Smith: Piebald deer provide rare, handsome twist to whitetail world
Wisconsin is home to more than 1.5 million dairy and beef cows, according to recent statistics, including multiple livestock farms in Dodge County.
So when the Lomira Police Department on Feb. 10 received a report of a calf on the loose near I-41, it didn’t seem far fetched.
Indeed, as Sgt. Bryan Frank responded to the call, his primary question might have been: “Holstein or Guernsey?”
But when he arrived at the site, Frank realized the brown-and-white animal grazing along the highway was truly extraordinary.
Although it featured a white head and neck and patches of white on the legs contrasted with brown hair elsewhere on its body — coloration more typical of a dairy cow — it was no bovine.
It was identified as a white-tailed deer.
The deer had a naturally occurring but very rare coloration known as “piebald.”
Frank pulled his police cruiser to the shoulder of the heavily traveled highway and snapped a few photos of the deer.
Then he shooed it away from the paved corridor.
Although Lomira police officers observe deer frequently on their shifts, this was the first time a piebald deer had ever been seen, said Connie Krueger, administrative assistant with the department.
The department placed photos of the deer on its Facebook page.
Piebald animals are often considered strikingly handsome. The deer observed in Lomira was no exception.
Social media responses to the images of the animal included: “Never saw anything like this. It’s beautiful!!” and “It does look like a calf, pretty cool looking deer, thanks for sharing. Happy to know it wasn’t hit.”
Deer, like many animals, can be found in color variations, including albinism (absence of pigment), leucism (partial loss of pigmentation) and melanism (darker than normal coloration).
Piebald is the term for animals with patches of white and areas of normal coloration.
Some species evolved with a dominant two-part color scheme, such as the magpie.
But piebald deer are genetic oddities produced by a recessive gene.
Although the origin of the animal observed in Lomira is in question, the rarity of piebald deer, even in captive herds, is not.
Estimates of white deer range from 1 in 20,000 to less than 1 in 100,000 in a normal deer population.
Piebald deer are so rare a literature search revealed no estimate to their rate of occurrence.
John Bates of Manitowish and Jeff Richter of Mercer have possibly seen more white deer in Wisconsin than any other two people.
The men published a book titled “White Deer, Ghosts of the Forest.” The work, with text by Bates and photographs by Richter, chronicles a herd of deer near Boulder Junction that contains an unusually high number of albino and leucistic animals.
Richter said he has likely photographed 100 different white deer over the last three decades in the fields and forests of northern Wisconsin.
Only once did he see a piebald.
“I can still remember it clearly,” Richter said. “With the relatively high number of white deer in our area, you’d have thought I’d have seen more piebalds. But no, it’s got to be very, very rare.”
Scott Craven, emeritus professor in the department of forest and wildlife ecology at UW-Madison, has spent more than 40 years living, hunting and teaching about wildlife in Wisconsin.
He also spent lots of time at deer registration stations in southern Wisconsin where hundreds of deer were checked in a day.
In all that time, he never saw a piebald deer.
“Every so often I hear about people seeing them,” Craven said. “But they’ve avoided me.”
Piebald deer are legal game in Wisconsin during hunting seasons, whereas white deer are protected.
But hunters have a wide range of opinions on whether they’d shoot a piebald deer. Some see them as unique trophies, others as too beautiful to kill.
Some also express regret after taking a piebald deer.
David Osborn, wildlife research coordinator at the University of Georgia Deer Research Facility, killed a mature piebald buck that he’d watched for several years.
“Seeing him on trail cameras, and occasionally in the field, was such a part of our experience during deer season that I’ll really miss not having him around this season,” Osborn said in a 2014 Realtree.com post titled “Should You Hunt Piebald Deer?” by Will Brantley.
This much is clear: Piebald and other unusually-colored deer are a fascinating subject for the public at large.
“Of all the things I’ve written about, the white deer may have struck the biggest chord,” said Bates, the author from Manitowish who has published a weekly nature column for 30 years.
An organization called “Protect the Rare White Deer” is based in Wisconsin.
Piebald deer also have their own Facebook page.
When last seen by Sgt. Frank, the piebald animal in Lomira was moving away from the road.
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The photographs provided proof of the rare encounter.
Without them, he might still be answering “You saw what?”
If there’s a unicorn in Wisconsin’s animal community, it just might be the piebald deer.