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New Data On Whitetails That Can Improve Your Hunting

Here are a few new studies that might shed light on one aspect of your hunting — and could lead to more questions, more answers and more good days in the field.

Thirty years ago Roger Rothhaar, renowned whitetail hunter, told me that many mature bucks would go to one scrape. That tidbit of information changed how I scouted and hunted scrapes and opened my eyes to hunting bucks at a different level. It also proved to me that every little bit of whitetail information helps. Learn one thing and build upon that.

What follows are a few new items, studies that might shed light on one aspect of your hunting that could lead to more questions, more answers and more good days in the field.

Consider the adage, “It’s the old does that get you.” Bucks are smart, but it is those big old does that really keep that “alert” button on. We’ve heard that for years, and apparently it’s true. New research shows that indeed, when you have a group of feeding bucks and does, the big old does are the most vigilant.

The study was conducted in August at bait sites where deer would come to feed. Some would come alone, some does would bring fawns, some were small groups of bucks and does and others were larger groups. When deer had their heads down feeding they were judged to be non-vigilant. When their heads were up with ears perked, they were judged to be vigilant. The researchers compared vigilance by age, sex, group size, time of the day and moon phase. After looking at 40,540 photos, they learned some interesting things that might help you this fall. Some of their observations, such as the fact that fawns were less vigilant than adults, were obvious. But other details were enlightening.

Females were 46 percent more vigilant when fawns were present; thus, when you see a doe with a fawn, it might pay to be extra quiet with little movement. Here’s another interesting observation. As group size increased, bucks and does become less vigilant. They also found that as you added one deer to a group, buck vigilance decreased nearly double that of does. Yep, those older girls are the key when a group of deer heads toward your tree stand. But remember, this study was done by using camera photos, so scent and movement did not come into play. Obviously, the more deer around your stand, the more your scent or your movement will be factors, even though buck vigilance might decrease due to group size. One other thing: The researchers suggested that visibility also affected vigilance. They found that the brighter the day, the less vigilant the deer.

Now let’s move from behavior to feeding. There is no question that white oaks produce the best-tasting acorns for whitetails. We all know that, but what about fertilizing certain white oaks to increase acorn production and creating a nice little honeyhole? I’m not sure where I first heard that you could fertilize white oaks and get better production of tasty acorns, but I have several friends who do that every spring. The idea is to find big white oaks that are good producers and fertilize them to increase acorn production. I’ve even heard guys say that fertilizing such oaks will further sweeten the taste of acorns.

Creating your own little “food plot” in the timber sounds almost too good to be true — and it is. New research done on some oak ridges in Tennessee says don’t waste your time and money with fertilization. A study like this is hard to do because acorn production is so variable, not only from one year to the next, but from one location to the next and even one tree to the next. On top of that, genetics can play a role in determining whether one tree produces more acorns than another. Because of all these variables, plus the fact that you don’t get good white oak mast every year (in fact, some studies suggest only once in four years), any study done would have to be rather long term. Thus, in this study researchers checked acorn production of 120 different white oaks for a five-year period. Based on average acorn production over those five years, trees were judged to be excellent, good, moderate or poor acorn producers.

The researchers then set up trees from these groups where some were fertilized, some were crown released through cutting, some were both fertilized and crown released, and some had nothing done to them (the control group). They fertilized 59 trees for three straight years, ending in 2013, and here is what they found. Remember, they had five years of acorn data for those 59 trees before they were fertilized, and three years of data when they were fertilized.

In none of the three years they fertilized did those trees produce more acorns than trees that were crown released or trees with no fertilizer (the controls). Still further, fertilized trees did not produce more acorns than what was found in the preceding five years. Bottom line, for the time period of this study, fertilizing did not work. And by the way, the researchers will continue to fertilize those same trees and collect more data for several more years, just to be sure their conclusions are correct.

The authors did point out that a few white oaks have better genetics for producing acorns, and thus those few trees will have more acorns in years when white oaks hit (as all hunters know, some years you get acorns, other years you don’t). They suggest that hunters find those oaks via yearly observations, then thin around those trees. This will make them even better when it comes to producing mast. Then check the prevailing winds and set up a stand or two. Sounds like great advice that will save you time and money and might just yield some good bucks.

Every hunter knows that finding bucks before and during the rut is problematic. They are here one day, gone the next. Data that explains in part why this occurs was first collected on the Eastern Shore area of Maryland, where researchers found that bucks went on one- to three-day excursions before, during and after the rut. During the rut, 53 percent of all mature (2½ years and older) bucks took such excursions. In Tennessee, 57 percent of all bucks made excursions during the breeding season. In a Pennsylvania study, things got a bit more confusing for hunters, as 90 percent of adult does made excursions during the breeding season.

In order to learn more about these excursions, studies have been ongoing. We now know that bucks take these excursions year round. One study looked at excursions in the winter and spring in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Louisiana. For this study an excursion was defined as any occasion a buck traveled more than one mile outside of its home range for more than 12 hours. The Pennsylvania data was interesting for several reasons. First, from April to June, 69 percent of 13 older bucks made excursions out of their home range, moving an average of 2.5 miles. Second, all excursions began between 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. Why? We don’t know. Third, 88 percent of all excursions took place in a south to southwest direction, and topographic features did not appear to play a role in that. So why did they move in that direction? We don’t know.

In Georgia, 40 percent of bucks took excursions from mid-February to mid-June. In Louisiana, 21 percent took winter excursions. For all three states, the average distance was 2.3 miles, with one buck moving out to 8 miles. The duration of excursions ranged from 12 hours to 11 days.

Biologists have a pretty good idea why bucks and does go on excursions during the rut. Individual bucks have been shown to go out of their home range to specific wood lots and staying there from one to three days, and to return to those same locations the next year during the rut. Does have been shown to also leave their home range during the rut and go several miles to certain woodlots. Some bucks, and some does, are known to go to these same woodlots several times in one breeding season, and the speculation is that they go there to find mates. It would seem that bucks go to these locations, and if there are no hot does in that area, they go home, then return three days later. Makes sense, but why do does leave their home range to go to these woodlots when there are bucks back home? Same for the bucks. Why do they leave their home range to mate does when there are hot does back home? We don’t have answers yet. The fact that does go out of their home range to certain woodlots leads to the question of whether it is the does that select the bucks or vice versa. Either way, we still don’t know why they both just don’t breed or get bred right in their home range.

All that being said, why would bucks take excursions in the winter and spring? We know that up to 70 percent of all yearling bucks disperse in September and October, leaving their natal home range and moving up to 12 miles away to live. Thus, one suggestion is that buck excursions are made to return to their natal home range. However, this may not be the explanation, since some bucks take excursions to different locations during the year. Another thought was that deer are going to mineral sites, but in fact, many bucks take excursions to areas that are not mineral sites. So there is a lot to learn about excursions, and what is most interesting is that five years ago we had no idea that bucks or does made such movements.

As all deer hunters know, when we learn one thing about these great animals, it often leads to several unanswered questions. Maybe the answers come a little bit at a time. Good luck this fall and be safe out there.

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