All About Sika Deer (Cervus Nippon) Species

The sika deer is a type of deer originating from East Asia that now populates a number of different countries across the globe.

Native to Japan, Korea, and South-East China, sika deer, or Cervus Nippon, is also known as Japanese deer or simply, spotted deer. It belongs to the genus Cervus, along with red deer, elk, and Thorold’s deer.

Over the years this elegant and impressively adaptive mammal has found itself living and flourishing in countries like the United Kingdom, the United States, and New Zealand.

Sika Deer In America

Although native to the Far East, the species was introduced to various parts of the United States over the past century. Texas, Virginia, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore saw the first of the breed in the 1900s.

Sika deer

Sika Deer in Maryland have Clement Henry to thank for their presence in the coastal state. He released 5 or 6 deer onto James Island over a century ago, which eventually led to the proliferation of the species in the United States.

Today, the population sits at about 12,000 strong.

Species Information

This species is of the genus Cervus, which is a group of deer known as “true deer”. The ancestor of all Cervus species is believed to have originated in central Asia and resembled the animals today.

Interbreeding and the development of various hybrid species have resulted in a number of subspecies, a few of which are listed below:

  • Formosan – n.taiouanus
  • Manchurian/Dybowski – n.mantchuricus
  • Vietnamese – n.pseudaxis
  • Shanxi – n.grassianus
  • Yezo – n.yesoensis

Characteristics

Appearance

The best way to distinguish this particular breed from others is to look out for the key characteristic features.

In summer, the animals boast a beautiful, rich pelage (coat) of chestnut brown. The splash of white dots spread across the coat is one of the key defining features of this mammal. During winter these become less prominent as their coats prepare for the cold.

Furthermore, unlike other deer species where the phenomenon is common, sika do not lose their spots when maturing from a calf to an adult. However, spot variety is prevalent among the species and differs depending on where the animal is and which subspecies it belongs to.

In China, the mainland species of sika deer tend to have larger, more noticeable white spots than their Taiwanese and Japanese counterparts whose markings are sometimes nearly invisible.

In winter, the animals become darker in color and their pelage becomes shaggier, turning from a rich chestnut brown to a dark gray. The prominent dark dorsal stripe remains a characteristic feature throughout the year and is present as a dark shaggy mane on stags in the colder months.

Sika deer have an off-white chin, belly, and throat with a distinctive white gland on the lower back leg. They also have a white rump patch that flares outward when they are alarmed.

Although similar looking to fallow deer, the sika have a shorter tail and less distinct stripe on the dorsum.

Sika Deer Size

Another key defining feature of the Cervus Nippon species is their size. These medium-sized herbivores vary in size with the hind (female) noticeably smaller in size than the stag (male).

There are two primary varieties, being Japanese and Dybowski deer. Adult males of the Japanese subtype typically stand between 25 to 35 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh less than 100 pounds, sometimes up to 175 pounds.

The Dybowski subtype strike a larger more robust stance and stand between 35 to 43 inches tall at the shoulder. They weigh between 150 and 240 pounds reaching up to 300 pounds occasionally.

The sika head is wedge-shaped or triangular. Stags are adorned with a pair of antlers while hinds have black bumps on their heads. Stag antlers reach up to 18 inches in the Formosan and Japanese subspecies, and up to 34 inches in length in Dybowski deer.

Stag’s antlers are stout and upright. They have 3 or 4 points extending off the main beam with an extra buttress originating from the brow tine. The mature stag possesses antlers similar to that of a red deer, typically with six to eight points.

The antlers are cast in May and grow throughout the summer. Hinds, on the other hand, simply have a pair of distinctive black bumps on their forehead.

Breeding And Behavior

Habits and habitat

Japanese or sika deer are fairly unsocial creatures for the better part of the year. They remain solitary until autumn and winter when they then tend to regroup. When regrouping does take place, it occurs in single-sex groups until the mating period (rut) when they mix to mate.

Individuals in the species lead an active daily life but tend to prefer a nocturnal lifestyle in areas near humans. During the day they can be seen foraging for food singularly or in small herds.

Generally speaking, they prefer to forage in patchy forest clearings and grassy areas with low shrubbery. Coniferous woodlands and heaths on acid soils are also a likely habitat for grazing.

They prefer dense understory or well-established deciduous woodland for its concealing cover.

Browsing and bark-stripping are behaviors specific to sika deer even though bark biting and grazing do not form a major part of the diet.

Their diet consists mainly of grasses and dwarf shrubs such as heather. They occasionally graze on mushrooms, lichen and tree bark too.

Sika deer call

The mammals are a very vocal species and exhibit up to ten individual sounds between males and females collectively. Each sound represents a specific warning or call signal and ranges from soft whistles to loud screams.

Stags are known to produce a variety of different sounds and vocalizations. During the rut, they can groan, blow raspberries, yak-yak or give a high-pitched scream.

Hinds with calves by their side often whine or produce an alarm peep receiving a bleat or squeak in reply from their calf.

The short high-pitched bark is a sound that the males and females produce when alarmed.

The mating period

The breeding season, also known as the rut, occurs from early October to November and can sometimes extend into winter. Sika stags will round up a harem of about twelve females on their territory during the rut, and protect their territory from rival stags.

Territories vary in size depending on the type of habitat and the size of the male. Sometimes they can extend up to five acres of land.

Stags mark their territory with the creation of shallow pits which they urinate in. The strong musky odor that emanates from the pit lets other herds know that the territory is already taken.

Additionally, they have been known to rub their antlers on trees to remove velvet and mark their territory further.

Rival stags wanting to duel will fight with a stag defending his territory, often until death. The aim is to drive available females into their territories for mating. Because of this, a successful stag may mate with up to twelve hinds.

Once pregnant, the sika doe deer undergoes a gestation period of about 7 and a half months, giving birth between May and June. The hind gives birth to a single fawn which she nurses for about ten months until it is ready to live on its own.

Sika deer commonly live up to about eighteen years and can mate with sika or red deer. Interbreeding with the latter is common and produces a hybrid fawn.

Hunting

The beautiful majestic bucks live in abundance in many parts of the world and are hunted as game for sport. They are known to be one of the most prized kills, posing a challenging hunt and trophy in both the antlers and venison.

They are a popular game species on the Eastern shore of Maryland. Hunters travel from many surrounding states during the fall hunting season to land themselves a kill. Sika deer hunting is permitted in the state in large areas within the Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

The hunt is definitely an exciting one as the deer pose all sorts of challenges to the huntsman. Due to their small size and innate ability to blend in, they’re pretty tricky to spot. When alarmed, they will let off a high-pitched bark, flare their white rump fur, and bound off into the thicket of the forest.

They have also been known to lie flat on the ground when hunters approach. This makes them difficult to spot as they blend in with their surroundings and the hunter generally keeps his sights at eye level.

Also, this clever species often “throw” their voice by hiding behind a tree and calling out. Their primary predators in the wild include tigers, wolves, leopards, and brown bears.

Velvet Antler

Aside from hunting, this species is often kept for farming purposes. A velvet antler is a dried immature antler, and a sought after ingredient in the Traditional Chinese Medicine market.

In China, the sika deer were farmed for their antlers causing the drastic decrease in animal numbers in the country. It is believed that less than 1,000 of the species still exist in China today despite China having the largest population in the past.

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