By C.J. Winand
One of my first jobs as a wildlife biologist was to locate bucks prior to, during, and after the hunting season with radio-telemetry equipment. Since I was already a diehard bowhunter, I thought I had the keys to unlocking the door to the deer world.
The problem was, the telemetry equipment I was using back in the 1980s was primitive compared to the cellular collars we use today. The small sample size of data we were collecting made it tough to pin down any absolutes. And, just when I thought I was figuring them out, something would happen that totally surprised me on how elusive and unpredictable deer could be.
After some time “figuring them out,” I wanted to see how close I could get to some of the collared bucks. Of course, shooting them was not going to happen, but I just had to know if I was a good bowhunter. After locating one mature buck with my telemetry equipment, I entered the woods. My goal was to see if I could get close enough to draw on the buck. After numerous tries, let’s just say I ate humble pie on every attempt. Remember, I had the buck’s location, the wind in my favor, knew the terrain, and yet I never even came close!
We had many collared bucks that were easy to locate, but by early September their daily patterns were completely different than they had been just a week or two earlier. We now know the increase in testosterone and the shedding of velvet causes hormonal and behavioral responses in the daily activity and movement of bucks. These changes in deer movements makes you wonder why hunters don’t also move their treestands?
I remember one mature buck hanging out next to a public parking area for hunters. Although the buck would never cross the road, it was as if he would actually watch the hunters get out of their trucks and walk right by him. One morning, a belligerent hunter walked up to me while I was holding my telemetry equipment and accused me of trying to trick him into believing I was tracking deer. After some more argumentative comments from the hunter, I asked him if he wanted to see this buck because he’s actually listening to us talk? Of course, he said yes.
After he put his bow in his truck, we walked no more than 75 yards, and guess what: We jumped the large-antlered, eight-point I’d previously mentioned. And yes, the hunter shut up!
Although this buck put up with people, some bucks (both small and large, young and old) will not. In fact, the first smell or visual of people send some of these bucks into their own little sanctuary. Although many believe a sanctuary is an area full of thick vegetation, you must remember that some of these areas are not. Additionally, having an area where you do not enter doesn’t mean deer will reside in this off-limits zone. Many hunters don’t realize that just because people don’t enter these sanctuaries, doesn’t mean natural predators won’t invade them.
The takeaway is this: Deer sanctuaries can become dynamic from one specific area to another throughout the season. This applies equally to bedding areas. Think about it. How many times during the day does a dog, coyote, bear, or ATV abruptly disturb a dominant buck or doe in their supposedly established sanctuary area? These “interruptions” happen all the time. To prove my point, it’s not unusual for a deer to move its bedding area from one location to another, three to four times a day.
Another more comprehensive GPS study was recently conducted in southern Delaware. And yes, Delaware has some great bucks, but I’m not supposed to tell you that. The authors, Drs. Jacob Haus and Jacob Bowman, and Joe Rogerson, followed bucks and does during the hunting season for four years. The day-to-day GPS collars generated data that completely changed the way these researchers hunt deer.
Even before the researchers started to crunch the immense amount of data, they realized two things: 1) No buck was unkillable, and 2) An opportunity to tip over a mature buck may only occur in a very slim margin of time. Contrary to their first finding, I’ve been humbled so many times by mature bucks that I’ve convinced myself that some bucks are, in fact, unkillable.
Data is tough to obtain on mature bucks, but one paper reports that only one percent of all bucks reach 6½ years of age. As for does, 7.6 percent live up to 10½ years old, while only one percent make it to 14½ years old. Using this data, it sure seems bucks and does are in fact, being killed; just like the Delaware researchers suggest.
The researchers split all the does and bucks into two age groups: Immature deer were 4½ years of age or younger, and mature deer were 5½ years old or older. They then compared the age classes to see if they preferred a specific habitat type over others in the landscape. As for immature bucks, they avoided the swampy areas. Evidently, they literally didn’t like to get their feet wet, whereas mature bucks hardly ever left the protection of the swamp until, you guessed it, the cover of darkness.
The data for bucks using a wetland is clear: Bucks that utilized swamps lived, while those that didn’t turned into deer burger. The obvious problem from a hunting standpoint is how to hunt a “swamp buck.” This is where a kayak or chest waders can be very helpful. Looking for small oak hummocks that may only be one foot higher than the existing water level can pay off big time. Besides, who else is better than you at finding these little honey holes among the multiflora rose and swamp reeds? Remember, many mature bucks don’t like any kind of disturbance.
As for the selection of various cover types within the study areas, the researchers found, “Mature bucks selected edge habitat and avoided both upland forests and agricultural fields, while their younger counterparts did the exact opposite. The only behavior bucks of all ages agreed on was a similarly strong avoidance of roads.”
Although you may assume that all roads are bad, the researchers were surprised to find that the avoidance of roads had no impact on survival of bucks or does. What this means, is deer that spend a lot of time near roads were just as likely to survive as those that stayed away from them. It seems that if deer grow up around roads, they know when to cross them, while others that don’t have much experience crossing roads end up as roadkill.
C.J.’s Summary: Although all the researchers were avid deer hunters, they were also researchers. They were all amazed by how some of the bucks they described as “reckless” made it through the hunting season unharmed, while other ghost-like bucks ended up on the meat pole. The researchers concluded, “A buck shifting the way he uses the landscape as he grows older is almost certainly the result of one too many close calls or bad experiences.” In other words, do bucks have the ability to learn from negative experiences? The answer is most definitely, yes! Mature bucks don’t use the landscape in a helter-skelter scenario. They need to feel comfortable in a habitat that provides them food, water, and especially cover.