn’t know they existed. I live in a rural town in Arizona, about the middle of the state, in the mountains. I was talking to some native Arizonans about it and they didn’t seem surprised. They had also seen White Deer in the past. They called them Albino Deer, but I don’t really know if that is correct. I didn’t see the eyes. It was too quick. Still, I considered it quite a thrill to see it.

  34. Where I live we have 1 albino adult and this year there is a set of white twins. It’s so amazing to see. Someone said one of the twins has a small patch of brown on the neck area.

  35. Not to forget that most humans in North America no longer need to hunt for food and that the killing of these rare and beautiful animals is simply for a bloodthirsty sport is disgusting. If you feel you must hunt animals, at least hunt those which are pests or in abundance, not those which are symbols of beauty and wisdom, and have done nothing to hurt humans in the slightest.

    I may be slightly biased in my opinion, as my family name means white stag, but as hard as it may be hunters need to think before they shoot.

  36. Just saw a white fawn this morning in the center devide of a highway near Spencer, NC. It looked very young. Someone in a commercial truck behind me stopped, I’m guessing, to try to save it from getting hit. The stretch of highway has four lanes on either side of the center decide. I was amazed that it hadn’t been hit already. Seeing it made me Google and thereby finding this article. Seeing a live one is a first for me.

  37. Just saw one of these deer as I was driving to work. It was part of a herd of about five, which of course made it stand out even more. I sat there in awe as they crossed the road. My fear is that these idiot hunters are going to spot it and try to claim it as a trophy or worse yet he becomes the victim of a reckless driver. Wish there was some conservation program I could contact to save him.
    Any thoughts?

  38. We had a beautiful white deer with baby in our area and has been wonderful watching them most evenings. Unfortunately, the neighbor 18 or 19 year old killed the mother this past weekend. It is bow season but think it was shot. We are upset that this deer was killed. Is it legal in New York State to kill these beautiful creatures. Baby is still in our fields. Thank you.

  39. Last Tuesday I saw two deer along HWY I-205 south bound near the Stafford exit, just south of Portland , Oregon. One had normal coloring but the other was almost all white with two large dark brown patches on its neck and shoulder. I had to do a double take to believe what I actually saw. Karl Kochendorfer

  40. call me crazy but I’m a letter carrier in Lawrenceville, NJ and today I saw 2 piebald or leucistic deer grazing with a brown deer.the 2 deer looked like small ponies. is this rare?

  41. Just was sent a pic of a white deer from a friend of mine… first one I have ever seen… awesome
    Cincinnati, Ohio

  42. Ochlocknee River State Park in North Florida has a sizable population of piebald deer. We were camping there last weekend and, while cooking breakfast early one morning, I noticed a large white object next to one of the hiking paths. I silently cursed the idiot who dumped a trash bag there instead of walking the short distance to the dumpster…when the white object moved! She was a beautiful piebald doe with two yearlings of normal coloration. My husband and I watched her and the yearlings until they disappeared into the pines and palmettos to bed down for the day. She was stunning, and I feel so privileged to have seen her.

  43. Thank you for this post, I learned a lot! For the first time, I saw one this morning passing by in the woods where my office sits in Powell, Ohio, with three “normal” white tails with it. Such an incredible sight!

  44. January18,2017 my husband and i went for a ride in the country side on our way home at about the time it was getting dark we saw 2 white deer just standing in the woods . It was something we had never seen here in Dilley Texas.Frio county . we are still in aah!! Glad to know we are not crazy.

  45. I saw a white deer in back of my house in Montreat, NC yesterday late afternoon. The white deer was one of 4 deer walking together—-all female! Many deer in the area—–never have seen a white one before. Tried to get a picture, but only caught part of the deer as they walked into the deep woods.

  46. Just saw a mature doe and younger “white” doe in my backyard today! Awesome looking animal – just fear for her safety as in Michigan spring she has no natural protection. Many deer visit our yard but first time ever viewing a white doe! Rochester Hills, Michigan.

  47. When a human turns in to a animal whatch what you eat I say salad

  48. The fourteen foot sturgeon and the white deer are both white if the sturgeon is inside out with the white meat showing

  49. I was blessed to come across a small white fawn. Not an albino but the small deer was completely white and had a sibling that was normal color. I named them Casper and Jasper. I am lucky to see them at least 3 x’s a week due to the fact that they are enclosed in a cemetery that is gated at 7p.m. nightly. The herd of deer live at peace in this large area. I’ve watched them since they were 2 weeks old and they are now about 2 months old. I feel so lucky.