By Betty Sodders
Does most often determine which deer get to feed with the group, and they're not shy about letting a stranger know he or she isn't welcome.
My husband Bill and I have been in many remote settings over the past 30 years. Living deep in the woods, hermit-like, year-round, we have observed numerous wild creatures, from wolves to whitetails.
Although most hunters view the large-antlered buck as being the dominant member of a whitetail herd, reality often proves otherwise. Many does display dominance, and the older the doe, the more aggressive she becomes. Other factors in doe dominance include competition for food, rivalry over fawning space, stress, family disputes and severe winters.
Research indicates that does tend to travel in family units, with related female whitetails sharing a common range. Other than during the rut, the sexes rarely mingle, tending to travel separately within their own family groups. Often, four to six bucks will be together prior to the traditional fall rut. As the rut approaches, they become aggressive and separate. Finally, as winter approaches, they filter into a herd, usually dominated by a matriarch, or lead doe.
You Go, Girl!
A wintering herd is very structured. The leader knows her band. If a fawn is orphaned, it may tag along. However, if a fawn from another area tries to enter the herd, it will be driven off. The lead doe most often determines which deer can mingle with the herd.
One year as bow season was approaching, Bill and I were watching several feeding does, including a very large one. As we watched, a 6-point buck came within range of the group of does. All scattered except the old lady. As the buck pranced up to her, she set her front legs, snorted and charged — head on! The buck didn’t fight back and made a hasty retreat. Such behavior is normal. As fall approaches, the dominant does drive related bucks from their territory. It’s their way of ensuring a healthy influx of new genes into the local herd.
Bill and I had purchased an abandoned former hunt club in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The area held a deer population of approximately 100 whitetails per square mile — very high for the U.P. It didn’t take us long to identify the lead doe.
Paradoxically, the matriarch of our wintering herd was a good-hearted, yet mean-spirited lady. When God made this particular doe, he broke the mold.
On numerous occasions, we watched our resident matriarch drive bucks from the feeding area. Once they reached a certain age, they were no longer welcome. The same went for any bucks exhibiting aggressive behavior toward the fawns. Our matriarch was a no-nonsense kind of gal.
During the winter, any buck entering the feedlot had to receive permission. She kept eye contact with any incoming deer. If the buck was a stranger, she would challenge him — and she always won. If the approaching buck was a known member of the herd, the matriarch would simply put her head down and resume feeding.
There are two things guaranteed to cause a fight between does: One is a dispute over fawning space; the other is a struggle over limited winter food.
Fawning space might not sound like a big deal, but if overcrowded conditions exist like those on the ground we purchased, competition for obtaining the best fawning space can be fierce.
Our matriarch and her family members were at the top of the pecking order. As a result, her fawns grew strong and healthy. Her youngsters were well fed to meet the approaching winter. Over a period of years, I noted that her fawns were larger than most.
Bill and I also believe that the does that hold the best fawning space produce young bucks with superior antlers. The better fawning spaces lead to better feeding spaces as well. It’s just another example of nature’s rule of Survival of the Fittest. And make no mistake, these disputes are deadly serious.
During a battle for a good source, I watched one doe hit another and tear off a piece of hide measuring 3 1/2 by 3 inches. I worried throughout the winter that she and her twin fawns might not make it. But the wound scabbed over and slowly healed, and the doe managed to make it through the severe cold and deep snows of another northern Michigan winter.
If you’ve ever watched a group of does and fawns feeding together, you’ve probably seen a mean-spirited doe whack a youngster soundly if it got too close to where she was feeding. One winter, Bill and I had a pair of rambunctious fawns that thought it was fun to antagonize the feeding does. They would run in and butt a doe until it finally gave chase. But the fawns were too quick, racing off to avoid the imminent hoof blow. For adult deer, food is serious business.
I mentioned that the matriarch of our herd was a harsh leader, so she took us completely by surprise when she showed a huge soft spot in her heart. Shortly following the rifle deer season, she adopted three orphaned fawns, despite having two of her own. We couldn’t help noticing the strict rules she employed when entering the feedlot with her five charges. While other does and fawns came in to feed, they did so in a haphazard manner, allowing their youngsters freedom to explore, eat or play.
But, not the matriarch. She brought her charges in single file — no nonsense, no playtime. She was always at the front or rear of the line; and when they finished eating, she would stand at the edge of the field until they lined up behind her to leave.
On another occasion, I witnessed unusual activity between a dominant doe and twin fawns. She ordered them to lie down in tall grass while she crossed a dirt trail road and lay down where her youngsters could not view her. Finally, one of the pair got to its feet and went over to the second fawn. Together they began to walk toward the road. The doe burst from cover, raced across the lane and, with several solid hoof strikes, got her message across! Lesson learned.
Who’s the Boss?
My first encounter with the matriarch came as I was walking a trail in the woods. I saw her standing off to the side — she was easy to identify by a slightly cocked ear — and observed her snorting and pawing the ground in anger. As I approached, she, too, advanced, continuing her tirade of blowing, huffing and puffing. I turned off the trail, giving the respect she deserved.
Several days later, Bill and I were checking an old field blind that proved to be a well visited deer area. We were busy noting repairs needed when we heard a loud ruckus. There stood our belligerent doe, once again snorting her displeasure. Bill suggested I talk quietly to her as we continued about our business. She continued to advance, probably another 200 feet. No amount of sweet talk would calm this girl.
Over the following months, we had antagonistic episodes with this dominant doe on a nearly daily basis. One particular evening, I stepped from the main lodge to find myself face-to-face with this feisty lady, feeding on our plum tree. I must have startled her, as she let out two ear-shattering screams, something I had never heard before. Fortunately, instead of the attack I anticipated, she reared, then wheeled and ran. We heard her emit several such screams on other occasions, but none held the pent up rage that first defiant cry possessed. It was a primeval sound that I will never forget.
Despite our efforts to avoid this dominant doe, we still ran into her every now and then — and every encounter included her aggressive behavior. Each time, she would paw the ground, arch her neck, charge, snort or display her tail in abject anger.
Unlike her fawns, Bill and I must have seemed like slow learners; we never did leave her territory. And although I cannot say for certain, I imagine she ruled those woods for several years until Mother Nature replaced her with a new Queen of the Deer Woods.
This article was published in the August, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.