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Ask The Biologist: Are my bucks going nocturnal?

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"QUESTION: I see quite a few nice bucks on my lease in the summer and early fall, but once hunting season opens, they seem to disappear. Are they leaving the property or just going nocturnal?
— Andy, Waycross, Ga.

ANSWER: Andy, it’s difficult to say precisely what’s happening without more information. However, we can probably infer a few things based on what we know.

Are my bucks going nocturnal, or are they leaving my property?

Once they reach age two, most bucks won’t change their annual home range significantly. However, the size of that home range and where they are within it can vary considerably over the course of the year depending on several variables.

In late summer and early fall, bucks don’t move much, spending most of their time in core areas and bedding fairly close to preferred feeding areas (assuming there is ample food). As the rut draws nearer, they begin to move farther from core areas and more during daylight hours, at least that’s how it should work if the deer are left undisturbed.

Research has shown deer don’t necessarily leave their home range even with hunting pressure. They simply shift to less disturbed areas. Home ranges don’t follow property lines, however. If a buck’s home range overlaps the neighbor’s property, and he doesn’t hunt, “your” deer might very well move next door. They haven’t left their home range, but they have left your property.

They also shift their activity patterns away from daylight toward the darker side of twilight. The intensity of this shift is correlated with hunting pressure. The more pressure you put on them, they more nocturnal they become. Bear in mind that deer, like people, have different personalities, and individual deer will react differently.

How much pressure is too much? Every situation is different, but it doesn’t take much to put deer on alert, particularly older deer.

I hunted a 600-acre farm in southern Ohio last year that was home to several good bucks. The landowner had been seeing them on a regular basis and was confident of a good hunt. We hunted from permanent stands that had been installed well ahead of our arrival and we were fairly conscientious about disturbance.

Each morning, four of us would go to our respective stands well ahead of daylight where we sat until mid-morning, then broke for lunch, returned in the mid-afternoon and hunted until dark. From the first morning hunt on, deer sightings steadily declined, and mature buck sightings virtually ceased after only two days.

I observed the same phenomenon on a high-fence hunting operation where the deer were well accustomed to vehicles coming and going on the ranch roads throughout the day. Once the human routine changed and people began stepping out of those vehicles and climbing into stands, the deer changed their routine as well.

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