Our biologist explains why you don’t see many bucks after their third birthday.
Hunting in a place like Saskatchewan offers several advantages. In addition to good odds for a really big buck, you also get the rare opportunity to watch and learn about deer in general. Spend a week in Saskatchewan and you’ll likely log more observations of deer behavior than most hunters witness in a lifetime. I was doing just that several years ago when I witnessed something that really stuck with me.
It was the peak of the rut and I had 10 hours a day to watch the interaction between bucks and does. As long as there were deer in sight, you could always tell if another deer was coming. The deer in view (usually does) would pick their heads up and look in the newcomer’s direction. And you could usually tell if it was a buck or doe. The deer would typically relax and resume their feeding if it was a doe. A buck, on the other hand, made them edgy.
The bucks seemed to approach the group differently, depending on age. The yearlings were brash and clumsy. They’d rush toward a crowd of does, scattering them into the surrounding thickets. Then they’d stand, as if confused, about where the does went, wondering whether they should follow or stay and eat. They usually chose the latter, probably because they’d already forgotten how they got there in the first place.
Older bucks, 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds, burst onto the scene like their younger counterparts, but they usually opted for does over food. They’d chase them hither and yon, eventually trailing off out of sight and out of hearing. The does would return later and things would settle down until the next buck came along.
It was the middle of my fourth day on stand when the does picked up their heads and stared back into the dense softwoods surrounding the small opening. A huge dark shadow moved through the trees at 100 yards, then disappeared. “Were those antlers?” I wondered, glancing back at the does to gauge their reaction. They soon relaxed, and so did I, assuming the shadow was just another doe. Then I saw the shape again and was sure I saw antlers. The does picked up their heads, stared for several minutes then resumed feeding.
The buck stepped out of the trees at 80 yards, revealing a thickly swelled neck and a heavy-beamed rack. The does went on full alert. Some fidgeted. Some fled and some just stared. The buck, meanwhile, stood stock still for a full 10 minutes. When the older does finally relaxed, he took a few more casual steps toward them, freezing as soon as they showed signs of agitation.
This scenario was repeated several more times until he’d approached to within 50 yards. By that time, I was so preoccupied with watching the buck’s cat-and-mouse game that I almost forgot why I was there. Then he made his move. The big 10-pointer lowered his head, curled back his upper lip and walked forward stiff-legged — not quickly, but deliberately. He cut one doe out of the group while the rest stood by and watched, then steered her back toward the thicket. She made it. He didn’t. My shot stopped him just a few yards short.
There was little question this was a mature buck. Even from a distance, his looks strongly suggested it. But looks can be deceiving. The real tipoff was his behavior. Once a buck reaches maturity, he becomes an entirely different animal — in more ways than one.
A deer takes in food, water and minerals first and foremost to maintain normal bodily functions to stay alive. They can usually take in more than they need, and for the first four years of life, much of the surplus goes toward growth, particularly skeletal growth. Once a deer’s basic physiological needs and the incredible demand for growth are met, remaining surplus calories go toward laying on fat for winter. Surplus minerals, meanwhile, go toward antler growth, which at this stage of life is very much a luxury.
After a buck reaches maturity at age four, skeletal growth stops. All of a sudden there’s a lot more surplus to go around. As a result, they really start to lay on the mass, to both body and antlers. The sleek, athletic racehorse becomes stouter and stronger. They change from wide receivers to tight ends. Tine and beam length might be similar, but both will be much thicker. And, more important to the hunter, there’s a change in attitude and behavior.
The Disney Syndrome
Anthropomorphism is the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to animals. Scientists abhor the practice, partly because it leads people to falsely believe that animals possess human traits such as reason, understanding, emotions and feelings. Still, sometimes it’s difficult (if not impossible) to explain animal behavior to humans without applying terms that we can understand, which is what I’ve done below. Keep that in mind as you read on. Also bear in mind that there are no absolutes when talking about animal behavior. Individual deer are as different as individual humans, though both tend to follow certain patterns.
Once they live a year, bucks are considered adults, even though they’re still a long way from maturity. At that point, they’re more like 10-year-old boys. They’ll spend the summer loafing with their male peers and will spar for dominance in the early fall. By the time they reach one year and seven months, bucks are very much like 16-year-old boys. The fighting becomes a bit more serious, though nobody usually gets hurt.
A big change comes with the first whiffs of estrous does. By November, they have one thing on their mind — they just haven’t figured out what to do about it. Just like adolescent boys, this is a critical period in a young buck’s life.
