Maryland's Sika Deer

Sika Deer Photo courtesy of John White

Maryland's exotic sika deer (pronounced SEE-kuh) is native to southern Japan, and first appeared on Maryland's lower Eastern Shore when Clement Henry released them on James Island in 1916.

Today, sika deer (Cervus nippon yakushimae) inhabit all of the lower Eastern Shore counties, with the highest density located in the marshes and wetlands of southern Dorchester County. Sika deer were also released and established populations on Assateague Island during the 1920's.

Maryland biologists and deer managers first worried that the “miniature elk” would expand into the upland territory of native white-tailed deer. This resulted in higher bag limits being set so that hunters would be encouraged to harvest and control the sika deer population. However, over the years, managers have learned that the sika predominantly lives most of its life in the sub optimal regions of the white-tailed deer's habitat; apparently lessening competition between the species. Thus, the Wildlife and Heritage Service's (WHS) management techniques have changed somewhat towards the sika deer.

Sika deer are now managed to keep the population at its "cultural carrying capacity" (meaning the maximum number of deer that can co-exist, compatibly, with local landowners and native species). Current population levels appear to be low enough to ensure crop damage is minimized, while still providing plenty of hunting opportunities for sportsmen and women.

WHS biologists initiated a tagging study in 1988 to obtain important information on harvest rates, longevity, and movements of sika deer. The average distance traveled by sika males (stags), as measured by comparing tagging location to recovery location, was 2.7 miles. Sika females (hinds) were recovered an average of 1.3 miles from the tagging location. Surprisingly, some of these tagged deer are still alive today (10+ years later)!

A radio-telemetry study was also conducted on Dorchester County sika deer, and revealed that most sika hinds had a home range of about 150 acres and moved about a half-mile between bedding and feeding areas. Sika stags had much larger home ranges, often greater than 500 acres, and depending on the time of the year, moved much longer distances in a given day. Habitat use by sika deer and white-tailed deer differed markedly during the study. Sika deer preferred marshes and thick, forested wetlands, whereas white-tailed deer preferred the more common agricultural and upland areas.

In addition to the habitat and movement studies, WHS, in cooperation with the University of Maryland Appalachian Environmental Laboratory, conducted a reproductive study to determine the breeding age of sika deer and the number of calves born per hind by age class. It was found that 24% of the six-month old calves were pregnant, and 76% of the adults were pregnant -- all of which contained a single fetus, except for one adult, which was carrying twins.

The popularity of sika deer hunting in Maryland has increased markedly over the last decade. The challenge of the hunt, their uniqueness as a trophy, and the excellent flavored venison they provide, has resulted in a steadily increasing harvest. Hunters interested in pursuing the elusive sika will find the field-dressed weights of yearling females to average 45lbs, with 53lbs the average dressed weight for yearling males. A big stag will dress around 100lbs.

Sika deer differ in looks from native white-tailed deer. They are shorter in stature -- adults stand about 2 ½ feet at the rump. Their coat tends to be reddish brown during summer months, and dark brown to black in color during winter. Even as adults they have white spots, mainly running parallel down their back. Stags generally have a dark, shaggy mane running down their neck, and their antlers are narrow and sweep backwards rather than forwards like the white-tail's antlers. A 6-point stag is a trophy, with 8-pointers being extremely rare. Finally, unlike white-tailed deer that raise their tail like a flag when alarmed, sika deer have a round white rump patch that flares outward when they are excited or alarmed.

Because sika deer are primarily nocturnal and inhabit marshy terrain, hunting can be very challenging and sometimes difficult. Therefore, the sika rut that occurs in mid-October is considered to produce the best chance to harvest an adult stag. During this time, males become very vocal by "bugling." These bugles usually consist of a series of three whistles, heard primarily during early morning and late afternoon. Stags during the rut define their breeding territories by making wallows -- scraped out depressions in the earth that are urinated in and wallowed in, causing the stags to smell strongly of urine. The rut generally results in increased movements by stags during the day, which can increase the odds of seeing one during legal hunting hours.

Both male and female sika deer use vocalizations to communicate. The "bark" they emit when alarmed is most distinct. Hinds often communicate with their calves using soft bleats and whistles. By mastering some sika vocalizations, hunters can increase their chances of bagging a stag during the rut. A hunter can also increase his or her luck by hunting on edges and gaps within patches of phragmites located between marsh and woodland terrains. Sika deer often use phragmites as movement corridors between feeding and bedding areas.

Although sika deer do not appear to rely on agricultural crops as heavily as white-tailed deer, they still respond favorably to agricultural food resources. Thus, many of the management techniques used for white-tailed deer (i.e., food plots, warm season grasses, etc.) also work well for sika deer. Sika deer also rely on mast during fall and winter, thus acorn-producing oaks are an important component of the forest overstory in sika habitat. Other common foods of sika deer include poison ivy, catbrier, and marshgrass. Choosing hunting areas that provide some of these food sources may aid your hunting success.

Where to Hunt Sika Deer

Two state Wildlife Management Area's (WMA's) in Dorchester County offer sika hunting opportunities. For information about the 1,000-acre Taylor's Island WMA or the 20,000+-acre Fishing Bay WMA, call the district office at LeCompte WMA: 410-376-3236.

Blackwater National Wildlife refuge allows permit hunts. For more information call 410-228-2677.

Along the ocean in Worcester County, Assateague Island National Seashore allows a full season of sika hunting with separate bag limits from the state. For more information, call 410-641-3030.

Bag limits and other regulations are listed for sika deer in the ​Guide to Hunting and Trapping in Maryland.

In addition to holding a Maryland hunting license, the following items are a must for hunting sika deer: insect repellant, hip boots, a boat or canoe (strongly recommended on public hunting lands) and, most important of all, time, patience, and a little luck.