With their big eyes, tiny stature and lack of fear of man, the endangered Florida Key deer has probably survived because it is so darn cute.
With only 600 to 800 remaining, visitors often want to know where to see Key deer.
Your first stop should be the new free nature center in Big Pine Key in the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge, which is equipped to answers visitor questions from what do they eat to where to see Key deer.
The visitor center for the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuge Complex is located at the center of Big Pine Key at mile marker 30.5 on the Florida Keys Overseas Highway and is open Monday to Saturday.
We love Florida Key deer but we’re killing them
Key deer catch our attention because of their mini size — you see people walking bigger dogs.
Bucks range from 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 pounds. Does stand 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 pounds, according to refuge information. For comparison, in my home state of Wisconsin, where there are an estimated one million deer, bucks average 150 pounds.
The Florida Key deer, the smallest sub-species of the Virginia white tailed deer and found only in the Florida Keys, was on the verge of extinction. There were only a few dozen left in the 1960s before it was listed as an endangered species.
Their only enemy is man – their numbers were reduced by poaching and development that reduced their habitat.
Today, their short-term enemy is the car; research says 75% of Key deer deaths are because of car accidents.
Today Florida Key deer are spread over 22 islands of the Lower Keys, from Big Pine Key down to mile marker 15 and Sugarloaf Key and Saddlebunch Key, according to Kristie Killam, park ranger/visitor services at the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges.
In 2003 to 2004, wildlife workers moved about two dozen deer to Cudjoe and Sugarloaf Keys, where some Key deer were already living, in order to provide geographic diversity to make the Key deer species less vulnerable, Killam said.
Key deer face several threats – in 2017, Hurricane Irma’s eye directly hit Big Pine Key impacting the herd and earlier that year, 135 deer were killed by an outbreak of flesh-eating screwworm.
The biggest long-term threat to Key deer, though, isising sea level, which is already reducing Key deer habitat. (See more below in the FAQs.)
The Florida Key deer species is currently undergoing an every-five-year assessment as to whether it should continue on the endangered species list.
Where to see Florida Key deer
You can see Key deer anywhere in Big Pine Key and adjoining No Name Key – in yards, along streets, in front of and behind businesses. But the real trick to seeing Key deer is not where to see them but when. Like all white tail deer, they are active at dawn and dusk, and it isn’t hard to spot them at those times.
Even at mid-day, we were lucky enough to see two Florida Key deer munching leaves in the woods right off the path around the Blue Hole, an abandoned limestone quarry that falls within the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge and is a pleasant place to visit.
The freshwater Blue Hole is sort of a green hole since Hurricane Irma. On our visit, a cooperative alligator floated directly below the viewing platform where a volunteer was answering questions.
Tips for where to see Florida Key deer:
- No Name Key, a sparsely developed island east of Big Pine connected by a bridge, is largely composed of wildlife refuge land. We’ve bicycled and walked at dusk through No Name Key and have seen several deer on this lightly trafficked road.
- Long Beach Road is the first left turn as you enter Big Pine Key with Big Pine Fishing Lodge on the corner. Those who camp at Big Pine Fishing Lodge, especially along the marsh, are likely to see Key deer at dusk and dawn. We’ve stayed at both of the bed-and-breakfast inns located on Long Beach Road and have seen deer wandering the grounds each time. The B&Bs are Deer Run Bed and Breakfast and Barnacle Bed and Breakfast.
- At dawn or dusk, the Blue Hole area and the neighborhood at the north end of the island generally have deer visible.
- We’ve bicycled through Middle Torch and Big Torch Keys, lightly populated islands just south of Big Pine Key, and have seen Key deer in yards there during the day. This isn’t a sure thing, but it is a nice bike ride!
Most importantly, if you see Key deer, do not feed them. It’s illegal and it’s bad for their health. Florida Key deer eat 150 native plants — all healthier than potato chips. (Don’t pet or touch them either.)
When you encounter Key deer on the roadways, they often approach you “and try to mooch,” Ranger Killam said. It’s a bad sign that they’re used to being fed.