For roughly the first year and a half of its life, a young buck lives in the same general area. How large an area depends on several things, including the quality and quantity of food, cover and water. A young buck also shares much of its time with its mother. Come fall, mom will come into estrus, and if she doesn’t drive the little buck away, her suitors soon will. Either way, he must now disperse into new and foreign territory during the height of hunting season.
If they make it through that first fall, life becomes very different for white-tailed bucks. At 2 1/2 years, they’re like 21-year-old humans. They’ve got their own place now, and by the time fall rolls around again, they’ve had nearly a year to get familiar with it, learn where to find what they need and how to avoid what they don’t.
This will be their first year of serious dating. Just like the previous fall, the mating urge drives their behavior, only now they’re starting to get the whole girl thing figured out. They’re much more confident in approaching a lady, although they still tend to be a bit impetuous. Their lack of restraint tends to be problematic. It doesn’t go over as well with the ladies and often puts them in harm’s way. And they’ll pick a fight with anything that gets in their way.
The 3 1/2-year-olds are somewhat unpredictable. They possess characteristics of both younger and older bucks. In fact, there’s often a broad disparity among this age class. Some behave more like one or the other. They’re still a bit foolhardy in the early rut, but when the first does start coming into estrus, they get right down to business. In populations subject to heavy hunting pressure, they might be the dominant (and quite possibly the oldest) bucks, and fighting becomes more serious. They can usually intimidate younger bucks and subordinate peers, but when equally matched, somebody’s gonna get hurt.
Next, at 4 1/2, bucks make that all-important leap. They become the James Bonds of the deer world: suave and sophisticated, skilled in the art of deception and able to hold their own in a fight against almost any rival. They’d rather not fight, but if forced to do so, they’re licensed to kill. They’re cagey beyond compare, and they seem to almost disappear from the landscape.
Why Don’t We See More Mature Bucks?
First, they’re few and far between. Even in the best-managed herds, slightly less than half the deer will be males, and that includes button bucks. Mature bucks probably make up 10-20 percent of the buck population — less in poorly managed herds. That means if you have 40 deer per square mile in a well-managed herd with a well-balanced age and sex ratio, two of them might be mature bucks.
Second, and perhaps more important, those two bucks have learned how not to be seen. Folks used to think when the first guns went off that deer simply left town. Thanks to research, we know that’s not the case. Radio telemetry studies have shown they stay right at home and merely alter their activity patterns, moving more at night and less in general. They’ve learned to avoid us, and they get better at it every year they survive. More recent research using GPS transmitters has shown mature bucks actually learn to avoid permanent stands, and that they obtain information from scrapes without actually visiting them, instead monitoring them from downwind.
As far as mating behavior, my Saskatchewan experience in the opening passage offers an excellent representation of the bigger picture. After three years of practice, mature bucks have honed their mating skills. They’re not wandering aimlessly over the countryside day and night like the yearling adolescents. They’re not wearing themselves down and exposing themselves to danger during the pre-rut like the 2 1/2-year-olds. And they’ve gained that all-important additional year over the 3 1/2-year-olds. They go through all the activities of the rut, but at a different and very measured pace.
They visit scrapes at night or from downwind, lying low all day in the deepest, darkest recesses of their home range. They sit out much of the early seeking and chasing, waiting until the does are truly ready. They’ve learned the aroma and the body language of a receptive doe, and it is only when they find one that they become serious about the business of courtship.
Fighting is also a very serious undertaking at this stage. A mature buck will intimidate with body language and perhaps vocalizations. While he lacks the ability to reason, nature has hard-wired within him a behavioral adaptation to engage in combat only as a last resort. Mating is his top priority, and only when that is threatened will he drop the proverbial gloves. And unless one of the combatants yields, it is a fight to the death.
After the rut is over, mature bucks rejoin the mainstream and spend winters replacing nutrients lost during the rigors of the rut. In spring and summer, they associate in bachelor groups and can be quite visible at dawn and dusk. As fall approaches, however, they sense a stirring inside and take on their alter egos, once again becoming gray ghosts of the forest. Read Recent Articles:
• Uncommon Senses: Hunters spend a lot of time worrying about a whitetail’s nose, but what about its other senses?
• Beat the Clock: Take advantage of the fast pace of the rut.
• Don’t Bug Me: Some of the woods’ biggest dangers come in the smallest packages.
This article was published in the July 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.