Buckmasters Magazine

Ghost Deer

Ghost Deer

By Bob Humphrey

Albinos and piebalds are rare, but should they be protected?

I entered the woods and was slipping along at a somewhat casual pace, scouting more than hunting, when a deer broke from cover in front of me. Cursing myself for being too casual, I stopped to survey the area. My intent was to find a likely ambush spot, then go back for the climber I’d left at the field’s edge. I was about to continue my search when I glimpsed a patch of white out of the comer of my eye. Lifting my binoculars, I was astounded by what I saw.

The white deer looked like a ghost as it eased through the dense understory. I watched for several minutes as it slowly walked upwind, pausing occasionally to feed. Its head and neck carried brown fur accentuated with white patches typical of most whitetails. The rest of its body, though, was white, except for a row of brown spots along the top of its back.

Already amazed, I was totally awestruck when the deer walked into a dense thicket of brush and bedded down a less than 100 yards away. Bow in hand, I slowly began a stalk.

The deer’s presence wasn’t unexpected. Several weeks earlier, while I was asking permission to hunt, the landowner mentioned regularly seeing what he called an albino deer in his field. That was the reason I was there. I dreamed of an opportunity to hunt it, but more realistically hoped I might catch a glimpse of such a rare animal.

The landowner referred to it as an albino, but I suspected it was something slightly different: a piebald. Both are extremely rare, but piebalds are more common than albinos. Furthermore, I’d heard of other sightings in the same area over the years. Whichever it was, I was about to find out.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Albinism occurs throughout the animal kingdom and results in a complete lack of body pigment. Fur, feathers and skin are white. The eyes, nose and other soft parts are pink. Albino deer have all white coats and pink eyes and soft parts.

Alternately, piebalds have some skin pigment. “Pied” means blotchy and of two or more colors, while “bald” means white. Piebalds have varying amounts of brown fur. Also, their hooves, eyes and noses are dark.

Both conditions are the result of a recessive genetic trait that results in a lack or total absence of pigment. This trait is exceedingly rare, estimated at less than 1 percent under natural conditions, and often localized where it occurs. It is more common to find an albino or piebald in the same area as others of its kind. Furthermore, the frequency of this mutation can be increased by protection and inbreeding.

The genes that control fur color are pleiotropic, meaning they influence multiple visible characteristics.

Albino deer have several other recessive traits such as poor eyesight which could indirectly lead to a shorter lifespan.

According to the Field Manual of Wildlife Diseases in the Southeastern United States (Davidson and Nettles, 1997), “In addition to their white coloration, many have some of the following observable conditions: bowing of the nose (Roman nose), short legs, arching spine (scoliosis), and short lower jaws.” Such maladies are less common in piebalds, although they often have smaller than normal antlers.

In the wild, the unusual colors of albinos and piebalds place them at an immediate and selective disadvantage. Lacking their typical protective coloration, white deer are more visible, making them easier for predators and hunters to see.

That was most definitely the case on my stalk of the bedded piebald.

My first steps put a large hemlock tree between me and the deer. Over the next half hour, I covered the distance to that tree, moving infinitesimally slowly and easing each step down into the dry leaves.

At one point I had to stop and gingerly break the limbs off two small fir trees that stood between me and the hemlock so I could squeeze between them.

By the time I reached the hemlock, my perspective had changed and I had no idea where, or even if, the deer was still bedded. I only knew if it was still there, it was close.

Ghost DeerGingerly, I put down my bow, took out my binoculars and eased my head around the right side of the tree. Nothing. Then I slowly eased my head around the left side and saw a patch of white.

I eased up my binoculars and barely made out the outline of the deer’s head. Were it not for the white, and the binoculars, I never would have seen the deer lying in the dense, brushy thicket.

The battle was far from won. I had stalked to within less than 20 yards of a bedded deer but could go no farther. Except for the dense brush where it now lay, there was nothing between us but thin air and a small stream. The next move would have to be the deer’s.

All I could do was wait and hope it wouldn’t see, smell or hear me.

SHOOT OR DON’T SHOOT?

Whether you should or can shoot a white deer is a surprising and unnecessarily controversial issue.

Because these animals are rare, humans tend to place greater value on them. This applies equally to wanting to protect or to collect them.

Some argue it’s unethical to shoot a white deer, just as we debate the use of bait, dog hunting and deer drives — all of which are legal and acceptable in some states. Consider that until very recently, treestands were illegal in Michigan, and scouting cameras are currently illegal in Montana.

From a biological standpoint, there is no reason to protect white deer. In fact, a pretty good case can be made for why you should be allowed to hunt them. Their coat is the result of a recessive genetic mutation that places deer at a selective disadvantage and often results in other physical maladies. Protecting animals with such traits increases their frequency through inbreeding, perpetuating physically inferior deer.

Will protecting white deer cause any real harm to your deer herd?

Probably not. Again, it’s a very rare trait, and the genetic drift in even a small, isolated population is so great that such traits seldom become prolific without aggressive selective breeding.

They are a novelty, and people like having them around.

Obviously you can’t shoot white deer where they are protected by law. To this day, laws protecting white deer remain in the books in a few states, largely out of superstition.

And superstition is another reason you might consider passing one up. Folklore says shooting a white deer will bring you three, five or seven years (numbers vary but are usually odd) of bad hunting luck. I tend to discount such notions, which is why I went looking for the white deer I had seen earlier.

Crouched behind the bole of the big hemlock, I wished with all my might for the deer to stand. Suddenly, as if by my will, it did. “Could this really happen?” I wondered. I’d come here looking for this particular deer, found it, then stalked within bow range. Now it was obligingly standing, about to offer a broadside shot. When its head turned away, I drew my bow.

That’s when things began going awry. The deer held its ground behind some brush, then looked directly at me. Fearing it would bolt at any moment, I frantically searched for an opening in the brush.

I strained to hold the string back, simultaneously fighting off the temptation to send an arrow through the tangle of branches. Amazingly, the deer looked away. Another break! I eased off the string and relaxed my arms.

Finally, still facing away, the deer took another step into a small opening.

That was all I needed. I drew, picked a brown spot on the deer’s white coat, and fired.

They say the hand is quicker than the eye, and the arrow most certainly is. Mine flew so fast I didn’t see it, but my mind’s eye told me it had sailed harmlessly over the deer’s back. I was a bundle of mixed emotions: relief, exhilaration and disappointment. It all started sinking in over the next 10 minutes while I fruitlessly searched for the arrow, which only added to my growing frustration.

I finally conceded, went back to where I’d shot and tried to determine the deer’s exact location and the arrow’s trajectory. Then I returned and tried to determine where it had fled.

Four steps down the trail, I found the first blood drops. Anxiety swelled in me as I thought about the high shot. Successive steps revealed larger splashes of blood, and my anxiety turned to excitement.

Then, for the second time that day, I caught a glimpse of an unnaturally large patch of white fur. The deer had run less than 60 yards before dropping, dispatched by a near perfect shot.

Nearly 20 years later, that 90-pound button buck still ranks as one of my top trophies, although I’ve had a fair amount of luck since.

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This article was published in the November 2011 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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