One of the sublime pleasures of getting out in the woods during the archery season is to watch mature whitetail bucks interrelate.
We always hope we chose their right stand on any given day, but to see mature bucks work out their relationships for even a few minutes is a rarity.
A significant reason as to why this area of wildlife inquiry, specifically the inter-dynamics of the ubiquitous wild whitetail buck is still shrouded in mystery, is because these wild animals are so darn spooky and secretive and mostly beyond our comprehension.
I count myself as very lucky when glimpses into their secret behaviors is illuminated.
After all, most of us only see deer when they are feeding.
Or when deer are studied in high-fenced pens. Granted, some enclosures are relatively large fenced in acres. But when whitetails are restricted from moving the vast distances that our deer naturally do, their population dynamics can be altered.
Whitetails are a lot like sheep, all Bovids, short-day breeders.
Sheep breeders artificially stimulate their ewes by introducing a young ram prior to the onset of the breeding time. Then once stimulated, the breeding ram is introduced to the ewes so that the lambs will be on the one hand, sired by what is desired, and two, the lambs will hit the ground at the same time.
So likewise, whitetails’ behavior in an enclosure can be affected by stimulation and limitation of the manmade confines. Observations, data, and conclusions of herd dynamics may be skewed by the physical and unnatural limitations of fencing.
Hunting over a food source is one of the most widely used of all the tactics and strategies to get close to deer.
The whole food plot industry, hunting shows on TV, not to mention traditional hunting methods of accessing wild mast falls, such as apples and acorns, all key on the gastronomic imperative of the whitetail’s stomach.
But watching deer eat is basically pretty boring for most of us.
Imagine if the shoe was on the other foot, from a deer’s perspective, and we wanted to observe and learn about human beings. Watching people shove food into their mouths is not the most exciting or edifying cultural aspect of mankind, even though it does take up a bunch of our time.
Cooking shows and the food network have elevated the simple utilitarian and pedestrian act of eating to dramatically absurd levels.
Whitetails on the other hand act out their most interesting behaviors of the year during hunting season because, for a relatively short amount of time, the overriding demands of filling their bellies is shoved aside.
We call it the rut.
For most of the year, whitetail bucks hang together in a bachelor group. The brotherhood usually forms back up during the early part of the winter. From then on, through the winter, spring, summer and early fall, older bucks hang together and have nothing at all to do with does.
Yearling bucks are seen with does, but the older animals have their own world and they are very careful and reclusive, letting their soft and tender velvet antlers grow.
During the spring and summer, bucks don’t fight in the traditional sense, by locking antlers. But they still reinforce their hierarchical pecking order by kicking or sometimes even standing on their hind legs and amazingly box with their forelegs.
By just prior to the Harvest Moon in September, bucks are what we term “hard horn.” They have shed their velvet and things start to become interesting in the whitetail woods again.
Our trail cameras chronicle these subtle changes in bucks, and help a lot, but still our static images are hard for us to piece together information in a multidimensional or dynamic way. We find it hard to actually learn what is going on outside the view of the camera lens. Video clips on our trail cams help a bit, but it can’t replace actual observation. And that’s the problem. It’s so difficult to get close enough to these old bucks enough to even see them, let alone learn from them their secret patterns.
This past fall, during mid-October, I was fortunate to see and even get a few pictures of at least three mature bucks and two younger ones acting out their dominance order as they related to a doe that was evidently approaching estrus at one of my zip-tie mock scrape setups.
Though I did not let an arrow fly that late afternoon in late October, the experience of witnessing the event’s drama was easily the top woodland experience this past hunting season as it is beyond my ability to explain it.
Oak Duke writes a weekly column appearing on the Outdoors page.