A whitetail’s summer life is very different from how we observe them during hunting season.
By Tom Fegely
Photo by Ken Piper
One of the benefits of being an outdoors writer is the bonus of hunting and wildlife photography – deer in particular – as part of the job. Most of my whitetail encounters are made from fall into spring, which is why I decided to have breakfast with the whitetails one August morning.
My alfresco dining spot was a large high-fenced field and small woods holding a couple dozen bucks, does and fawns in central Pennsylvania. It was my intent to spend several hours up close and personal, observing and photographing deer behavior in the heat and humidity of summer.
I worked my way through a field of bothersome thistle and goldenrod and set up my collapsible seat, readied my camera and poured a cup of coffee, intent on keeping a low profile until the deer accepted my presence.
I’d always thought of summer as the gentlest time of year for deer. Hunters are absent from the woods. Food is abundant, and the weather is surely more tolerable than subfreezing temperatures and chilling winds. Yet, after spending several hours surrounded by whitetails, I began to doubt that this “gentle” season concept would live up to my expectations.
I hadn’t considered summer’s biggest annoyances – deerflies, mosquitoes, lice, midges, botflies and several types of worrisome ticks.
A threesome of does and fawns was bedded under a small tree near my observation site. The doe could only keep the persistent biters from her face by constant ear movement, headshaking, kicking, tail-twitching and scratching with her hind feet – contagious activities that urged me to scratch myself here and there on regular occasion.
She also nudged her stomach, legs and other parts of her body every few seconds, fending off flies drawn to scarred skin on her sides and belly. I could only imagine their non-stop torment, made worse by rains and new hatches the previous couple days.
Mid-morning, several curious fawns approached for a closer look at the corn kernels and apple slices I’d scattered in a small clearing. I chuckled as they moved cautiously with their noses outstretched, like bird dogs pointing quail. Through my zoom lens, I also noted small sores and scars on their ears. These, along with the continual head-shaking, were courtesy of insects seeking the taste of blood.
At times, a particular buck would leap from its bed, sprint to the opposite end of the enclosure, turn around and run back, then lie down in the shade. Blame its fits of frustration and flight on the same insects. Not far away, a doe sneezed, once 15 times in succession, presumably in reaction to botflies attempting to crawl into her nasal passages. The nose botfly is notorious where deer are present. It lays its eggs around and inside a deer’s nostrils. When the eggs hatch, the larvae make their ways up the nasal passages, as far as the chamber above the rear portion of the mouth. There they feed on mucus, eventually hatching into inch-long yellow grubs. In spring, the grubs are ejected from the nose and throat by sneezing. They then develop into adults, completing the cycle.
On occasion, two or three deer bedded together preened one another about the face, head and neck. This mutual grooming is as much a social grace among whitetails as a way of tending to one another’s coats and sores. Spots on the cheek, neck and nose are often unreachable. Thus, the duties are attended to by siblings and others in the herd as they take turns licking and nuzzling one another.
Strangely, one grunting buck, a velvet-racked 6pointer, was particularly agitated at my presence. The testy 6-pointer with a personality problem approached stiff-legged, like a buck in rut, to within 6 or 7 yards. With ears laid back and head lowered, the obvious whites of his eyes hinted strongly that my presence was not appreciated. In addition to its challenging gestures, the buck regularly emitted lowpitched grunts. It was a fascinating learning session, including hearing the calls directly from a buck’s mouth.
Morning’s end brought the treat of observing the doe I’d watched earlier as she ruminated, grazed and tended to her twins on the edge of the woods. I noted her peculiar interest in a small shrub at her feet. With ears held erect, she tipped forward and glared downward, studying something in the bush, reminding me of a snake ready to strike. Suddenly she “snapped” at the object, as my Labrador retriever does at passing horseflies.
This novelty, however, was a grasshopper. Through binoculars, I watched as the doe caught and ate two or three ‘hoppers, munching them like legged potato chips. Presumably, the same crunchy side dishes are also sampled by opportunistic wild deer.
I’m planning a return trip to the enclosure as this is being written, this time on an October morning when most biting flies will be gone. I want to see how the deer behavior and body scars change when they grow a new coat, and the woods and fields are free of most blood-seeking bugs. A couple buckets filled with acorns, beechnuts, soybeans and field corn will be their breakfast.
I’ll pick up the tab.
This article was published in the October 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.