Except for the extreme south Florida area, the whitetail rut we hunters recognize — scrapes, chasing, breeding — is still a few weeks away for most of the country. Bucks have shed their velvet, are or will be soon splitting up from bachelor groups, and then everything goes into full-blown crazy mode.
Check out this information about one of the most fascinating studies of the whitetail rut and what bucks are doing during this period.
The rut is known for its chaos, and such mayhem is exciting and frustrating. On one hand, we get to see frantic, often aggressive, behavior by bucks that were — only days before — afraid to travel in daylight. Heck, we might even spot a big buck we didn’t even know existed. It’s hard to not love surprises like that!
By Scott Bestul
On the other hand, if your scouting and hunting efforts have you convinced you know the core area of a good whitetail pegged, the rut can bring a certain hopeless feeling.
Deciphering how and where a mature buck beds, travels and feeds through his home range is difficult. And for years conventional wisdom tells us we have to throw out all that information when our target deer roams far and wide to breed.
But if recent studies are any indication, conventional wisdom may be all wet. Recent telemetry research conducted in Maryland has revealed much about mature buck behavior before, during and after the rut. The information is reshaping how biologists view whitetail behavior during the breeding season. It should also have a significant impact on the hunting strategies we adopt, particularly for bucks we know well.
The research was conducted on Chesapeake Farms, a 3,300-acre wildlife research facility on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. The facility is owned by the Dupont Corporation and is managed for agriculture and wildlife habitat. Noted biologist and researcher Mark Conner is the manager there; he and assistant James Tomberlin spent more than two years studying the movements of bucks fitted with GPS collars.
Buck locations were recorded every 20 minutes from August through December each fall. The matrix of locations was plotted on maps and aerial photos of Chesapeake Farms and constitutes one of the most fascinating studies of rutting buck behavior in recent years.
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Pre-Rut Buck Habits
Hunters have long been fascinated with terms such as home range and core area as they relate to mature whitetails. Unfortunately, little has been done to define exactly what is meant by these terms. Conner and his team did their best to articulate them.
“For purposes of the study, we defined ‘home range’ as the area where an individual buck spent at least 95 percent of his time,” Conner said. “A buck’s home range includes virtually all the things he requires: food, water, security and does. For most of the deer in our study, the home range was an area measuring about 600 acres.”
Core areas were smaller zones within a buck’s home range. Conner’s study revealed them as safe havens where a buck would bed frequently and remain for longer periods.
“We defined core areas as a small, specific place — usually around 90 acres, or 15 percent of his total home range — where a buck spent 50 percent of his time,” he said. “Typically, this core area included thick, nasty cover that provided security. Telemetry allowed us to identify these spots, and there were areas in them where a man would have to get on his hands and knees to get in there.
“One buck’s core area was in the middle of a waterfowl refuge … a place where people weren’t allowed to go. That kind of behavior is pretty typical, especially for older bucks.”
Get a Move On!
As one would suspect, collared bucks started getting more and more active as the rut approached. Much of this movement occurred within a buck’s home range, presumably as the buck established rub lines, checked scrapes, and moved between doe feeding/bedding areas. Bucks moved much more widely and often within this area as breeding activity increased, but still spend significant time in or near their core area, especially if does were present in that zone.
After the rut kicked into high gear, many bucks went on excursions that would take them not only far from their core area, but outside the normal boundaries of their home range.
“Some of the bucks traveled a mile or more outside their home range, presumably to search for does,” Conner notes. “Not all bucks went on excursions, but a large percentage of them did.”
Conner’s proof of these breeding excursions seems to prove what many hunters have long suspected; that bucks that were largely faithful to a specific area often abandon that spot when their desire to breed peaks. In fact, many of us give up on hunting core areas during the rut, operating under the assumption that our once-homebound buck is now likely far away.
We were right about part of the assumption but, as it turns out, dead wrong about the big picture. In what I consider the most fascinating aspect of Conner’s research, telemetry proved that even if a far-ranging buck went on a breeding excursion … he returned to his core area, usually within 8 to 32 hours of when he left! In fact, one of the few bucks that didn’t return almost immediately to his safe zone was enroute to that area when he was hit by a vehicle.
It gets better. Not only did big bucks (several of Conner’s research animals were 4½ years or older) bee-line for home shortly after leaving, but they did most of their travel during daylight hours.
These two findings shatter two widely held assumptions about the rut: First, that rutting bucks do not return to their core areas until long after breeding activity concludes. Second, that hunting core areas during the rut is a waste of time. Of course, the fact that a returning buck travels home during daylight hours is good news for hunters, too!
There’s another — albeit hypothetical — sidelight to Conner’s work that I couldn’t help but notice. We can assume that at least some of the bucks that leave on a breeding excursion breed a doe. If that “successful” buck is returning home within two days, he has found, tended, and bred a doe in a lot shorter period of time than what I’ve typically assigned to the breeding process. Conner agreed.
“We (researchers) definitely need to do more work on this, but my guess is that a buck isn’t spending nearly the time with an estrous doe that most of us previously believed.”
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The Take-Away Message
I’m interested in most any study involving whitetails, but ones that have direct application to hunting really get my attention. And I’m as excited about Conner’s research as any in recent memory. Here’s why.
For starters, the knowledge that bucks keep returning to core areas during the rut is huge for me. Gone are the days when I took all that hard-earned scouting during the pre-rut and stuffed it in the recycle bin. Even when I know that a target buck might be running does in some distant real estate, I won’t be afraid to work his old haunts. He’s on his way home eventually, a fact that makes waiting for him that much easier.
Second, Conner’s research verifies that many of these “return trips” occur during daylight hours, and that’s obviously good news. Most every hunter recognizes that rutting bucks often disappear for stretches and, before this study, those vanishing acts were steeped in mystery. Has my buck left the area? Is he moving totally at night? What should I do to find him again? I’ve been plagued by these questions for years, and I know at least part of the puzzle; “my” buck may indeed be gobbling up real estate, looking for does. But he’s coming right back. When he does, he’ll likely do it when I can see him.
The other feel-good nature of this research is that while a target buck might leave my hunting area, a different (perhaps just as big) animal might show up on his own breeding excursion. Conner and I discussed this scenario at some length.
“Obviously, if he’s a buck you want to kill, you better get it done fairly quickly, because he’s not going to hang around very long,” he said. “But there’s also a strong chance the buck is going to be very vulnerable, too. He’s out of his familiar territory. He’s actively looking for other deer. It’s a safe bet he’d respond to rattling or calling as he searches for the doe he’s looking for.”
Finally, the short duration of these breeding excursion points to something I’ve had wrong about the rut for years: A buck spends a whole lot less time with an estrous doe than I ever imagined.
This sheds a whole different light on that often-frustrating period we call “lockdown.” Whenever I’m hunting the breeding peak, I’ve assumed that an individual buck will be holed up with a doe for four to six days. This study shows that’s probably not the case, and should give me more optimism during peak breeding.
Of course no study — at least to this date — completely explains everything about whitetail behavior. Conner is the first to admit that his research has led him to more questions and an ever greater desire to do more telemetry work that reveals the secret lives of mature bucks. Still, this fascinating glimpse into buck behavior before, during and after the rut shined an important light into their world.
I plan to take that knowledge into the woods with me this fall … and hopefully use it to catch a monster on the way home from a breeding excursion!
— Scott Bestul is a longtime D&DH contributor from Minnesota.
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