The almost full-grown button buck fawn clumsily picked its way through the thick brush directly behind its mom. Sometimes they would get separated, more common now that the fawn was rather independent, but a bleat from the fawn allowed the doe to relocate her offspring and they would continue on their daily journey. Once the verdant grain field was in sight, the careless fawn dashed under the fence and into the open field. The succulent oats were no doubt tasty, but the fact that the ubiquitous ticks and horseflies remained outside the clearing made it that much more desirable.
The fawn’s mother hesitated for several minutes before entering, but once secure she glided over the barbed wire fence and into the field and immediately buried her head in the highly desirable food source. And so it was every day until the leaves changed color. Now the doe became a bit irritated with her fawn. Her behavior changed as the rut approached, and when the bucks started harassing her and mating occurred, the fawn remained with the family group.
It was at this time that he observed more humans in the woods. They wore orange-colored clothes and stealthily approached the fields. He’d seen people at various times in his first six months, and observing this activity would only magnify the inherent fear this deer had for man as it matured.
A year later, the buck had survived to the age of 18 months. Several biological changes occurred: a set of antlers developed on his head and, above all, he was sexually active. Winter came and went. Then spring, then summer. Throughout the long, hot, sultry summer, the young buck bonded with three older bucks. The male companionship insulated the youngster from the many dangers in the wild as he imprinted on their actions. He was so attracted to the largest buck, a 5-year-old 10-pointer, that his mannerisms almost mimicked this mentor.
Following the older bucks, the youngster learned how to avoid humans by simply regulating its time around human activities. For example, a rancher would drive out and refill cattle troughs at the windmills every three days with food. The older bucks’ routine was to slip out from their protective coverts, following the rancher’s and cattle’s departure, and consume any remaining food left by the cattle.
Things began to change during the fall as the young buck noticed his older cohorts becoming increasingly aggressive toward each other. Although still accepted as part of the group, he was instantly subordinated whenever he did not follow their rules. It was mid-November, and the yearling’s sudden urge to pursue a doe was eclipsing his desire to eat. But the older bucks would not allow the youngster anywhere near a doe, particularly one in heat. He could tag along but that was the extent of his first year of adulthood.
One particular foggy morning in the buck’s second year, he watched as his mentor defeated another challenger for the rights for a particular doe. As the battle between the bucks ensued, the sound of an old truck could be heard in the distance. Unlike exercising his normal, evasive response, the victorious buck, sporting a rack of huge proportions, remained stationary, almost statue-like, in a semi-open area as the doe before him nibbled on a granjeno bush. The loud crack of a rifle removed something he did not wish to relinquish. The huge buck slumped to the ground, and the young buck ran a short distance away to watch the impact man had on his life.
Excuse the anthropomorphism inserted into this story. But scenarios such as this one happen often in the wild, and it’s only normal that young deer repeatedly witnessing such events become extremely elusive. The fact is, wild deer are born with an inherent fear of humans, which is magnified by the number of confrontations the two have in the wild.
The intrinsically wild nature of deer is rarely subdued, even in penned animals. For example, during the late 1970s, I raised wild whitetails in captivity for research purposes. Fawns were born to wild does bred by superior bucks in 7- to 10-acre enclosures.
During fawning season, pens were traversed daily to locate all newborns. Captured fawns were transported to a much smaller holding facility, enabling me to bottle-feed the animals. My objective was to develop a herd of tame deer, or at least deer that were imprinted on humans, thus more manageable. After conducting this project for several years, I discovered that some deer would actually become pets, while others failed to lose their fear of man, remaining wild and difficult to work with.
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Adapt to Survive
It’s important to note that deer are individualistic, demonstrating variable personalities. They are faced with predation by coyotes, dogs, hunters, or even collisions with vehicles. The point is, the animals must adapt in order to survive. Simply because a deer witnesses a fellow deer hit by a car doesn’t mean it will never cross a road again.
But the animal might very well avoid the road when the roaring sound of an engine is heard. Like- wise, shooting a few deer on a grain field does not mean that survivors will avoid the area. But rest assured that deer will alter their behavior around and on the plot, sometimes visiting only under the protection of darkness.
I managed a large Texas ranch back in the mid-1980s, which permitted little if any hunting. I leased the periphery of the 100,000+-acre ranch with the intention that the lessees would protect the core from poachers, thus deer in the core lived a sheltered life, at least from hunters.
