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Tuatara: Volume 13, Issue 1, April 1965

Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand — (b) Virginia Deer

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Introduced Ungulates in New Zealand
(b) Virginia Deer

Virginia Deer (Odocoileus virginianus)

Virginia or White-Tailed Deer were introduced to New Zealand shortly after the turn of the century. Considered excellent hunting in their native habitat of North America, they were introduced for the purposes of sport. Two liberations were successful, one on Stewart Island, the other on the western shores of Lake Wakatipu. and the deer have remained confined to these areas. Concern over the damage inflicted by these and by red deer (Cervus elaphus) led to the removal of protection in 1925.

Systematic Position

Virginia deer are placed in the Order Artiodactyla, Family Cervidae. Simpson (1945) includes them in a sub family Odocoileinae Pocock, 1923, but this is not mentioned in Hall and Kelson (1959), who place Virginia deer, together with black-tailed deer, in the genus Dama Zimmerman, 1780. However, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (China and Melville, 1959) invalidated Dama Zimmerman, declaring Odocoileus Rafinesque, 1832 the correct genus for Virginia deer.

Odocoileus virginianus was first described by Boddaert (1785). The specific name virginianus is derived from the State of Virginia (the type locality) where this deer was found early in American history. Thirty subspecies are recognised throughout the range of the species, which extends from Coiba Island, Panama (O. virginianus rothschildi) to eastern Canada (O. v. borealis) and British Columbia (O. v. ochrourus).

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The Virginia deer is also called the white-tailed deer owing to the conspicuous white tail which it holds upright when fleeing from danger. In North America the name white-tailed deer appears to be the most popular common name whereas in New Zealand it is Virginia deer. Other common names used in the United States are red-deer, common deer and karjacow (Donne, 1924).


Like many deer species, Virginia deer appear, at first glance, larger than they actually are, especially when only a glimpse is caught through the trees. On closer examination they prove to be slight and somewhat smaller than red deer. Height at the shoulder is about 3ft.: females are usually smaller than males. Blair et al (1957) point out that size varies considerably. Weight ranges from 50 to 350lb, but the average for males is between 120 and 150lb while females usually weigh between 80 and 100lb.

The upper parts of the coat are brownish red to grey in summer (a brighter red than the summer coat of the red deer), and become greyer in winter. The under parts of the body are white, as are the lower surface of the tail, the chin and throat, an area around the muzzle, and a ring round the eyes. The young are spotted, white on a reddish background, the spots being lost between the ages of three and four months. In New Zealand the change from summer to winter colour usually takes place in March and April and the winter-to-summer change in August and September, but these dates may vary considerably. The tail is very conspicuous because of its length (12-18in.) and its white underside (Fig. 1).

In common with other members of the Cervidae, only male Virginia deer (bucks) carry antlers. The main beam curves forwards with times arising vertically from it, brow tines are absent, and other tines are generally unbranched. Good antlers reach a length of 23-29in. (Riney, 1955) and occasionally may have up to 16 points.

Virginia deer have well developed senses of sight and smell. Their eyesight is particularly well attuned to movement, in this respect being more acute than that of red deer, but they seldom discern stationary objects. Their hearing is acute and they become alert at any strange or sudden sound; they seem especially aware of metallic sounds. In contrast with red deer, Virginia bucks are not vocal during the rutting period. Like most other species of deer they emit few noises and even then usually only if alarmed, when they blow through their nostrils. Sometimes a fawn will give a quiet bleat. When in flight their running is interspersed with a series of graceful leaps. page 3
Fig. 1: White-tailed buck, northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Photo N. W. France.

Fig. 1: White-tailed buck, northern end of Lake Wakatipu. Photo N. W. France.

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Virginia deer range from northern South America through Mexico and the United States to southern Canada. There is evidence that previously they inhabited all of the United States except some of the more arid areas, but have disappeared from many parts of their former range (Blair et al., 1957).

