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Sika Deer: The interesting origins of one of Maryland’s most elusive mammals

Updated: Mar 2


Driving through the local marshes of Dorchester County at dusk, you may have spotted one of the Eastern Shore’s unique game animals. In your attempt to identify it, you first think it’s too small to be the commonly seen whitetail deer. Yet, on second glance you are sure it’s a deer.

“What is it?” you wonder.

You have just experienced a sighting of the “marsh ghost.” Sika deer (cervus nippon), actually a small member of the Elk family, originates from Yakushima Island in southern Japan. The term “sika” comes from the Japanese word for deer, “shika.” Sika deer are also called sika elk, Asian elk, or the “marsh ghost” by avid hunters.

Because of their hardy nature and ability to eat a broad range of plants, leaves and crops, sika deer have been introduced around the world, in places such as Vietnam, Russia, Europe and the United States (Maryland, Virginia, and Texas).

In 1916 Clement Henry released six sika deer (believed to have come from Europe) on the Choptank River’s James Island. Around the same time, Dr. Charles Law released sika deer on Assateague Island. Today, the Maryland herd is the largest free-ranging herd in the United States, with somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 members.

Most of the Maryland population is found in Dorchester, Wicomico, Somerset and Worcester Counties. Caroline County has a growing resident population, and there have been a few reported sightings of stags in Queen Anne’s County. It is interesting to note that the Virginia and Maryland herds do not mix.

Brian Eyler, deer project section leader for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said, “Sika deer, while an exotic species, are not an invasive species. When the sika were first released, we had a very limited whitetail population. The sika naturally occupied terrain and food sources that best fit their needs.

“As the whitetail population rebounded in the 1960s and 1970s, they [inhabited] areas and food sources that best fit them ... so there never has been a competition between species. We simply manage an exotic species as if it were native.”

While whitetails are known for their fondness of corn, soybeans and acorns, the diminutive sika prefers a more varied diet. Favorite foods for sika are marsh grass, bayberry, catbrier and poison ivy.

“While whitetails and sika [habitate] similar territory, whitetails tend to stick more to agricultural croplands while sika stick to marsh and wet woodlands,” Eyler said. “They prefer different food sources. And, being of vastly different sizes, interbreeding is highly unlikely. They are too far apart on the family tree to crossbreed.”

Sika are most often seen at dawn and dusk and are not as easy to pattern as whitetails. They are considerably smaller than whitetail and have dark brown or black coats in winter and a reddish orange coat in summer. Sika females, called “hinds,” have white spots, which they keep as adults, and are more prominent in the summer. Sika males, called “stags,” can average 75 pounds field-dressed, while hinds tend to average 50 pounds.

Sika travel in herds more than whitetail deer do, and young sika are called “calves.” A sika bugle is a high-pitch shrieking heard during the “rut,” or mating season. During the rut, stags keep a harem of estrous hinds in close proximity, and fiercely protect them against all rivals.

Sika hinds typically bear a single calf, whereas a whitetail doe may have twins or triplets. Sika tend to outlive whitetails, mainly due to their withdrawn and more nocturnal marshland lifestyle.

Like their larger cousin the elk, sika make “mud wallows.” They lie in these mud pools to protect themselves from the bug population, causing them to favor the heavily marshy areas along river corridors.

Being a non-native species, sika have several decided advantages over whitetails. In addition to not being tied to limited food sources, sika are more resistant to diseases such as chronic wasting disease. They also are more resistant to mosquito-borne diseases. Their small size and weight allow them to navigate the marshlands with the ease of a hummingbird in places a whitetail would never dream of traveling.

HUNTING FOR A SIKA

• Whether your interest is photography, observing wildlife or hunting, sika can be tricky to find. They stay in the deepest recesses of hard-to-reach marshland. Those seeking them should remember to take bug spray.

• A recent Maryland DNR study found that 3,000 to 5,000 hunters hunt for sika deer, spending more than 30,000 hunter days in the field.

• In 2017, 3,150 Sika were harvested, including 1,423 stags and 1,727 hinds.

An expanded turkey and sika deer population has allowed land owners to command more for hunting leases.

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