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Deer Hunting’s Biggest Misconceptions

By Bob Humphrey

Deer Hunting’s Biggest Misconceptions
True albino deer have all white hair, and pink eyes and noses. White deer with some brown markings like this one are called piebalds. Both types are the result a genetic mutation and often are born with defects.

The sun and the temperature were well up, so I decided to abandon my stand in favor of a stroll around the woodlot. Deer movement was nil. There was a chance I might jump one, but I was more interested in doing a little scouting.

I’d just cleared a thick patch of firs when I spied another orange-clad hunter coming my way. I recognized him as an older gentleman who hunted this patch of woods regularly.

“Seen anything?” I offered as he came within earshot. His eyes widened and the corners of his mouth turned up in an exaggerated expression that revealed he had indeed seen something quite interesting.

“I saw him, Bob,” he said. “I saw the dominant buck.”

I chuckled inside, raised an inquisitive eyebrow and politely offered, “Do tell.” He went on in an excited tone about how he had seen a big buck chasing a doe.

“Couldn’t get a shot ‘cause it was too thick,” he explained. “But it was definitely him. It was the dominant buck.”

The cynical biologist in me wanted to ask how he’d come to the conclusion it was the dominant buck, but he was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t. I quickly rationalized that there was little to be gained by informing him it probably wasn’t “THE” dominant buck, or that there probably wasn’t one dominant buck.

After we parted ways, however, I started to think about how many other deer-hunting misconceptions have been perpetuated. Many are harmless and merely make for interesting conversation at the local diner. Some probably detract from the success rates of some hunters. There are a few, however, that are just downright negative. Let’s take a look at some of the more common ones.

Deer Hunting’s Biggest Misconceptions
Numerous factors affect the shape, size and configuration of a deer’s antlers. This mature buck was killed in a lush food plot, so likely it was old age or poor genetics that contributed to its unimpressive antlers.

The Older a Deer Gets, the More Points Its Antlers Carry

Surprisingly, there are still a lot of folks who mistakenly believe that a buck grows more points every year. The truth is: Some do; some don’t.

Most of us know three things influence antler growth: genetics, nutrition and age. A buck could be genetically pre-disposed to sport a typical 8-point rack (many, perhaps most, are). With excellent nutrition, he could even achieve that as a yearling, then live for five or six more years and never grow any more points. With good nutrition, however, he’ll likely grow longer tines and lay on a lot more mass each year.

Because of inadequate nutrition or other limiting factors, some deer might not achieve their full genetic potential until later in life, if ever. And it’s not uncommon for over-mature deer to start growing non-typical racks with all kinds of points, or with lots of mass and small or short points. And some deer just don’t have the potential. I photographed a mature buck three years in a row, and he never grew more than two long, cow-horn spikes.

Yearling Spikehorn Bucks Should Be Culled

This one’s largely obsolete. It’s still worth mentioning, though, because there are a few who still believe it. And in some very specific circumstances, it is a sound practice.

There was a time not so long ago when the idea that all spikes should be culled was accepted almost universally. People believed these deer were genetically deficient and should be removed before they could pass their genes along.

We have since learned that’s not the case at all, for some of the same reasons cited above: age and nutrition. Yearling spikes are not at all uncommon in poor range, but most that survive the hunting season will grow a multi-pointed rack in later years.

Deer Hunting’s Biggest Misconceptions
This mature buck could have been genetically pre-disposed to never sport more than six points.

Age is also an important factor. Several research studies have shown that late-born fawns are more likely to sport spikes during their first year as an antlered buck but will usually catch up with bucks in the same age class by the following year. In some cases, those with superior genetics even outclassed their cohorts.

Several things can cause this. Heavy hunting pressure often results in poor sex and age structure within a deer herd. You end up with mostly yearling bucks doing the breeding. This, in turn, results in a disorganized and protracted rut and more late-born fawns.

Nutrition, both very bad and very good, are also contributing factors. Poor nutrition means that does are unhealthy and give birth to unhealthy fawns. That will put their energy into survival rather than antler growth. Conversely, in areas of extremely good nutrition, there’s a higher incidence of doe fawns breeding, usually later in the fall. This again means late-born fawns the following year.

If you have a well-balanced herd on good range, yearling spikes might be an indication of poor genetics. In that case, some culling might be in order. However, such a management practice should only be implemented on the recommendation of a trained biologist, as there could be numerous other factors at work.

White Deer Should Be Protected

This one’s even more ludicrous than the last one. Surprisingly, it’s still the law in some states. It was born out of ignorance, superstition and protectionist (anti-hunting) attitudes. Some folks think it’s bad luck to shoot a white deer. Others see it as more cruel than shooting a brown one. Try finding some logic in either of those reasons.

There is no sound biological reason for protecting white deer. In fact, albino and piebald deer are the result of a genetic mutation. They are genetically inferior to normal-colored deer and should be removed.

Deer Don’t See Orange

I’ll bet this one got your attention. We’ve all read it and heard it from the experts — scientists and hunters alike. Actually, it’s more true than false, but there is an exception.

Dr. Karl Miller from the University of Georgia has studied deer vision more extensively than any other biologist. According to results of Miller’s research, deer perceive color much as a human with red-green color blindness would. They can, however, detect colors in the middle wavelengths (green), and see those in the shorter wavelengths (blue and purple) very well - even better than we do. Orange and red, meanwhile, appear only as different shades of gray to them.