There is a wild introduced herd in Finland and there are some feral Virginia deer in England. Apart from these and the New Zealand herds the authors do not know of any Virginia deer established outside their present native distribution.

Introduction to New Zealand

Four Virginia deer (two males and two females) were liberated in the Takaka Valley, Nelson, in 1901. It is not known who was responsible for this liberation or where the animals were obtained. This liberation was not successful.

In 1905, T. E. Donne, when visiting the United States, purchased on behalf of the New Zealand Government 22 Virginia deer.* During the journey to New Zealand three were lost but the remaining 19 arrived in good condition. Nine of these deer were liberated at the North Arm of Port Pegasus on Stewart Island. Nine others were liberated in the Rees Valley on the western shores of Lake Wakatipu. The remaining animal, a buck, was liberated in Takaka to supplement the 1901 introduction.

The herd on Stewart Island became well established and in 1917 the Southland Acclimatisation Society reported that the herd had increased considerably. Press reports in 1919 stated that it was a ‘splendid herd’ and two licences to shoot Virginia deer were granted. At the present time the highest densities of Virginia deer on Stewart Island are found in the northern part of the island, close to the coastline.

The herd at Lake Wakatipu has remained largely confined to the Rees Valley. It is only recently that they have become established in the adjacent Dart Valley (Fig. 2).

Social Characteristics and Breeding

Virginia deer inhabit forest, forest edges and bush along stream edges. They avoid very dense bush, especially if it is damp, and page 5
Fig. 2: Dotted area of map shows distribution of white-tailed deer in New Zealand. Top inset (L.) shows location of white-tailed deer areas.

Fig. 2: Dotted area of map shows distribution of white-tailed deer in New Zealand. Top inset (L.) shows location of white-tailed deer areas.

page 6 extensive open places. They feed throughout the day in winter, and usually in the morning and evening in summer. Animals observed at Paradise (Glenorchy. Lake Wakatipu) fed up to 6 a.m. and reappeared at 6 p.m. On moonlight nights they move about freely, and they appear to feed more intensively before periods of bad weather.

As with other members of the Cervidae, the sexes remain separate during most of the year except during the rut. In New Zealand this usually starts at the beginning of May and reaches a peak by the middle of that month, i.e. about 25 days later than that normal for red deer. Just before the start of the rut the bucks travel freely. Unlike red deer stags. Virginia bucks neither ‘roar’ nor wallow during the rut. Females usually breed in their first year if they are in good condition.

Young are born in December and January after a gestation period of approximately seven months (204 days according to Asdell, 1946). In their native habitat Virginia deer usually give birth to twins; triplets are not uncommon and quintuplets have been recorded. However, twins are rarely recorded in New Zealand. (One twin foetus was recorded in the Dart Valley in 1963, and twins are occasionally seen on Stewart Island.) The frequency of multiple births appears to be a reflection of the suitability of the environment, and it has been considered that the present environment of the Virginia deer in New Zealand is not entirely suitable. This view is supported by their failure to extend their range and by the generally poor condition of Virginia deer in New Zealand. In the Dart and Rees Valleys Virginia deer fawns are dropped a little later than those of red deer, but on Stewart Island the time of birth may be spread over most of the year; the mild climate of Stewart Island when compared with that of the Dart and Rees Valleys has been given as a reason for this (Daniel, pers. comm.). Fawns require milk up to the age of three months, and stay with the mother for eight or nine months. The association is usually broken when the doe is ready to have her next fawn. The conspicuous tail of the Virginia deer is used by the doe as a guide for the fawn as they run through the forest. Bucks also raise the tail, exposing the white under side, when they run from danger.

Virginia deer are quick to learn and to profit from experience. They will circle when they run from dogs; often they will let a person, or dog, approach and pass before quietly moving away. They make and frequently use ‘runways’. Once used to man, they will tolerate his presence, and in their native habitat Virginia deer may be found in large numbers on the edges of some of the big cities (Hall and Kelson, 1959). At Paradise Station (Glenorchy, Lake Wakatipu, South Island. New Zealand) Virginia deer can be observed by tourists, grazing at the bush edges.

