Piebald Deer: How Rare Are They?

April 9, 2024 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.
Side view of a piebald doe.

Piebald deer are born with a rare genetic condition that gives them small to large patches of white hair mixed in randomly with normal brown hair color. Bucks and does can be piebald. Some piebald deer have only a few outward signs of the condition, such as small patches of white hair. Others might be mostly white.

Some of the genes that cause these changes in coat color also control other physical traits, and some piebald deer are born with skeletal deformities from mild to severe. Deer born with milder symptoms of this rare condition often live normal lives. Others might be mostly white with noticeable problems like dwarfism or arched spines. 

What Causes the Piebald Condition?

Piebald deer are the result of a rare genetic mutation that causes random patches of skin to lack the specialized pigment cells that give deer hair its color. Even the skin beneath the white hair lacks color. This is different from albinism. Albino deer have the pigment cells, but due to a missing gene these cells fail to produce color, so the entire deer is white. While albino deer have pink eyes due to the complete lack of pigment, piebald deer eyes are normal color.

Piebald deer are also different from melanistic deer. Melanism is an overproduction of pigment, so deer are very dark brown or black in color. Even their antler velvet, eyes and hooves are black.

A big, mature piebald buck.
A piebald buck caught on a trail-camera in Georgia. Photo courtesy of David Osborn.

Additional Impacts of the Piebald Condition

Unfortunately for piebald deer, this rare genetic condition can sometimes include severe deformities that run deeper than hair color. This is because some of the same genes that code for coat color also code for other physical traits. Crooked legs, hooves and spine are sometimes part of the visible problems. Piebald deer may have a shortened face and a humped nose. Dwarfism can also be part of the condition. 

Adult piebald deer seen by hunters usually have milder forms of the piebald condition. Deer born with the most extreme piebald deformities live only a few hours or days. For this reason, piebald deer may be born at a higher frequency than they are estimated to occur among adult deer.

Missy Runyan, a wildlife rehabilitator in Hunter, New York, responded to a call about a fawn in distress. She found an almost completely white, piebald fawn with severe birth defects. Due to significant internal problems, the fawn did not live long, but Missy had it x-rayed to get an internal look. As you can see in the image below, the fawn had a severely crooked spine, twisted legs and malformed hooves.

X-ray highlighting skeletal deformities of a piebald fawn.
An x-ray of a piebald fawn with extreme deformities shows a crooked spine, twisted legs, and malformed hooves. The fawn also had internal organ issues. Deer born with extreme piebald condition do not live long.

How Rare are Piebald Deer?

Piebaldism is a recessive genetic trait. Both parents must carry the recessive gene for there to be a chance that they will produce piebald fawns. It’s also possible for a piebald doe to reproduce and bear normal fawns. Or, a normal doe can give birth to a normal and a piebald fawn in the same litter. 

“Piebaldism reportedly affects less than 1% of white-tailed deer populations, although this may vary regionally due to differing hunting restrictions on deer affected by the piebald trait,” said Melanie Kunkel and Dr. Nicole Nemeth in a report for the Southeast Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. “In one population, prevalence reached nearly 2% following temporary hunting restrictions.” 

In other words, when piebald adults are protected from harvest, the trait can become slightly more common in a local population. Because many piebald fawns do not survive to adulthood, and the trait is recessive, the condition is not likely to become common anywhere. However, you are more likely to encounter a piebald deer than an albino or melanistic deer. Across the whitetail’s range, around one in 1,000 deer are piebald, while an estimated one in 30,000 may be albino, and even fewer are melanistic.

A unique pieblad doe with two normal-colored fawns.
This piebald doe gave birth to two fawns that did not have the piebald condition. Photo courtesy of Allen Dykes.

Where are Piebald Deer Found?

According to wildlife veterinarians at SCWDS, many wild and domestic animal species can be affected by this genetic anomaly, though whitetails are among the species more commonly displaying the piebald condition, especially in the Southeastern United States.

Should You Shoot a Piebald Deer?

Though we don’t fully understand the genetic misfire that produces piebald deer, we know you should consider yourself fortunate if you see one where you hunt. However, it’s not a population problem to worry about. You can’t “fix” it by harvesting the deer intentionally since it’s a recessive trait carried by many more deer than it affects.

In the past, some states outlawed the harvest of piebald deer, so make sure you know how your state handles this issue before you decide to take one. Regardless, if you encounter a piebald deer where you hunt, you’ve seen a very unique and rare whitetail!

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.