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Albino and piebald deer.

It seems that every hunting season I receive a call from a hunter who has harvested an all-white (albino) or partially white (piebald) deer. And every year I hear many of the same questions: What causes this condition?" "Are such deer legal to harvest?" "How common are they in a population?" "Can they reproduce?" Many hunters spend their entire hunting career without ever observing these unique deer. And although I have never seen an albino deer in the wild, within the last 15 years I've observed six piebald or partially white deer. Let's examine these two color mutations and discuss the management options wildlife agencies use to determine whether they're legal to harvest.

Albino Deer--The eyes of albino deer always appear pink. This occurs because their eyes lack any color or pigmentation. Thus, blood vessels can be seen through the iris. More often than not, this condition causes sight deficiencies. As a result, these deer generally might stick to dense forest cover. Albino deer also lack the gene for melanin, which generates normal coloration. Records of albinism for deer are extremely rare, but it is believed that albinism increases with inbreeding. One unpublished record indicated that one in 30,000 deer are albinos. However, wildlife agencies do not generally record coloration data, and I think the unpublished report I mention may be a bit too conservative.

Piebald Deer--Piebald is the term given to deer that are brown and white in color, similar to a pinto pony. Unlike albinos, which do not produce any pigment, some of the cells in piebald deer produce a color pigment called melanin. Although rare, piebald deer possess a recessive trait that is more prevalent in overpopulated deer herds. This genetic condition typically occurs in less than 1 percent of the population. In the field, hunters are far more likely to see piebald deer than albinos. Exceptions do occur, but just like albinos, most piebalds are short-lived and usually have physical abnormalities such as short lower jawbones, roman noses, short legs, deformed hooves, and an arching spine.

It's important to note that some normal-colored whitetails carry the recessive gene for albinism or the piebald coloration. If a normal-colored deer with a recessive gene breeds with a piebald deer, the end result will probably be a piebald fawn. However, very few normal-colored deer possess this recessive gene (piebald). Limited research indicates that two piebald or albino deer can produce offspring. But again, long-shot odds that two recessive genes will come together is what makes these unique deer so rare.

While working on a job in New Jersey a few years ago I stumbled upon a piebald fawn. Luckily, I had my camera and instantly started to take pictures of this rare find. When the fawn started to bleat, a normal-colored doe arrived on the scene instantly.

That same year, hunting buddy Corey Gable from Pennsylvania joined me on a lease in Maryland. Corey is one of those deer geeks who lives, breaths, and dies whitetails. The area we hunted was under a strict quality deer management plan, where all hunters had to take a doe before they could shoot a buck, and the buck had to have a 15-inch-or-greater inside spread. Neither Corey nor I had seen or heard of any piebald deer on the lease, but one night the phone rang when I was having dinner with my family. It was Corey.

"I hope you don't get mad at me, but I shot a broken-antler spike," he said. Since I knew Corey was one of my best hunters, I assumed he was simply yanking my chain. But no, he was dead serious, and he started to apologize profusely. "I have to show you this deer," Corey continued. "He's about 50 percent white! I shot him at 15 yards, and he's a piebald spike buck." As soon as Corey arrived at my house, I couldn't believe my eyes. I explained to him that these deer have recessive genes, and by shooting the spike he did the herd a favor. Although Corey was starting to second-guess his decision to shoot, I simply asked him, "Why would anyone want to promote or protect something that wouldn't pass the survival of the fittest test?" After that, he felt better and decided to have a full-body mount done of the buck.

One week later Corey and I decided to hunt in the same area. That day, both Corey and I saw over 100 deer. By 2 p.m. a herd of 25 plus deer passed by my stand and headed directly toward Corey. As the herd got closer, Corey noticed that one doe looked a little funny. At 20 yards he saw what his mind was telling him he was seeing--a piebald doe. Instantly he drew and released his arrow. The doe ran less than 35 yards and crashed into the brush. Corey quickly descended the tree and marveled at his unique trophy. His second piebald deer had a strange 5-inch-long white stripe located between the eyes and mouth, as well as pale, white spots along her sides. Additionally, her lower jawbone was 2 inches shorter than the upper jaw.

Although there were plenty of good hunting hours left, Corey came over and got me out of my stand. I couldn't believe what he was telling me, but the look on his face said it all. By shooting two piebald deer in the same season, my friend had probably done what no other hunter in North America had done! I couldn't help but wonder how he was going to explain his taxidermy bill to his wife, but that's another story.

Unbelievably, one month later Corey called me and said, "CJ, I had another piebald doe at 25 yards, but I just could not get a clean shot." Corey was hunting from the same treestand where he'd shot the piebald buck.

Last year a number of us hunting the same lease set our sights on a piebald doe we believed to be 2 1/2-years old. She was always the lead doe in the herd, so whenever she steered away from us, the rest of the deer followed. It was as if she had a sixth sense. Believe me, this was getting very personal and a number of us were truly humbled by this deer.

Finally, with only two days left in the season, Corey and our hunting buddy Brian Fahs saw her and decided to conduct a drive. Corey would be the driver and Brian would set up in a permanent treestand. Although the wind was completely wrung, the piebald started running toward Brian and stopped only 12 yards away. Even Brian couldn't miss this shot and, thus, the curse of the piebald due came to an end.

Not only is Corey a buck magnet, he's also a piebald magnet. If you're having trouble harvesting a piebald deer, give me a call and I'll put you in contact with him!


Corresponding public attraction and novelty of seeing an albino or piebald deer should not supercede sound wildlife management or evolutionary selection that has does promoting albino or piebald traits. Most states/provinces allow you to shoot albino or piebald deer. Where it is illegal, it's obviously a case where the misguided but probably well-meaning public has taken the biology out of wildlife management, Although albino and piebald deer are unique, I ask, "Why would anyone want to promote a recessive gene?"

States that protect albino deer and the year the law went into effect: Iowa (1989), Illinois (1983), Michigan (1990), Hunting District 500 in Montana (1992), Oklahoma (1997), Washington (1980) and Wisconsin (1965). Piebald deer are protected in Iowa, Montana, and Oklahoma. Iowa requires the deer to be 50 percent or more white, and Montana requires deer to be 75 percent white to be protected. In Oklahoma, all piebald deer are protected.
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Title Annotation:Huntin' Whitetails
Author:Winand, C.J.
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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