However, there are two distinct shades of blaze or hunter orange. One is made from blending red and yellow. Because both these colors appears as gray to a deer, so does the blend. The other shade, however, is made from yellow and magenta. Because magenta lies in that segment of the visible spectrum that deer see best, blaze orange with a magenta bias actually glows to a deer, much as white would under a black light.

Incidentally, most detergents and many clothing dyes contain fabric brighteners. These brighteners subtract energy in the UV range and re-radiate it in the short blue - where deer have the highest color sensitivity. To a deer, your new camo suit might glow like a neon sign. Fortunately, there are UV killer soaps and washes available to counteract these effects.

Mineral Supplements Are Necessary to Increase Antler Growth

Antlers are bone, comprised mostly of minerals. Areas with the richest (in minerals) soils grow the best antlers. If you put out even more minerals, deer will consume them and convert them into headgear, right?

Actually, there is no scientific evidence supporting the notion that you can improve antler growth with mineral supplements. Biologists have tried for years, but have yet to make it work. Nor have they proven that they don’t work.

However, there’s no question that you can improve antler quality by feeding deer minerals indirectly. Get your soil tested. Find out what it needs in the way of fertilizer. Add the recommended amounts, then put in some food plots. Enhance the soil, and thus the quality of forage, and your deer will grow larger racks. Meanwhile, deer don’t know that mineral supplements don’t work, so they still make good attractants.

Deer Live Their Entire Lives Within a One-Square-Mile Home Range

This one’s been repeated so many times that many deer hunters have come to accept it as gospel. It’s not a bad average, but there’s a great deal of leeway on either side.

The size of a deer’s home range depends on the quality and diversity of the habitat, among other things. Like all wild animals, deer need food, water and shelter in sufficient amounts to keep them alive and healthy. If those elements occur in abundance, the deer’s home range will be small. If they’re scarce, a deer will travel farther to find them, and thus will have a much larger home range.

Radio telemetry studies have shown that deer in some urban environments can thrive on as few as 200 acres. In harsh regions of south Texas, they can regularly wander over 3 square miles. Deer density can play a role, too. In the absence of hunting, too many deer will deplete the habitat, requiring deer to travel farther in search of food. None of this takes into account the wanderlust of rutting bucks that might travel 5 miles or more in a single evening.

Excessive Hunting Pressure Will Drive Deer Out of an Area

“Surely this one’s true,” you’re saying. “I’ve seen it myself.” We’ve all seen individual deer run away from us when alarmed. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve left town. In fact, more often than not they’ll run just out of sight, stop, then circle back around the source of perceived danger.

This is another myth debunked by reams of scientific data based on radio telemetry studies. According to the biologists, when the pressure’s on, deer don’t leave their home range - at least not for long. Instead, they just move less, and mostly at night. This is particularly true of bucks. Only under extremely intense hunting pressure will deer occasionally abandon one area and relocate to another.

Deer Are Territorial

After reading the previous two, I can understand why you might question how this one could be false. It’s largely semantics. A home range is the area regularly occupied by an animal. It becomes a territory only when they defend it. And for the most part, deer don’t defend their home ranges.

There are, of course, always exceptions. During periods of food scarcity, does can become territorial. And they can be fiercely territorial of fawning grounds around the time they give birth. The rest of the year, they’re usually quite social toward one another.

Many hunters think of bucks as being territorial, too, and I suppose you could make a case for that during the rut. However, it’s not so much a patch of ground they’re defending as what’s on it — a hot doe. In effect, their territory moves with the doe they’re chasing.

Speaking of bucks chasing does ... When you consider what we do know about deer, it’s surprising that this remains one of the most widely accepted misconceptions (if you’ll pardon the pun). From research, we know that most does in an area will breed within the same five- to seven-day window. Once a doe comes into estrus and is ready to breed, a single buck will remain with her for 24-48 hours.

Deer densities vary widely, but for the sake of argument, let’s pick 20 deer per square mile as an average. Even if only half those deer were adult does, it would take our so-called dominant buck nearly three weeks to tend them all. And that’s assuming they each waited their turn to come into estrus, which we know isn’t the case.

According to my good friend and fellow biologist C.J. Winand, the world record for number of does bred by a single buck in one season is six, and the average is more like three or four.

Incidentally, this dominant buck isn’t the one making all those rubs and scrapes, either.

Research has shown that subordinate bucks and even does will visit and use scrapes.

Subscribe Today!The Rut Consists of 3/5/7 Distinct Phases

There are all sorts of theories and terminology bandied about: prerut, rut and post-rut; seeking, chasing, breeding phases. Take your pick. One theory says these occur at the same time every year. Another says they vary with the moon. Both are wrong - partially.

Individual deer do go through different behavioral phases each fall. However, they don’t all do it at the same time. You can correctly say a buck and a doe are in the chase phase. That doesn’t mean all the other deer in the area are in that same phase. One doe might be standing for a subordinate buck while another has already been bred.

These are but a few of the more common misconceptions. When we look closer, we find that, like the whitetail’s vision, the world of deer hunting is not black and white. Many of these misconceptions are based on fact, and some aren’t too far off the mark. Fortunately, most are harmless. And the few that aren’t have been largely dispelled.

-- Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of Buckmasters Magazine

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