Text and Photos by Tommy Kirkland
White-tailed deer, bucks and does, selectively establish more than one bedding site. Whether in thickets of young pine saplings, amid old growth fields, river and creek bottoms, or beneath the forest canopy, deer spend the majority of their time relaxed in a secure bedroom.
Foraging for clover along the edge, a velvet-antlered buck slowly vanishes into the timber. Consuming woody browse, he gradually and effortlessly scales the steep mountain slope. By scent and repetitive conditioning, the buck knows the destination of his ascent.
Finally, with each step, the mature whitetail reaches the knoll. Lowering his head, he then scents the ground and circles one particular spot several times and stops. With his front legs positioned, he first lowers his chest and tucks the front legs while almost simultaneously lowering his hindquarters into a classic deer bed.
With the exception of the rut’s intense chasing phase, whitetails spend a majority of time bedding — primarily during the day. Yet some observational work has seen whitetails also bedding in the pre-dawn hours as well.
No matter the time, this natural act allows deer to rest and digest nutrients, and evade predators. A bedded deer is often nearly impossible to spot. It takes a keen eye to make one out, and that often happens when the deer tries to ward off pesky insects by moving its head and ears. With cold weather, bedded whitetails can become like statues.
When bedding, whitetails tend to stretch out their forelegs, and sometimes even a back leg. That’s a clear indication that the animal is relaxed. When they begin the process of rumination (digestion), they almost always tuck their forelegs back under their bodies.
Bedded whitetails sometimes will tuck their heads into the hindquarters to sleep. If a buck is exhausted from rutting, it might even lay its head flat on the ground like a domesticated dog.
Undisturbed bedding is crucial for bucks and antler growth. Being able to relax and properly digest nutrients is key to reducing stress. That’s one reason mature whitetails tend to select beds that are concealed yet close to preferred food sources. The same holds true for females prior to giving birth.
Most deer have several bedding areas, giving them options if one site is disrupted. That’s a factor that makes them difficult to pattern.
During the spring, summer and early fall, bucks tend to rotate between several different sites usually within close proximity. Whitetails that have access to forest terrain or woodlots will use the understory. Pine saplings provide thermal protection and are great for sanctuary. Deer also will bed under the canopy of hemlocks and cedars, which provide excellent shade. Deadfall timber is also sought after by mature bucks. Antlers blend into limbs, sometimes making it impossible to pick out those tall tines.
A good vantage point is another key factor for a preferred bedding area. Whitetails feel more comfortable when they can easily detect movement and escape if they see danger.
Fortunately for hunters, the deer sometimes help us locate their bedding areas. Bucks often mark the area just outside a bedding area with rubs and scrapes, especially just after shedding their velvet and before the pre-rut. Once the rut kicks in, it’s unlikely, though still possible, that a mature buck will return to his preferred beds until the post-rut.
Whitetails are somewhat vulnerable when bedding, particularly if they are fatigued from the post-rut. Yet for the most part, their ears and nasal passages are automatically at work to detect danger. A bedded deer’s eyes can be slightly open to wide open — giving the appearance of being in a daze. Post-rut bucks might completely close their eyes to sleep.
An injured deer is more vulnerable in its bed. Even so, if crows squawk in alarm or squirrels chatter of approaching danger, bedded whitetails instantly go on high alert.
Whitetails will usually start to groom themselves before rising from their beds. Back on all four hooves, they then stretch, groom again, and often defecate and urinate. Depending on the digestive process, rest and weather conditions, they will either begin to forage, or bed again in the same spot or one close by.
Deer fawns, by instinct or their mothers’ command, are experts at bedding. Remaining motionless is one of the most important whitetail survival mechanisms. As newborns, bedding protects fawns from roaming predators. Even adult whitetails are known to stay bedded down and not move when hunters are close by.
Knowing where deer consistently go to and from feeding sites can give clues to the location of bedding locales. Usually the animals have several preferred bedding sites and different travel routes to each.
For example, one day a deer might venture to a bedding site north of a food plot. Several days later, it could move to the west or southwest of a plot and migrate to bed in that direction. However, whitetails can also exit a feeding area from the south — only to circle back to bedding sites on the north side. All in all, knowing those routes is key for hunters.