Do bucks really live their lives in one square mile?
At 180 yards, it was a long poke, especially for someone who rarely shoots over 100, but that’s how far the 8-pointer was when I pinged him with my rangefinder.
I grabbed my rifle and tried to find the buck in the crosshairs, only to discover whips of grass in the line of fire. There was just enough vegetation to make me hesitate. I didn’t have much time. In just a few more steps, the deer would be back in the thick stuff.
I’d hunted the whole season, and that was the first decent rack buck I’d seen. With only two days left, the odds I’d see him again were slim. But the shot didn’t feel right, and, despite knowing it might be my only chance, I let him walk.
When the last day of deer season arrived, I was back in that stand. The buck didn’t show at first light, and by 9:30 I was already wondering how I might salvage the season with an afternoon hunt. For the umpteenth time that morning, I scanned the open bog with my trusty Nikon binoculars. My hands were pulling the 10x40 glasses from my eye when the image I’d just seen registered.
I pulled up the binoculars and hastily tried to pick it up again. There! Was that sun glinting off an antler?
It was. First, I made out a tine, then another, then a nose, an eye and an ear. To my very pleasant surprise, it was the same buck I’d passed up two days earlier. What’s more, he was bedded barely 100 yards away.
Getting a second crack at that buck from the same stand was a longshot, but the 100 yards that separated us wasn’t. I took full advantage of it.
While the odds might have been against me seeing that buck again, they weren’t as lopsided as you might think. Much of the surrounding area was hunted hard, while pressure on the property I was hunting was relatively light. It provided something of a sanctuary.
Furthermore, the rut was winding down, and when I saw the buck two days earlier, it was late morning and he was probably headed to bed. Also, he was alone. Perhaps he was done with the does or maybe taking a break. Either way, I gambled that property was his home and he wouldn’t be too far away.
Back in the days before portable climbing stands and inline muzzleloaders, conventional wisdom held that a white-tailed deer spent its entire life within a square-mile area. We now know that’s not necessarily true, although it can be.
Were it were possible to calculate the average home range for the entire North American whitetail population, I’ll bet it would be pretty close to that figure. But averages can be misleading because we tend to forget the extremes. How far a deer might travel over the course of a day, a week, a season or a year can vary considerably based on a number of variables. Understanding the variables where you’re hunting can help you make more informed decisions as to how, when and where to hunt.
In general, habitat is the most important factor in determining home range size. Habitat is sometimes defined as food, water, cover and the arrangement of those elements. It stands to reason the quality, quantity and proximity of those elements is inversely correlated with home range size. In other words, if a deer doesn’t have to travel far to find what it needs, it won’t.
Take, for example, a buck living in Midwest farm country. The corn, soybeans and other crops provide most of what he needs for food. The adjacent pockets of timber, brushy draws and narrow windrows provide ample bedding cover and travel corridors. The dining room is right next to the bedroom. His home range is likely tiny in early fall.
Take a different buck living in the north woods of Maine. Dense cover is everywhere, but the glaciated soil is poor. That buck must travel farther to find sufficient nutrition. His home range is probably much larger. The same can hold true for mountainous areas of the West and the arid Southwest.
Home range can vary with the seasons, too. In the spring and summer, food is abundant. Adult does are giving birth, and their home ranges tend to be small. Much is the same for bucks. They typically spend most of their time in a core area. Because they have no reason to defend a territory, they often are in the company of other bucks. Not only are their home ranges small, they overlap.
Fall is a period of transition for white-tailed deer. As the days grow shorter, the herbaceous vegetation deer have been living on for most of the summer ripens and dies. Meanwhile, their dietary needs change. Instead of protein, they’re looking for carbohydrates to fatten up for the winter.
During the fall food transition, home ranges can expand or shift, depending on the configuration of food sources. Let’s go back to our Midwestern buck for a moment. As crops alternately ripen and are harvested, he will shift accordingly, changing the location of his home range. If the carbs and fat he’s looking for are close by, however, he’s likely to keep the same home range. Meanwhile, our Maine buck has to make long treks to a lone oak ridge or a recent cutover that’s thick with woody browse to start to put on fat for winter. His choice is simple: Move to the food or prepare a will.
As days grow shorter, bucks experience a surge in testosterone, which has several effects. They become less tolerant of one another and more interested in the opposite sex. The bachelor groups break up, and bucks begin to wander farther from home. This is a gradual process, as bucks slowly take forays outside their core area, expanding their home range.
How far they roam and how much their range expands depends on local circumstances and how far they need to travel to find what they need. In the North woods, where deer are few and far between, bucks might have to travel miles to find a prospective mate. In dense populations like much of the Southeast, they might not have to travel at all.
Over time, bucks can develop a pattern and return to locations where they found food sources or hot does. Older bucks have learned not only where to find these things, but when to begin looking. The behavior is similar to how they use rubs and scrapes in successive years.
Biologists have identified a third travel behavior called an excursion. Excursions occur during the rut. Rather than merely wandering a bit farther and wider from home, bucks have been known to make sudden and distant jaunts well outside their core areas. The most likely reason for such trips is to find estrous does.
Experienced hunters know this is when the bucks you’ve been seeing regularly suddenly disappear, and new bucks show up.
Scouting cameras have shown many of these new bucks have been there all along, however. They just hadn’t appeared during daylight until the rut.
Recent research suggests there might be another reason for excursions.
Results from a GPS tracking collar study on the Delmarva Peninsula showed that does also make excursions well outside of their home ranges, even when mature males are abundant.
These excursions lasted an average of 24 hours and coincided with peak breeding activity. Biologists initially speculated the does, like bucks, might be searching for potential mates, a role reversal from conventional thinking.
An alternative hypothesis suggests these does might already be paired up and are slipping off with their mates to a secluded area. It could be a deliberate effort by the pair to get away from it all, or simply a matter of being driven out of more populated areas by too much attention from rival bucks. Whatever the case, more research is needed in this area.
While all this home range shifting and expansion is going on, there is another group of deer packing up their suitcases and leaving home for good.
Various studies found between 50 and 80 percent of yearling bucks will disperse from their natal home range to set up a new one elsewhere, often far from the original.
This often occurs just before or during the rut. Research suggests the yearlings are driven out by older, more aggressive bucks. Some yearling bucks also disperse in their first spring when, it is speculated, maternal females drive them out.
As fall turns to winter, many of the deer that survived the rut and hunting seasons will move again. Food again becomes the driving factor, particularly to bucks depleted by the rut. They’ll move back to their core areas if food is available there. If not, they will move to feeding areas, or travel back and forth from preferred bedding to feeding areas.
In the far north, protection from the elements takes on added importance. Deer may actually migrate out of their regular home range to traditional wintering areas to find cover. It could be argued that since Northern deer often use the same deer yards every year, they are actually part of their home range.
In the final analysis, the notion of a deer being born, living and dying within the same square-mile area isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a bit too simplistic.
The idea provides a good framework against which to better understand what really happens, but a lot comes down to common sense.
Bucks need food, cover and water year-round, and they seek out does during the rut. Where those things occur in abundance and close proximity, home ranges will be smaller. Where and when bucks need to travel farther to find these resources, their home ranges will expand.
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