You never know what you’ll encounter when slipping through the forested Minnesota River bottoms with photo gear. This past June, something out of place there caught my eye, and I found myself trying accurately to focus on the seemingly foreign critter anxiously peering back from its dense, prickly ash hiding place.
Initially, I thought someone’s newborn colt had wandered off a farm. But this animal was just too tiny to be even a day-old equine.
Then it hit me. I was looking at a whitetail deer fawn that wore a coat of dappled brown and white, with white socks and face to boot!
Before I could record even one image, the diminutive deer bolted from his hide and was gone. Then and there, I promised to return to the area often to capture some usable frames of the unique critter.
The correct term for this odd color scheme on deer is piebald. You could even call it calico for its resemblance to domestic cats of like coloration.
Unlike albino deer, who lack melanin and have totally white coats, pink hooves and pink eyes, piebald deer have hides that are a mixture of brown, tan and white and occasionally, black. Piebald deer do not suffer from an albino deer’s predilection for early demise from disease or blindness.
These one-of-a-kind deer get their oddly hued coats from leucism, a recessive gene trait that causes patches of body hair from making correct pigment. Piebald’s usually retain normal eye and hoof coloration, too.
Both types of deer are extremely rare. Because of that, an ongoing debate has raged about the ethics of hunting and shooting them. After all, most folks’ initial response to seeing one of these deer is astonishment.
Which is why many folks hope that these natural rarities are protected from hunting, or that hunters will give them a pass.
Just last year, there was a mature piebald whitetail doe sporting a stippled coat of tan, white and black, frequently traveling between Rasmussen Park and Mount Kato on its daily feeding loop. Numerous folks got to see the nomadic deer, and it wasn’t long before she had become famous on social media, where dozens of people requested that hunters give her a pass.
A few years previous, I was bowhunting in the same area and observed a distinctive, six-point buck who had an attractive spotted white neck and hind quarters. The deer never passed by in bow range, so I never had to wrestle with the moral implications of arrowing him.
In my mind, that decision comes down to personal choice and state law.
For example, here in Minnesota, it seems a deer is a deer, no matter the color. That means deer of any color variation can be legally hunted and harvested. Alternatively, in Iowa, you cannot shoot deer whose hides are more than 50 percent white. Why? Because, 30 years ago a hunter in Iowa bagged a white deer, sparking concentrated outrage by folks who were able to bring and pass legislation banning the taking of such deer.
The press release issued with the 1987 Iowa law was and still is rife with ambiguity. In short, it says that removing white deer from the gene pool would not benefit the deer herd, just as protecting such animals would not be advantageous, either. But the law passed, and since the critters are so seldom seen, hasn’t been reversed.
I continued to take protracted hikes along the river, fighting hordes of mosquitoes to locate the leucistic fawn.
Finally, in mid-August, just as the sun was creeping over the eastern horizon, I found the deer under a dense canopy of cottonwoods, browsing on grasses. Despite good light shafting into open areas in the woods, the deer was enveloped in inky black shade, forcing me to shoot my camera at very high ISO. That translated into grainy, but still-interesting shots of the striking deer.
As before, the deer wasted no time speeding into the understory, disappearing like a wisp of brown-white smoke! I had gotten some good frames, but I wanted cleaner pictures of the fawn.
More months passed, and soon my favorite time of fall was here — the November whitetail rut!
My goal when traversing the woods this time of year is to record rutting behaviors of mature bucks. However, one frosty morning, I stumbled upon the piebald deer standing smack-dab in the warm, orange glow of the sun!
Not one to look past a gift horse or deer, I set to photographing the piebald, who had grown significantly. I now determined the fawn to be a buck as he showed prominent antler buttons. I was rewarded with many great images that day, and soon a large metal print of him will be hanging in a place of prominence in my den.
Would I shoot a piebald deer? Well, they say, a deer is a deer, no matter the color. I just wouldn’t shoot this particular deer.
Mark Morrison is an avid hunter and fisherman who has been a freelance outdoors writer and photographer for 21 years. He’s been a Mankato resident since 1979.