White-tailed bucks lead a pretty mundane existence ... until the rut kicks in.
Countless research projects have taught us a lot about whitetail behavior. Bucks range far and wide during the rut, for example, and buck activity is often dictated by doe behavior. Most studies are conducted using GPS technology that sends a signal every hour. It’s a great tool for tracking the general whereabouts of a particular deer, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on what those deer are doing as they move.
Without visual confirmation, biologists can’t tell if a buck is making a scrape or scarfing up acorns. One study followed deer movements at five-minute intervals, the most detailed tracking study ever conducted. Gabe Karns, a master’s degree student at North Carolina State University at the time, was looking at the effect of hunting pressure on adult deer behavior. The study was conducted on a lightly hunted 3,300-acre farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Karns captured 15 bucks and attached tracking collars on them and followed their movements during the pre-rut, rut and post-rut periods over the course of two years.
One buck, nicknamed Cherry because Karns found him at the base of a cherry tree after he was tranquilized, was a good representative of the study. At the time, Cherry was a 130-inch, 5-year-old, 8-pointer. Not only did he manage to elude hunters, the buck, which had an ear tag with the number 41 on it, shed light on the typical life of an adult whitetail.
ON THE MOVE
Cherry, or Buck Number 41, didn’t do much aside from sleep, eat and then sleep some more during the first phase of the study, which took place in September. He covered a little ground but spent much of his time bedded down near the edges of grain fields, presumably his feeding areas. He moved in the afternoons and mornings and spent the daylight hours on the ground.
“The bucks were fairly predictable that time of year,” says Karns. “They tended to feed in the same areas and bed in the same areas day after day.”
Things changed in late October.
On Oct. 28, for example, Number 41 was bedded in a large block of trees until 4:05 p.m. when he got on his feet and started moving slowly through the forest in no particular direction. He covered just a few hundred yards in about two hours, likely feeding his way toward a cornfield, which he entered around sunset at 6 p.m.
Cherry spent about 15 minutes in the middle of the corn before making his way to the far edge of the field. He then skirted the edge, covering 150 yards in about 30 minutes. Judging from his travel time and locations, Karns thinks the buck might have been checking or making scrapes. The rest of the night followed a similar pattern: walking along field edges and spending some time in the middle of harvested grain fields, sometimes traveling back over the same paths he took earlier in the night. Most of his activity occurred along narrow strips of trees that separated the farm’s numerous grain fields.
Cherry stayed active throughout the night, but at 6 a.m., he made a beeline for a different set of woods, cutting across two grain fields. Instead of taking his time once he entered the trees, the buck walked a short distance from a two-lane paved road. Cherry milled around for the better part of an hour, sometimes just a few yards from the road, possibly feeding as he moved to his bedding area. At 8 a.m. he was down for the day, just 50 yards or so from the highway.
Cherry not only moved more during the rut, he moved a lot more. However, contrary to popular belief, the buck wasn’t on his feet and covering ground around the clock. Just as he spent lots of time in his bed during the daytime earlier in the study period, Cherry remained nocturnal throughout much of the rut. On Nov. 6, for example, he covered nearly 12 miles over a 24-hour period, but almost all of that activity took place between sunset and sunrise.
“He spent most of the day bedded in a large block of woods that had been selectively cut and had a lot of greenbrier thickets in it,” recalls Karns, now a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University. “He was on his feet and moving at 4 p.m., but he didn’t walk into a field until 4:55.”
That was a full hour before sunset, so Cherry was vulnerable to any hunter who might have been sitting over the cornfield. Before that, however, he spent nearly an hour in the woods, presumably feeding his way in a lazy circle before entering the field. He crossed just inside a field edge corner, but chose to enter a different field where the woods jut into the corn. Number 41 spent a half hour in one spot in the middle of the corn.
It wasn’t until dark that Cherry decided to go a little crazy. Over the next several hours, he traveled across the farm’s open fields, into another block of woods and then back into another set of fields, never slowing down until about 11 p.m. Then Cherry stopped moving for about three hours.
“One thing people don’t realize is deer don’t always move all night long. They will bed down for several hours, and it appears this buck did just that on November 6,” Karns said.
After his nap, Cherry was back on his feet, covering even more ground. There was no pattern to his movements, no single destination. Instead, he crossed all over his home range, zigzagging across fields, doubling back across his own path through woods, even across two paved roads before venturing back.
At daybreak, Cherry was bedded down in a multiflora rose thicket 125 yards behind a house. He stayed there until late afternoon, which turned out to be typical behavior even during the rut.
“He did move mid-day sometimes, but not much,” Karns recalls. “I’d say he might have gotten up five or six times over the course of 20 days, but he didn’t go far.”
FAR AND WIDE
Six days later on Nov. 12, Cherry bedded throughout much of the day in a cattail thicket adjacent to a large pond. At 5:15, he got up and took an hour-long swing through a large stand of timber, the same timber in which he was bedded less than a week earlier. Instead of taking his time as if he were feeding, the buck covered several hundred yards before looping back past his bedding area and then walking into a field several hundred yards northwest. It was well after dark by then.
The rut was in full swing, and typical of rut-fueled bucks everywhere, Number 41 covered some ground, venturing outside his normal home range and even crossing a paved road at about 9 p.m. Almost all of his activity was in a straight line. In one five-minute period, Cherry covered upwards of 300 yards before stopping in a field for nearly an hour.
“He may have been with a group of does or a single then,” Karns speculated.
Judging by his zigzag behavior soon after he was stationary, Number 41 might have been chasing a doe for the next hour or so. Eventually, around 2 a.m., he stopped moving and settled into a small area in a block of woods between two grain fields. Karns thinks he might have stayed with a doe in estrous, or he might have just taken a break. Then he was on his feet again, moving in a near straight line back to his home range across the road.
By 7:30 a.m., Cherry lay down just a hundred yards or so from his previous day’s bedding area and in the same general area he spent previous days. Overall, he walked more than 10 miles in 14 hours, returning to one spot in a cornfield near a road several times. It’s the same general area he visited numerous other nights.
“He was probably feeding. There might have been a lot of spilled grain in that area, which could explain why he returned repeatedly over the course of the study period,” says Karns.
TIME TO REST
All signs of the rut were gone by Dec. 12, and Cherry’s activity settled into a more predictable pattern in a relatively small area within his home range. He still covered some ground, but was far more deliberate in his activity, spending more time in a single place and less time roaming.
He got up at 3:40 in the afternoon from nearly the same spot within the large forest where he bedded on previous days. After spending 90 minutes moving through the woods, sometimes in a zigzag pattern, he entered a cornfield at 5:10. Cherry spent 40 minutes in a single cornfield before moving to another grain field where he spent nearly two hours.
Experienced hunters know it’s all about the food during the post-rut period. And it’s about getting much needed rest. The buck meandered through hardwoods, stopping on at least two occasions, once for an hour or more, before making one quick jaunt into a grain field. After that, Number 41 went back into the woods well before daylight and bedded down less than 100 yards from a busy road.
Cherry’s story might not be exciting, but it’s likely very typical. While quite a few bucks’ stories end when they step into a grain field in daylight, what they’re doing the rest of the time isn’t a big mystery. Think about that the next time you’ve been sitting in a treestand for days at a time with nothing to show for your efforts. The buck you’re after probably isn’t far away. You just have to be there at the right time.
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This article was published in the July 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.