The rut is one of the most anticipated times of the hunting season in Alabama. However, the timing of this can vary greatly depending on where you hunt within the state. Generally speaking, this period of the season is when most mature bucks are more vulnerable to harvest due to an increased activity level.
By Chris Nix
ADCNR Wildlife Biologist
The breeding period – or “rut” – of white-tailed deer is mostly dictated by genetics, photoperiods, habitat conditions, herd sex ratios and age structures. This period is broken into three distinct parts: the pre-rut, the rut and the post rut. The proper definition of each is often misinterpreted.
The pre-rut is a period that begins in early fall when hormone amounts increase, causing the hardening of antlers and followed by rubbing and scraping by bucks. This is also when bucks start to break out of the summer bachelor groups and begin forming a pecking order based on dominance levels within the herd.
Over numerous years, Alabama Department of Conservation biologists have conducted research studies looking at conception dates throughout the state. These mean (average) dates are published and available at www.outdooralabama.com/white-tailed-deer under “Reproductive Health Information.” These dates represent the conception (breeding) dates that actually occur as the rut.
At this point of the breeding cycle the does are in estrous and mature bucks are beginning to tend the does. Once a doe begins this cycle, a mature buck (most likely) will stick with this doe for up to 72 hours. During the first portion of this cycle, the doe will not allow the buck to breed but the buck’s activity level will be dictated by the doe’s movement. During the later portion is when the buck will begin to breed the doe, most likely multiple times. This activity will cease once the doe cycles out of estrous. At that time, the buck will begin the seek and chase phase again. The length of this portion of the rut is dictated mostly by the sex ratio and age structure of the herd.
At the end of the breeding season, a buck’s testosterone level is falling quickly and body conditions are at their lowest level of the year. With a decreased amount of testosterone, bucks enter a resting and feeding time to recuperate. In areas with higher doe-to-buck ratios, these effects can be higher than normal and possibly decrease survival rates. Even with some does coming into estrous at later times, seeking and chasing will be greatly decreased. Most post-rut activity is often done by subordinate bucks. During the post-rut, survival becomes more important than breeding, and bucks focus on restoring fat and energy reserves.
The Alabama Rut
Describing the rut periods in Alabama is difficult. Several factors dictate the timing and length of the rut including genetics, photoperiods, habitat conditions, herd sex ratios and age structures.
Factors such as habitat conditions, sex ratios and age structures will have a greater influence on the overall length of the rut period. Through management techniques, hunters can alter these factors to have a more compact and intense rut period. Having these factors at optimal numbers benefits both the deer herd as well as hunting success and satisfaction.
The timing of the rut is mostly dictated by genetics and photoperiods. The photoperiod is the total amount of time that an animal or plant is exposed to sunlight in a given day. These photoperiods will vary throughout different regions of North America and will affect the growth, development and behaviors of plants and animals. In the fall, as the amount of daily sunlight decreases, behavioral and chemical changes take place in a white-tail that leads up to the breeding season. The genetic makeup of a deer herd will also affect the timing of the rut period.
So, why does Alabama have multiple rut periods? It has a lot to do with how the state was restocked with deer in the 1940s to 1960s. Deer were used from other southeastern and northern states in this effort, but most came from the southwestern portion of Alabama. At the time, little was known about the various breeding habits of these populations. Due to the genetic diversity caused by the restocking efforts, building an accurate map of the rut periods is complicated. Add this to an inconsistency of habitat types and herd structures throughout the state, and it’s even more challenging. Historical breeding times are still evident in pockets across the state that are linked to the restocking source.
Areas such as the Bankhead National Forest that were stocked with a Michigan herd have a consistent mid-November rut. Likewise, many areas in north Alabama that were restocked with deer from Clarke County still show late January to early February rut periods. Although there are many discrepancies across the state, the main portion of the rut seems to be from mid-January through early February. Biologists within the department of Conservation conduct annual research projects to increase the understanding of the breeding periods across the state. By doing this, we hope to set seasons and bag limits that benefit both the hunter and the resource.
Whether your property has a December or February rut shouldn’t be your main concern, because there is very little you can do to change that. What you can focus on is the management practices that will make your rut more compact, intense and productive. Practices such as building a habitat that is conducive to producing a healthy deer herd, adequate antlerless deer harvest and targeting for an older age class buck structure will help, and can be controlled.