Lesson 1: White-tailed Deer Biology and Adaptations: A General Overview

Keywords: white-tailed deer, biology, adaptation

Prepared by: David Jackson, Extension Educator

Lesson Plan Grade Level: 6-12th

Total Time Required for Lesson: 1 hour classroom with an optional half day field trip and assessment activity

Setting: Indoor classroom and outdoor forest for field trip

Topics: deer identification, biological characteristics, survival adaptation

Goals for the Lesson

Upon Completion of this lesson students will be able to:

    • Identify Pennsylvania's state mammal.

    • List 4 biological characteristics / adaptations of white-tailed deer.

    • Recognize that deer are predominantly browsers and identify 3 types of deer foods.

Materials Needed


Enrichment Activity and Assessment:

    • Plastic zip-lock baggies (1 gallon size)

    • Clippers

    • Scale

    • Poster board

    • Glue

State Standards Addressed:

  • 2.4.8.B Mathematical Reasoning and Connections – Combine numeric relationships to arrive at a conclusion. (PA State Standard Mathematics)

  • 2.5.8.A Mathematical Problem Solving and Communication – Invent, select, use and justify the appropriate methods, materials and strategies to solve problems. (PA State Standard Mathematics)

  • 3.3.7.A Biological Sciences – Describe the similarities that characterize diverse living things. (PA State Standard Science)

  • 3.3.7.D Biological Sciences – Explain basic concepts of natural selection. (PA State Standard Science)

  • 4.6.7.A Ecosystems and their Interactions – Explain the flows of energy and matter from organism to organism within an ecosystem. (PA State Standard Environment and Ecology)

  • 4.7.7.A Threatened, Endangered, and Extinct Species – Describe diversity of plants and animals in ecosystems. (PA State Standard Environment and Ecology)

  • 4.7.7.B Threatened, Endangered, and Extinct Species – Explain how species of living organisms adapt to their environment. (PA State Standard Environment and Ecology)

Methods: Lecture, Inquiry, and Experiential

Doing the Activity

  1. Explain to the students that they will be learning about the white-tailed deer, its biology and adaptations for survival.

  2. Have students read over Wildlife Note 28 - White-tailed Deer by Chuck Fergus, Bureau of Information and Education, Pennsylvania Game Commission.

  3. Using PowerPoint slide program and notes (provided) review each of the following topics on deer biology and adaptations with the class.  Optional: invite a wildlife biologist in to make the presentation to the class. 

    • Identification

    • Senses

    • Communication

    • Antler Development

    • Aging

    • Deer Sign

    • Food, Feeding, and Digestion

    • Habitat

    Alternative Teaching Approach:
    Instead of viewing PowerPoint presentation, establish stations around classroom.  At each station highlight one aspect of deer biology or an adaptation for survival.  Have students move from station to station examining pictures, reading short captions, looking at various items such as jaw bones, antlers, hide, food, tracks, rubs, and other items.  Interpret the important points at each station with short written captions and through a wrap-up discussion.  For a more hands on experience use as many show and tell items as possible.

    Enrichment Activity: Field Trip “Deer Food Quest”
    Activity requires an area where the students can walk through the forest trimming vegetation mimicking the feeding activity of white-tailed deer.

    • Once at your location, explain to the students now that they know a lot about white-tailed deer they will be moving through the forest mimicking deer feeding behavior.  Ask students to find at least five different foods deer eat (twigs, green leaves, acorns, berries, grasses, forbs, etc.).  Briefly review what the students were taught about diet and food preferences of deer. 

    • With students working individually or in small groups, hand each a one gallon plastic zip lock baggie, which will represent a deer’s rumen, and a set of clippers (Be sure to designate students who are cautious and reliable to do the clipping).  When clipping twigs explain that they should be no longer than 3 inches, just what a deer would eat while browsing, and can only be collected from ground level to a height of 4 feet.

    • Designate the area in which the students have to search for food.  Allow approximately 15 minutes for the students to collect their deer food.  If necessary, more time may be permitted.  Be sure and keep track of how much time is allotted.

    • After the activity allow the students to share and discuss their findings.  Are deer herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores?  Which of the deer foods were surprising to you?  Was finding deer food harder or easier than you expected?  Why? Where did you search for food?  Which foods were difficult to find?  Which foods were easy to find?  Were there any foods you could not find at all?  Was there a wide diversity of food available?  How might the season of the year affect food availability?

    • Upon returning to school use a scale to weigh the deer food that each students or group collected.  Did any find enough food for a single deer for a day?  Remember, one deer must consume 5-8 pounds of food each day.

    • Calculate how long a deer would need to browse in a similar setting to find enough food for a day?  Use the weight of food collected over the time allowed to collect as the rate.

Conclusion & Assessment (Evaluation)

  • Exhibit 
    Using the food collected in the “Deer Food Quest” activity, create a class exhibit that displays all the various types of deer foods collected.  Arrange the foods in a display (on poster board, for example).  If you were unable to collect some deer foods you may substitute photographs to represent the item.  Be sure to clearly label each of the food items such as twigs, leaves, grasses, forbs, acorns (mast), etc.