“Back in the woods, though, when you see them on their terms, they are different,” she added. In their natural environment, they are wary and wild.
Visiting the nature center for the Florida Keys wildlife refuges
The nature center, which replaces a storefront visitor center in Big Pine Key, opened in September 2019, and actually serves all four of the Florida Keys National Wildlife Refuges:
- The National Key Deer Refuge is a patchwork of tracts on 25 Lower Keys islands established in 1957 after an 11-year-old Miami boy and his Boy Scout troop led a letter-writing campaign to Congress.
- Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1980 to protect the endangered American crocodile, is located in North Key Largo.
- Key West National Wildlife Refuge was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 when wading birds were being slaughtered for their feathers for the hat industry. It’s comprised of backcountry islands and waters beyond Key West.
- White Heron National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1938 to protect the rare great white heron and migratory birds. It’s comprised of back country islands and waters north of the Lower Keys.
The visitor center focuses on the Florida Key deer because it’s what Ranger Killam calls “the ambassador; the animal that gets you in the door; the species people are willing to stand up for.”
There’s a word for that — charismatic megafauna. People love Key deer (Killam says “they have those big eyeballs; they remind us of people”) but it’s harder to catch their interest when you talk about an endangered rat.
The visitor center draws you in because of the deer, Killam said, but the goal is to demonstrate that the Key deer “are just one small piece of the puzzle, the whole web of life here.”
“Key” facts about Florida Key deer
A few things I learned at the National Key Deer Refuge nature center:
- Why are Key deer so small? They have adapted to the tropics by being smaller, which allows them to shed body heat. Also, there is a phenomenon called “island dwarfism,” a way some animals adapt in an environment with limited resources.
- Where do Key deer find water? Florida Key deer prefer freshwater, but have adapted to drinking brackish water, a key to their survival.
- Can Key deer swim? Quite well.
- Do Key deer live in herds? Key deer are social – they hang with their families near where they were born.
- How big are Key deer? Bucks range from 28 to 32 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 pounds. Does stand 24 to 28 inches at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 pounds. Baby Key deer weigh 2 to 4 pounds at birth.
- How many Key deer are there? Between 700 and 800, according to the Florida Wildlife Commission.
- Why do Key deer live only on Big Pine Key? Actually, Key deer live on 20 to 25 islands in the Keys. They used to live across the lower Florida Keys, but now due to habitat loss, they are only found in the areas from Sugarloaf Key to Bahia Honda Key, according to the National Wildlife Federation. When the Spanish first explored the Florida Keys, the deer ranged all the way to Key West.
- How long have Key deer lived in the Keys? It is believed the deer migrated to the keys from the mainland thousands of years ago before the last Ice Age. As glaciers melted, the small islands we call the Florida Keys formed and Key Deer were trapped on these islands.
- Are Key deer threatened by rising sea levels? They sure are. Ninety-percent of the Florida Keys’ land mass sits at or below five feet above sea level. Big Pine Key is relatively higher — eight feet above sea level. Still, South Florida’s governments agreed a few years ago to prepare for this: By 2040, sea level is projected to rise 10 to 17 inches above 2000 mean sea level. If that happens, the Keys are underwater, and so are Key deer. Here’s a report from NPR on sea-level rise and Key deer.
When do Key deer breed and give birth? They breed between September and December. They give birth about months later, with most fawns born between April and June. At birth, the deer weigh between 2 to 4 pounds.
National Key Deer Refuge Nature Center
30587 Overseas Highway
Big Pine Key, FL 33043
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Closed Sunday)
More things to do in the Florida Keys:
- Also on Big Pine Key, the Old Wooden Bridge Resort and Marina consists of a few cabins and 13 houseboats overlooking the water and the bridge to No Name Key. It’s a good place to rent a kayak.
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key (and you may see Key deer when you go there.)
- Print out this mile marker guide to enhance your next road trip to the Florida Keys.
- Here’s a comprehensive guide to the Lower Keys, including camping.
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.