Published October 25, 2009, 12:00 AM

Piebald deer is exciting sight

My grandfather Clifford Greenwood once had a small room in his house that he and Grandmother called “the den.”

By: Blane Klemek, Bemidji Pioneer

My grandfather Clifford Greenwood once had a small room in his house that he and Grandmother called “the den.”

It was a room filled with antiques, old lanterns, deer heads, antlers, Indian arrowheads and even a few shark teeth. I was fascinated by the room and its many interesting objects.

One such object was what I called the “deer-leg lamp.” The “vase” of the lamp was four deer legs bound together by two brass rings. The base of the lamp was the four hooves of the legs; it 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, 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. It was then, as a young boy in Grandpa’s den, examining that old lamp, that I first heard and learned about the term “piebald.”

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, 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 1 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 more than 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 bow-hunting 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 magnifying optics, 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 USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a wildlife refuge and research facility in Maryland, a number of piebald deer have been observed and studied in 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 just occurred last month. While returning from a ruffed grouse hunt near my home recently, I saw four deer in a wooded pasture along the dirt road I was travelling on. Slowing up 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 spot on the larger buck’s neck. At this point, all four deer were alert and had their heads up, ears erect and looking at me intensely. It was then I noticed that the larger buck had a completely white face. The animal reminded me of white-faced Hereford with antlers instead of horns. My, was he an unusual, yet attractive deer!

The appearance of a piebald deer is one of those rare occurrences in nature that is, without question, exciting to see. A genetic defect is the reason why it occurs, not disease or parasites or albinism. It’s merely a rare variation in pelage coloration occasionally exhibited in white-tailed deer and in some other animals. Observing such abnormalities in nature is always a possibility as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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