I’ll never forget the first piebald whitetail I had an opportunity to photograph. They are oddities of the deer world. This was in the early 1980s. It was late February and I was in a makeshift blind along a deer trail, distinct in the deep snow.
Back then my camera was, of course, loaded with film — the era of digital photography was inconceivable to me. A whitetail doe had just meandered down the well-beaten trail that passed near my blind. She walked by unconcerned as I took a number of photographs of her. When she had ambled out of sight, I checked to see how many images I had left on the roll of film. Only three images remained of 36 exposures.
I reasoned it was time to change film.
I scanned my surroundings for a few moments to be sure no deer were around. I spotted nothing. So I rewound the roll of film and opened the back of camera. At that moment a piebald deer, a fawn, ran up the trail. It appeared that it was trying to catch up to its mother. It stopped and stared at me from 15 yards as I stood with the exposed roll of film in my gloved hand, the back of the camera still open.
The young deer was striking. Its sides and legs were almost pure white, and it had a white blaze on the center of its forehead. Of course the fawn ran off before I could reload my camera.
I had seen perhaps a dozen piebald deer before that cold day in February, but this was the first opportunity I had to photograph one of the rare animals.
Experts say piebalds are the result of a genetic defect that influences less than 1 percent of the herd. Piebald deer vary widely in color. Some have distinct white patches — think pinto horse — while others have a varying amount of white hair mixed with normal brown hair. Some are nearly pure white. Piebald deer are not partial albinos. True albino deer are totally white with pinkish eyes, hoofs and noses.
Piebald deer frequently display other physical abnormalities, like shorter legs, curved spines and shorter lower jaws. However, I didn’t detect any unusual physical defects in the piebald deer I have seen over time. Oddly, a high percentage of them displayed white blazes of varying sizes on their foreheads.
Another memorable encounter with piebald deer happened while I was bow hunting. A piebald doe and her fawn had fed on acorns nearly beneath my tree stand for roughly 15 minutes. I had a ringside seat from 15 feet up an oak tree.
Both deer were similarly colored. They had white legs and sides, but sported normal coloration on their backs and tops of their necks. Their overall pattern of coloration resembled that of a caribou. The fawn was close enough for me to identify it as a button buck, a male fawn 6 months or younger. The little deer had a nearly square, four-inch white patch on its forehead; it looked as if someone had used white paint to carefully lay out the square dead-center between the fawn’s eyes and ears.
With my bow in hand, I watched awestruck as the two deer fed. In Minnesota, piebald deer are legal to shoot, but that day I was holding out for a big buck or nothing. Eventually the oddly colored doe and fawn moved downwind and ran off.
Overall, I guess I have seen about 20 or 30 piebald deer. Oddly, only two of them were antlered bucks. One was a young six-pointer, the other a big mature eight-pointer.
Anomalies in nature are always interesting. Fortunately, I’ve had the chance to encounter them again and again in the wild.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.