October 12, 2022
Bowhunters pay thousands of dollars each year for just one opportunity to release an arrow at a buck. Although many people won’t ever understand this logic, bowhunters know when they choose archery gear over a firearm the rewards are magnified.
This decision to make things harder challenges every bowhunter. Yet, all the hardships we encounter are fully accepted by those who hunt with bow and arrow.
We have all employed elaborate tactics when trying to kill a specific buck, only to have our best-laid plans go down in flames. While there may be no specific answers as to what happened, there is biological data that may help us understand why our target buck disappeared. Besides increased hunting pressure, understanding some natural deer-movement behaviors may provide us with answers as to where the buck went.
As a young boy, I recall hearing my Pap say, “Those bucks are smart; they always let the doe lead the herd.” Although this may sometimes be true, for the first 12–18 months of a buck’s life, he’s basically following his mother.
Dispersal is when a young buck leaves his maternal home range and sets up a new one. Different research has shown about 50% to 75% of all bucks between 12 and 18 months of age will disperse roughly 5 to 7 miles away from their maternal home range, depending on the existing habitat.
Bucks living in open environments will disperse farther than those living in the big woods. Data from prairie states have found many of these bucks will travel more than 30 miles. Although probably an outlier, the record is one young buck in South Dakota that moved 131 miles away from where he was born.
With bucks leaving their mothers, they are basically “orphans” for the first time in their life. And while a young buck is learning his new terrain, research has shown these dispersing orphans have a higher death rate than those that don’t leave their natal home range.
Many biologists believe spring dispersals (May/June) by yearling bucks have something to do with maternal aggression. This is most likely due to fawning season, when the adult doe establishes a new area for her soon-to-be-born fawns.
The fall dispersal (November) also includes female aggression, but most likely also includes a buck’s social position within his population. The conclusion on dispersal is simple: The yearling buck you had on trail camera that then abruptly disappeared, may have in fact left the building! And for whatever reason, a Pennsylvania study found spring buck dispersal averaged 5.6 miles, whereas the fall dispersers only went 3 miles.
The good news is, there’s an easy management option to reduce the number of yearling bucks from dispersing from your Back 40. The answer is to tip over the adult doe.
For example, when an adult doe, yearling buck, and two fawns show up under your stand, taking the doe increases the chances of the yearling buck staying in your hunting area. This is because you’ve eliminated the maternal-aggression factor. Better yet, if you take out the doe earlier in the season, you can help increase the food supply in the area while also reducing the buck-to-doe ratio, which will only help to intensify the rut.
Additionally, a Maryland study showed you could reduce the buck-dispersal percentage in your area from 70% to 54% by implementing a quality deer management program where you implement a 15-inch inside spread and an aggressive doe harvest.
Up to this point, I’ve been talking about yearling buck dispersal, but yearling does also disperse from their maternal home range. Yearling doe dispersion has been recorded up to 25%, but the norm is between 10% and 20%.
We used to believe when there’s not enough groceries to feed the deer in an area, dispersal of both sexes will increase. Current research has determined deer-density rates do not affect dispersal rates.
Excursions are any occasion where a buck or doe leaves its established home range for more than 12 hours and travels more than 1 mile outside of its boundaries before returning. Documented cases of excursions from South Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee have found both sexes and all age classes of deer. Although excursions are more related to the rutting times of the year (60%), we now know they can happen throughout the year (40%).
Of the bucks that make excursions, about 50% will make more than one excursion throughout the year. The average distance they travel outside their home range during an excursion is 1.5 miles away, but research has shown there is a lot of individuality in excursions. One buck went over 8 miles away from his established home range.
How long do deer stay outside their established home range? Time varies from 2 hours to a few days, but the majority of deer returned home within 16 hours.
Biologists don’t know why excursions happen, but we do know that 78% of all deer will make an excursion at some point during the year. Compared to yearling deer dispersal, deer excursions exhibited: 1) The averaged distances moved are not as far; 2) Movement over the landscape is much faster; and 3) The travel path is much more complex.
Some biologists believe deer that exhibit excursions are the ones that do not disperse; others believe it’s simply a case of learning a new area. Either way, excursions occur year-round, and there’s no way to predict when or how far a deer will take off. The good news is, all the deer that take excursions eventually come back home.
C.J.’s Summary: When you consider all the time and energy you put into your hunting area, dispersal and excursion behavior of bucks and does can leave you heartbroken at times. This is primarily because the distances traveled for both dispersal and excursions are well outside a landowner’s property boundary. Dispersal and excursions can also be the answer to why you no longer see specific bucks on your property.
On the flipside, they might also be the reasons why you see new bucks in your hunting area. Whatever the case, maintaining quality habitat throughout the year is the key to keeping more deer under your stand.