Buckmasters Magazine

A Blood Trail to Nowhere

A Blood Trail to Nowhere

By David Hart

A lost deer might not get eaten by a hunter, but it doesn’t go to waste.

The cloud of smoke from my muzzleloader obscured the buck. All I could do was lift my head from the stock and look for the deer. I fully expected to see the white belly of a dead buck on the ground, or perhaps the buck making a few final steps before collapsing. Instead, I saw tails bounding in a dozen different directions, including one attached to what should have been my first Iowa buck.

As it ran, I prayed for it to stop, stagger and fall. Instead, it just kept running up a slope and into a line of trees. Darkness was closing in, and after a brief discussion with my outfitter, we decided to come back the next morning.

At daylight, we immediately picked up a light blood trail and followed it up the hill into a large pasture. The trail disappeared in the grass, and after two hours of hands-and-knees searching and walking the adjacent property lines, my outfitter and I decided to throw in the towel. My heart sank, and I could only wonder if the deer was lying dead somewhere in the Iowa countryside.

Despite the lonely feeling that comes with losing a deer, I wasn’t alone. Far from it. Anyone who has spent more than a few years in the deer woods has lost a whitetail, maybe even a couple. It’s a subject no one wants to talk about, at least not in the hours after it happens. But it does happen.

A number of older studies that looked at wounding rates by bowhunters found as many as half of all deer hit went unrecovered. Newer studies show lower wounding rates, either through better survey methods, improvements in equipment quality and hunter skill, or a combination of both.

According to a 2009 study of regulated hunts at a military facility in southern Maryland, bowhunters and crossbow hunters experienced a wounding rate of 18 percent. The hunts were held only on dry days to improve tracking. Also, a pool of skilled trackers was on hand to assist hunters who didn’t recover deer on their own.

According to M. Andy Pedersen, the author of the Maryland study, participants were also required to pass a shooting proficiency test. Even with those limitations, the loss rate is similar to a 2007 statewide survey of Utah bowhunters. It found that deer hunters experienced a loss rate of about 19 percent, while archery elk hunters failed to recover 16 percent of the animals they hit.

Surprisingly, the Maryland study determined there was no difference in wounding rates between traditional archery and crossbow hunters. However, crossbow hunters had a slightly higher accuracy rate, 92 percent compared to 89 percent, meaning they hit more deer than those who used compound bows. But even gun hunters hit and lose deer.

That’s not to say all deer that are hit by arrow or bullet are going to die. Another study conducted during the controlled hunts at Oklahoma’s McAlester Army Ammunition Plant found that of 11 bucks wounded by either longbow or recurve bowhunters, eight of them made full recoveries. It isn’t known where the recovered deer were hit, but those that died were hit in the paunch. The study involved adult bucks fitted with radio transmitters that allowed researchers to locate dead but unrecovered whitetails.

So what happens to the deer we don’t find? The short answer is that nothing in nature goes to waste. A dead whitetail in the woods draws a diverse array of birds and mammals looking to capitalize on the death of another animal. Death brings life.

During a study that examined the potential exposure to chronic wasting disease by scavengers, University of Wisconsin research scientist Dr. Michael Samuel placed trail cameras on 40 deer carcasses and 10 gut piles. The study lasted three years, and the carcasses were monitored from September through March in order to replicate what might happen to deer that die and aren’t removed from the woods.

The gut piles lasted an average of three days and were devoured by a host of scavengers, including stray dogs and cats, and as many as 21 different species of wild birds and 16 wild mammal species. Whole carcasses lasted quite a bit longer, although Samuel said most were essentially gone within 60 days. Some were reduced to bones and skin within 30 days.

“We aren’t sure why, but it took considerably longer before any scavengers started working on a few of the carcasses,” he added.

