Blane Klemek: Observing a ‘piebald’ deer in the wild is a rare occurrance
I remember the first time I ever heard the word “piebald” spoken. It didn’t make much sense to me then, and to tell you the truth, it still doesn’t. But that’s what my Grandfather Clifford Greenwood told me when I asked him about the unusual lamp sitting on top of a small antique table inside his den.
The “deer-leg lamp,” is what I called it. Its “vase” was four deer legs bound together by two brass rings. The base of the lamp was the four hooves of the legs which supported and balanced the lamp perfectly. Mounted on top of the deer legs were standard lamp parts; vase cap, neck, harp bottom, lamp socket, harp, finial, and lamp shade.
Not that the deer-leg lamp wasn’t interesting enough, but it was the color of the legs and hooves were actually the most noteworthy part of the lamp. Though the legs came from a white-tailed deer that my Grandfather had killed long ago, the pelage coloration of the animal parts were anything but typical.
The brown legs of Grandpa’s deer-leg lamp were spotted white, like what you would expect the coat of a fawn’s to look like. The cloven hooves were different too. Instead of dark black, the toes were blondish in color. Grandpa’s deer-leg lamp was a memento and a unique conversational piece of a most unusual deer — a piebald deer — that he had harvested during a November deer hunt in northern Minnesota.
Piebald, the word, simply means, “Of different colors; spotted or patched or blotched, especially with black and white.” Think of a pinto horse and you pretty much have a living and breathing example of what the noun version of piebald is. That said, while the gene or genes responsible for the piebald phenotype is a dominant genetic trait in the pinto breed of horse, it is a recessive gene in the white-tailed deer. Hence, the occurrence of piebald deer in free ranging, wild deer is very low, probably much less than one percent, if even that.
What a piebald deer is not, is an albino. True albinism, in any animal — be they fish, bird or human — is the total lack of pigmentation, which results in white hair and pink skin and eyes. A piebald deer is simply a deer with white hair, often occurring in spots or blotches throughout the animal’s body. Sometimes a piebald deer can be over 90 percent white with very little brown. Such a deer, though indeed appearing every bit an albino, is not “part albino”, it’s just a variation of piebald.
I’ve been fortunate enough to actually see a couple of piebald deer in the wild. The first piebald deer was in far northwestern Minnesota, east of Warren, while I was bowhunting for deer. A lone doe was feeding on a hayfield that I was glassing with binoculars.
When I first observed her she had her head down, grazing. I saw a white splotch of something on her forehead, but I believed it to be an artifact of the vegetation she was grazing in, perhaps the white of a milkweed pod, or something similar.
However, when she lifted her head I could clearly see, even without the aid of binoculars, that the white spot was centered on her forehead. As I studied the deer with the binoculars it became evident that I was looking at a piebald deer. The star on her head reminded me of the blaze on the forehead of a horse or the “star” on the head of a Holstein cow.
It is thought that the occurrence of piebald deer in a population increases when populations become too high. For example, at the United States Geologic Services’ Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, numerous piebald deer have been observed inside the refuge. A student who studied the refuge’s deer herd in 1998 documented twin piebald fawns born to a normal colored doe.
Other observations included piebald siblings with normal colored siblings, in addition to normal colored fawns born to piebald does. What’s more, piebald deer, no matter the amount of white in their pelage, were not ostracized by other, normal colored deer. Piebald deer behave as any white-tailed deer would behave—piebald or not—under normal circumstances.
My second observation of a piebald deer occurred about four years ago in early autumn. I observed four deer in a wooded pasture along the dirt road I was traveling on near my Becida area home. Slowing down to view the animals, I saw that two of the four deer were bucks — one spike buck and a mature buck that sported a nice rack. The other two deer were antlerless.
Peering through the side window of the passenger door of my truck, I was surprised to see white above the white throat-patch on the larger buck’s neck. At this point all four deer were alert and were looking at me intensely.
It was then that I noticed that the larger buck had a completely white face. The animal reminded me of a white-faced Hereford with antlers instead of horns. Since then, I’ve often wondered if the deer had survived or if some hunter managed to harvest the unique looking animal.
The appearance of a piebald deer is one of those rare occurrences in Nature that is interesting to see. A genetic defect is the reason why it occurs, not disease or parasites or albinism. It is merely a rare variation in pelage coloration occasionally exhibited in white-tailed deer and in some other animals.
Without question, observing such abnormalities in Nature is always a possibility as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is the DNR Area Wildlife Supervisor in Detroit Lakes. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)