Perhaps you own, lease or have permission to hunt on a small property. For all intents and purposes, let’s say that property is less than 100 acres. Have you ever wondered why — at certain times of the year — all you seem to observe are groups of does or bucks?
The reasons why this happens cannot be easily explained. It all comes down to the very intriguing survival behavior that’s wired deep within the whitetail’s collective biology.
Over the years, my friend and longtime Deer & Deer Hunting contributor John J. Ozoga of Michigan has explained the many nuances involved with natural segregation in the white-tailed deer herd. Citing countless scientific studies on the topic, he has opened our eyes to the mysteries behind free-ranging deer herds and provided a glimpse at the reasons why deer do what they do.
For example, did you know that sexual segregation among ungulates occurs as a direct result of differing energetic and reproductive strategies among whitetails? That is, white-tailed does, for example, select habitat that is best suited for rearing fawns and, normally, that means land that consists of diversified food and cover availability. It is further broken down by doe age classes. The oldest, healthiest and most dominant does in the pecking order will occupy the best of the best. Yearling does — normally first-time mothers — are left with the “low income housing” so to speak.
When you know what you’re looking at in terms of land quality, it’s really easy to see (and gauge) when you truly get to know a property. Another example: In many areas, bowhunters can routinely pattern and harvest yearling does during the first week of archery season on relatively small parcels (think suburban back yards; small woodlots, etc). That land, although home to deer, is usually not the best of the best when it comes to fawning territory. Knowing this allows a hunter to plan his doe harvest strategies accordingly.
By comparison, white-tailed bucks tend to select areas where nutrition is superb. This allows bucks to obtain maximum body growth which, in turn, helps them improve their dominance rank in the herd. So, while a doe is looking for the complete home — food and really good cover — a buck is looking for the best food.
In short, habitat selection by does is influenced by their instinctual tendencies toward water for lactation, enough nutritious food (be that native browse or agriculture) and superb cover for rearing fawns by avoiding predators.
Researchers warn that such information should not be used in bits and pieces when shaping harvest strategies, because science has also shown us that unbalanced deer populations (when skewed toward does) seldom increases productivity. Ozoga concludes that wherever high fawning rates occur — when combined with insufficient doe harvests — the result can be social networks comprised mainly of younger age-class females that put enormous pressure on native browse communities. The ends result is forage depletion and redistribution of bucks across the landscape.
For more information on whitetail behavior, check out our lineup of books and DVDs.