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Deer Rut Travels
Some rutting bucks hit the road while others stay home, but both seldom eat or rest. Learn their’ travel routes, and give them a reason to stay or visit. One of the great things about video cameras and scouting cameras is that hunters can study a buck they’ve shot to see if they’ve previously recorded it on film.
After dinner on most late-summer evenings, a deer hunter cruises the roads near his farm and videotapes bucks feeding in the agricultural fields. Then, during autumn, as hunters show him bucks they’ve killed with the bow or gun, he often admires their buck and then retrieves one of his digital video tapes, and compares the buck in the truck with images on his trail camera screen. He’s not surprised when realizing a particular buck was killed more than two miles from where he videotaped it in late August or early September.
Deer hunters know that rut-crazed bucks stay on their hoofs endlessly when hounding or searching for an estrous doe. Some of these bucks stay close to home and others seemingly strike out for parts unknown, not caring how far lust drives them. Deer hunters often speculate, and sometimes try to document, actual travel distances for individual bucks. Just as often, we speculate on what motivates the length of a buck’s trips.
As with most aspects of whitetail deerbehavior, the many possible factors influencing deer are complex and often raise more questions than answers. After all, whitetail travel patterns during the rut can vary by region, property, habitat, hunting pressure, weather patterns, the herd’s sex and age ratios, a buck’s rank in the herd’s social hierarchy, and behavioral traits of individual bucks and does. Individual quirks are especially difficult to interpret. In human terms, it’s like trying to understand why some men prefer redheads and others prefer blondes, but most cross the dance floor for whichever hair color reciprocates the interest.
During the past 30 years, researchers across the whitetail’s range have live-captured deer, tranquilized them, fitted them with radio-telemetry or GPS equipment, and then monitored their travels. If nothing else, the research proves — once and for all — that it’s simplistic to suggest most whitetails spend their lives in a 1-square-mile area. Sure, in certain situations most whitetails spend much of their year in areas even smaller than a square mile, but many others occasionally take off on journeys we can’t explain. And in many cases, a deer’s longest trips occur outside the rut, sometimes in spring and other times early autumn.
It’s no surprise that some of the longest trips are made by Northern forest deer as they move to winter yards, and deer living in prairie or heavily farmed flatlands where limited cover is concentrated in long, winding river bottoms. In the case of Northern forest deer, trips to deeryards are better described as migrations, not routine travel. Scientists have documented deer moving more than 50 miles to reach winter cover that shields them from deep snow and subzero temperatures. In prairie states and other regions where whitetail habitat is limited, the autumn crop harvest often forces the year’s longest, most widespread deer movements.
For more than 10 years, Illinois’ Charles M. Nixon and his fellow researchers radio-tracked deer in east-central Illinois. Nixon’s study area is heavily farmed, with sparse deer habitat in small woodlots and narrow belts along rivers and streams. In summer and early fall, once the corn crop has grown, some deer stay in the sprawling cornfields for one to four days without leaving this dense, but temporary, cover. Once the corn is cut, deer move to whatever cover they can find, which dramatically improves hunting success.
Nixon also found that in late summer and early fall, bucks 3 years or older hang out mostly in row crops and frequently flooded river-bottom woods with thin understories. These older bucks, behaving in line with the “dominant floater” definition, often roam areas of nearly 2,000 acres — or 3 square miles — for much of the fall, winter and spring. The buck with the largest documented home range regularly moved over an area of 2,870 acres, or 4.5 square miles in fall, winter and spring.
Other research in regions with little wooded cover have documented buck travels exceeding 24,700 acres in the autumn, which is nearly 39 square miles, after having spent summer in an area covering less than 4 square miles. Therefore, when you hear some Western deer hunters talking about bucks that show up 10 or more miles away on distant ranches, don’t discount their claims. If an individual buck gets the urge to move, and the terrain allows easy travel through areas that concentrate deer, there’s no predicting where he might end up.
What about deer living in conditions with the opposite extreme, such as urban settings where fragmented, scattered habitats might favor deer, but travel is not so easy? Jay McAninch, a former deer researcher with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, helped operate a radio-telemetry project that studied bucks in a Minneapolis suburb.
Four of the radio-collared bucks were at least 3½ years old. The first was a dominant 15-pointer whose core area was 125 acres, most of it inside a city park. When the buck traveled after dark, its home range covered 1,171 acres, just a bit smaller than 2 square miles. Things got more interesting during the rut. This buck often moved three-quarters of a mile during each four-hour tracking session. In fact, three different times it moved 1.3 miles within four hours, and it once traveled 1.75 miles in less than 90 minutes. The buck’s rut travels, which were mostly at night, took it through endless residential neighborhoods, and sometimes it stayed in distant woodlots during the day instead of returning to its core area in the park.
That buck was the exception, however. One buck in McAninch’s study traveled more than .75 miles only twice during the rut. In fact, this mature animal usually moved less than a half-mile during its forays. A third buck, a 3½-year-old 8-pointer, had average travel distances of about 0.6 miles, but three trips took him farther than a mile, including a 1.6-mile midnight excursion. The other older buck seldom strayed far. Its core area comprised 48 acres and its total home range covered about 205 acres. Its rut travels were always less than a half-mile and averaged only about 0.25 miles.
Besides those four bucks, the Minnesota researchers radio-tagged two other mature bucks, but never heard from them again. McAninch said he can only speculate what happened. Maybe they were moving through the area when captured and never again returned within range of the researchers’ radio receiver. It’s also possible they got mashed along with their transmitters while crossing one of the many nearby highways.
The Doe’s Role
What encourages one buck to stay home and others to hit the road? Researchers and deer hunters alike theorize that if a herd is well-managed, its hierarchy established, and its habitat flush with food and shelter, there’s less need for a buck to roam the countryside looking for a doe to breed. He should have all he can handle close to home.