Not long after acquiring my responsibility as manager of the landholding, I solicited the help of my friend, then Assistant Professor Dr. Steve Demarais from Texas Tech University, to assist me with a study on mature bucks. By using telemetry, we intended to find out where mature bucks preferred to reside and how long they lived — vital questions to the trophy deer manager. In conjunction with the central theme of the study, individual buck behavior was also investigated.
You would think that visually relocating radio-collared deer would be easy — not so. The collared deer made few appearances. As a matter of fact, one buck collared at 5 1⁄2 years of age survived to its 10th year, occupying a rather small area frequented by ranch hands. Yet, over the five years he was monitored, the huge buck was spot- ted only four times. It’s important to note that the collared bucks were not disturbed except for the times we attempted to approach them utilizing the receiver.
Wild Buck Mortality
This leads to the question of how old do bucks live in the wild?
There are records of deer living more than 20 years, but most of these deer were raised in pens under ideal conditions. Rarely do they survive more than 10 years in the wild. In most public hunting states, in excess of 70 percent of their harvest is composed of bucks less than two years of age and less than 5 percent of the bucks reach an age of 4 1⁄2 years. Things in Texas are a bit different because most land is private and buck management is done to allow many bucks to reach older age classes.
Based on results of our telemetry work, the age of South Texas deer perishing from natural causes ranged from three to 10 years, and averaged 7 1⁄2 years. Our oldest buck was found dead and was nearly 11 years of age. This particular deer was in extremely poor shape and supported 98 inches of antler compared to 125 inches he supported at age 4 1⁄2 when he was initially captured.
Our largest radio-collared buck, nicknamed Double Main Beam, perished at 10; however, he was captured several months prior to his death and re-collared and showed no sign of degradation. His body frame appeared strong and his antlers of 189 inches were outstanding. Why he perished remains a question, but was probably related to an injury inflicted by another buck or bucks while competing for does.
The ultimate deer turf is composed of a land mass large enough to allow young deer to safely reach their older years. However, some older bucks utilize a very small area where they bed and eat. Even for those old bucks other problems still exist. No matter how big or how small a buck’s home range is, naturally occurring mortality takes its toll.
Like any living organism, deer do not live forever. Based on telemetry studies, 15 percent to 31 percent of the bucks that were monitored in Texas perished from natural causes on an annual basis.
Another Texas wildlife professor, Dr. Charlie DeYoung, worked with a much larger sample size than we had, and discovered a natural annual mortality of 25 percent. If 25 percent of each age class is lost annually, it is not difficult to understand why so few big deer exist.
Even with hunting excluded, it is difficult for the animals to survive the gauntlet of Mother Nature on an annual basis. Drought, coyotes, disease, highways and even barbed wire fences take their toll on deer, making it increasingly difficult to feasibly manage for superior quality older bucks.
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From DNA data we now know that a few particularly large-racked bucks are so reclusive they don’t even breed. They remain hidden and completely sheltered from interaction with man, and even other bucks. I have watched bucks that show up late after the rut is over without so much as a broken tine.
One that comes to mind is a 29-inch- wide 12-pointer I was able to see over a three-year period. His antlers were so characteristic you couldn’t mistake him. But he was quite reclusive, showing up at our headquarters pens when native forage was in short supply. Even in an area with a sex ratio slightly favoring bucks, the deer never had a broken tine. Either he was one lucky deer or he was good at avoid- ing trouble, which is not the case with many of his broken-tined brethren in the same area.
If deer are so adept at avoiding man, how can hunters hope to shoot one of these bucks? The fact is, not all deer are the same. Some bucks, even the big guys, are rather vulnerable and predictable at certain times. I have witnessed two bucks sporting racks in excess of 190 inches that were totally predictable, but again, this was the exception and not the rule.
As for a buck that can be considered unkillable, it is possible. Deer that live inside the city limits are obviously safe from at least a legal hunter’s bullet. And what about those nocturnal deer? Bucks that are either forced to be nocturnal, such as many east of the Mississippi where hunting pressure is extremely intense, or those that are just normally active at night, are at less risk from hunting. But even though nocturnal bucks occur, they are not found in substantial numbers, especially during the rut.
With persistence and a lot of luck, particularly during the rut, that buck of your dreams might present himself. If not, enjoy the anticipation of seeing that monster, because it’s the antici- pation of what could step out that makes hunting just that — hunting, not killing.
— Bob Zaiglin is a certified wildlife biologist from South Texas. He has been a D&DH contributor for more than 20 years.
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