22-28 December 2002
Installment #153--Visitor # visitor counter

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Whether December for you revolves around Santa Claus, the Christ child, Hanukkah, or some other tradition, it's always a magical time of the year. Curmudgeonly folks--Scrooge, for example--are known to have sudden fits of benevolence, and even bitter enemies sometimes lay down their swords to honor end-of-year holidays.

We doubt wild animals realize there's anything special about 25 December, but over the years we HAVE noticed unusual things happen in the natural world around that date. Once we were awakened by a family of White-footed Mice that held a pecan-bowling championship on our hardwood floors late on Christmas Eve, and in several years our backyard evergreens at Hilton Pond Center have been decorated by unusually large numbers of bright scarlet Northern Cardinals on Christmas morning. Considering all this, we weren't startled when Christmas Day 2002 brought another miracle of nature at Hilton Pond.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

After we opened family presents and finished off our traditional Christmas breakfast of chocolate coffee cake, we were watching the antics of a variety of winter songbirds at the feeders outside the big kitchen window of the old farmhouse. Just then the phone rang, and next-door neighbor Ron Trent said breathlessly: "Merry Christmas. Have you ever seen a WHITE deer?"

Normally, this unexpected query might have thrown us off a bit, but we calmly responded that we had INDEED seen a white deer--just last week, in fact--walking across the dam that forms Hilton Pond. Ron seemed surprised but reported the deer was back and apparently browsing on Eastern Red Cedar at the edge of his field that adjoins the Center's property. We thanked Ron for the alert, grabbed our new Canon D60 digital camera, and dashed out the back door to see if we could get a picture of this white Christmas deer. Not expecting to get very close, we mounted a 100-400 telephoto zoom lens with motion stabilizer on the camera and headed down the trail.

In the distance we observed something very white on the far side of Ron's field, so we moved slowly and kept the underbrush between us and the object. As we crossed a small bridge at the upper end of Hilton Pond, the trunk of a giant Post Oak blocked our view of our quarry--and its view of us--so we were able to get to within 30 yards before peeking around the tree to see if the white thing was still there. Sure enough, it hadn't moved far, so we could finally confirm it was a deer--and that it most certainly WAS white--mostly.

When we first saw this deer briefly a few weeks ago from the Center's office window, we thought it was a big dog. When it began moving we changed our ID to sheep . . . no, goat. . . no, cow . . . but finally realized it was a WHITE White-tailed Deer, Odocoileus virginianus. We also noticed it wasn't shaped like a typical deer; the legs were short, the head looked a little odd, and the body seemed disproportionate--hence our initial misidentification of it as some sort of domesticated animal. When we got a much closer view on Christmas morning, the odd shape and color were even more obvious and we could see the deer wasn't an albino. True albinos have pink eyes and complete lack of pigment, but this white deer had normal brown eyes and ears and brown spots on its flanks, hind legs, and belly. Game managers call these kinds of deer "piebald" or "calico."

Piebald White-tailed Deer are exceedingly uncommon but still not as rare as true albinos. (We've seen normal White-tailed Deer at Hilton Pond Center less than a dozen times, so it's really amazing we have a local piebald.) While many piebalds go unnoticed because they have mostly brown pelage, those like the nearly all-white one at the Center stand out starkly against natural vegetation; most piebalds, in fact, are so noticeable they are taken by predators while still fawns. Thus, adult piebalds are unusual--so much so that some hunters seek them out as trophy animals and various Native American tribes hold them in high esteem, using their calico pelts in religious ceremonies.

There's evidence white coloration isn't the only "defect" that makes piebald deer more susceptible to hunting and natural predation. Their short legs and typically malformed hooves cause them to run more slowly and in a somewhat awkward gait, their shorter rostrum (snout) is bowed and may result in reduced sensitivity to odor, and there's some evidence they have especially bad hearing. Poor sense of smell and reduced auditory ability may explain why we were able to sneak so close to the piebald deer on Christmas morn at Hilton Pond.

Get close we did, firing off numerous exposures with the camera before our Christmas ghost deer became aware of our presence. First it stopped browsing and stood almost at attention, perhaps trying to detect something unusual in its surroundings. Then it began walking slowly along the edge of the field, took a few prancing steps, and bounded off into the woods. The photos on this page illustrate the deer's unusual goat-like gait and its strange appearance when compared to normal individuals (below left).

Even though piebalds look odd to us humans, they apparently are not ostracized by normal White-tailed Deer. The first time we saw the piebald at Hilton Pond, it was joined by at least one other brown-colored deer, and as the piebald ran off on Christmas Day we could hear other deer "wuffing" in the woods. Since the piebald trait may become quite prevalent in some local populations it's assumed piebalds are able to breed with normal deer, but authorities believe some piebalds are sterile or produce embryos that die well before birth.

Genetically defective or not, it was still a treat to see our unusual ghost deer on Christmas morn, and it's an even greater pleasure to share photos of it as our holiday gift to you from Hilton Pond Center--a magical sort of place in itself.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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NOTE: Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, as well as some other interesting nature notes.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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22-28 December 2002

American Goldfinch--23
Dark-eyed Junco--11
Chipping Sparrow--1
Northern Cardinal--6
House Finch--31
White-throated Sparrow--4
Eastern Towhee--1
Blue Jay--1

(with original banding dates)
Chipping Sparrow (1)
03/22/98--after 5th year unknown
Eastern Towhee (1)
09/02/99--4th year female
House Finch (1)
06/05/01--2nd year female

8 species
75 individuals

78 species
2,395 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
123 species
42,114 individuals

All photos & text © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.