Samuel said he wonders if that’s because there was an overabundance of food during the study period, which took place during Wisconsin’s hunting season, when gut piles and lost deer were relatively more abundant. It also took place during some severe winter weather, which kept many of the primary scavengers — skunks, raccoons and opossums — in their dens. On warmer nights, those three mammals were the most common scavengers, with as many as three raccoons feeding on a carcass at once. Samuel said in one instance, an opossum actually chased away a skunk.

A Blood Trail to NowhereCrows were common and often ate the eyes first, particularly if there was no exposed flesh. Larger predators like dogs and coyotes typically started eating on the hams, while smaller mammals seemed to show little preference for a particular muscle group or organ.

“Each carcass became a focal feeding point for several weeks until there was nothing left but hide and bones. A number of animals visited the site every day, although we couldn’t determine if it was the same coyote or raccoon each night,” Samuel said.

While studying bobcat predation rates of whitetails in Florida, Ronald Labisky, a now-retired wildlife professor at the University of Florida, recalled one bobcat that fed on a “very large whitetail buck” for about four days before leaving the kill. Labisky says the bobcat fed mostly on the hams and stayed within 100 yards of the buck, which had been fatally wounded by a hunter.

“I can only guess why this particular bobcat stopped feeding on the buck. Perhaps the meat turned rancid, or maybe it got nervous from our presence, but it never returned after that,” he said.

Labisky says bobcats prey heavily on live deer in Florida, particularly fawns, but they also are opportunistic scavengers and will readily eat fresh dead deer.

He found that when a bobcat eats a fawn it killed, it typically opens the viscera and eats the heart, lungs and liver, which have the highest protein of the various internal organs. However, when eating scavenged deer carcasses, bobcats tended to eat only large muscle tissue, typically from the hindquarters.

Because the Wisconsin study took place during the fall and winter, insects played little role in the decomposition process. However, a study in Louisiana found that insects can convert a fresh deer carcass into a sack of hide and bones in just a mater of weeks.

Louisiana State University entomology professor Dr. Chris Carlton took part in a study that examined the effect of insects on wildlife carcasses. The study was conducted to help investigators determine times of death in the prosecution of wildlife crimes.

Four deer carcasses, along with a bear and a pig carcass, were dropped in the woods of southern Louisiana and observed for a period of several weeks. The timing of the study was meant to coincide with the region’s hunting seasons.

Carlton and lead researcher Dr. Erin Watson determined that blowflies are the primary insect that consumes dead animals. They can actually sense when an animal is about to die.

“They basically hang around a dying animal until it dies and then start laying eggs on the various soft tissue like the eyes, nose, anus and mouth,” says Carlton. “The eggs can hatch in as little as 24 hours, and the maggots start eating their way into the carcass.”

The dead deer were essentially swarming with maggots in a couple of days, with “hundreds of thousands” feasting on an individual carcass. Other insects like carrion beetles also fed on the dead deer, and dozens of other insect species fed on the maggots and other insects that were attracted by the rotting corpse. Carlton says the mass of maggots can produce ammonia that is so strong it keeps vertebrate scavengers like crows and possums at bay.

In a matter of a week in warmer weather, the carcasses were reduced to nothing more than hide and bones. That’s when skin beetles moved in and fed on the hide and hair. Carrion beetles also ate the rotting flesh, and dozens of other bugs fed on the various insects attracted to the dead deer.

The process doesn’t end there. Mice, squirrels and other rodents devour the bones and antlers, which are high in calcium and other minerals. Birds, mice and other wildlife take bits of fur to line their nests. Eventually, all that’s left is a faint dark stain on the forest floor. But even that provides life.

Another study conducted in Michigan found the site where a dead deer was consumed by scavengers produced a more diverse and healthy plant community. Researchers found the soil under the carcass was more fertile than surrounding soil, therefore creating prime growing conditions.

Maybe a young oak tree is growing where the buck I lost ultimately died. The buck didn’t feed me, but it certainly kept a huge number of other organisms alive. And that oak tree will feed generations of other deer in the future.

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This article was published in the October 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

Copyright 2018 by Buckmasters, Ltd.

Copyright 2017 by Buckmasters, Ltd