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Virginia deer will readily take to water, especially if pressed by dogs, and have been seen to swim for more than an hour and a half in calm water (Schofield, unpublished ‘report’). Bucks have swum more than three miles during the rutting period.

Parasitology and Disease

The parasitology and diseases of Virginia deer have been the subject of extensive investigation in their native country (Deer Disease Symposium. 1962). The New Zealand herd is currently being studied along similar lines by one of the present authors (J.R.H.A.). Preliminary findings from the Lake Wakatipu herd show the presence of dog tapeworm (Taenia hydatigena) cysts on the liver and omentum, a nematode (Oesophagostomum venulosum) in the caecum, and six species of trichostrongylid nematodes in the fourth stomach. The deer that were examined were in remarkably poor condition. Samples of blood taken from these animals failed to show the presence of Brucella or Leptospira organisms (Daniel, pers. comm.). The louse (Damalinia parallela) commonly found on North American Virginia deer was also present.

In North America Virginia deer are host to a wide variety of parasites, including a number that are shared with other wild and domestic ungulates (Anderson, 1962).

Present Economic Position

Virginia deer were protected until 1919, when regulations were gazetted for shooting under licence. In 1925, as a result of representations made to the Government, all protection was removed. The number of Virginia deer shot either by Government hunters or by private shooters is not known. Extensive operations against both red and Virginia deer on Stewart Island reduced the numbers of the red deer, but Virginia deer, because of their more wary nature and their habit of occupying bush country, remained numerous.

Virginia deer have little commercial value. It is hoped that they may provide a tourist attraction in the Wakatipu (Glenorchy) area. Donne (1924) observes that Virginia venison is highly recommended because it is readily digested. The meat is lighter in colour than that of red deer, not as coarse, and can be very tender. Donne also quotes Theodore Roosevelt as stating that ‘Whitetail venison is most delicious eating’.


Anderson, R. C., 1962. Deer Disease Symposium, Proc. of the First National Whitetailed. University of Georgia Center for Continuing Education, 201 pp. (pp. 162-174).

Asdell, S. A., 1946. Patterns of Mammalian Reproduction. New York, Comstock Publishing Co., Inc., 437 pp. (p. 333).

Blair, W. F., et al., 1957. Vertebrates of the United States. McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 819 pp. (p. 768).

Boddaert, P., 1785. Elenchus Anim. 1: 136. (Not seen, cited by Hall and Kelson, 1959).

China, W. E., and Melville, R. V. (Eds.), 1961. Opinion 581: Determination of the Generic names for the Fallow deer of Europe and the Virginia deer of America (Class Mammalia). The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. 17: 267-275.

Deer Disease Symposium, Proc. of the First National Whitetailed. 1962. Pub. Univ. of Georgia Centre for Continuing Education, 201 pp. Athens, Georgia.

Donne, T. E., 1924. The Gams Animals of New Zealand. London, John Murray, 322 pp. (p. 128).

Hall, E. R., and Kelson, K. R., 1959. The Mammals of North America. Vols. 1 and II. New York, The Ronald Press Co., 1083 pp.

Riney, T., 1955. Identification of Big Game Animals in New Zealand. Dominion Museum Handbook No. 4. 26 pp. (p. 20).

Simpson, G. G., 1945. The Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals. Bull. Amer. Mus. Nat. Hist.: p. 154.

* Five mule deer (Odocoileus hermionus), a deer very similar in appearance to Virginia deer, were also acquired by Donne at this time. These animals reached New Zealand in good condition and were liberated at Runanga, Hawkes Bay (Donne, 1924). In 1915 these deer were reported by the Hawkes Bay Acclimatisation Society to be increasing in numbers, but since then nothing has been heard of them and the liberation appears to have failed.