Years ago I was hunting a huge non-typical and a buddy called to tell me he’d seen him that morning, 7 miles from where I was hunting. “That can’t be him,” I told my friend, but he described the antlers and there was no doubt. He was a long way from home. The next day I missed that buck on the farm where I knew he lived.
That memory stuck in my brain as a mystery for years, because everything I knew about whitetail movements said that deer just don’t leave their home range. During the hunting season those big bucks might disappear because they became nocturnal, and they might move to thick cover, but they don’t leave their home area. I believed that until 2007 when a fellow named James Tomberlin came along. This enterprising young wildlife graduate student from North Carolina State University put radio collars on 32 bucks on his research area on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. His work showed that 63 percent of adult bucks made at least one “excursion,” leaving their home range and returning within a day or less.
Tomberlin showed that during the peak of the rut, 58 percent of mature bucks took at least one excursion, but another 5 percent left their home range several times. He also noted that some bucks did so in the pre-rut and some did so in the post-rut. Suddenly hunters had some explanation for seeing familiar bucks far from home.
This study also provided an explanation for the fact that you could be hunting an area where you knew who lived there, then, right in the middle of the rut, you see a big buck that you have never seen before. Where the heck did he come from? He just might be taking a hike out of his home range. Or you can be on a big buck, having seen him three days in a row in the same area, move your stand to that spot, and strike out. Just relax. He might just be on an excursion and will shortly be back home.
Wonder why the big-name whitetail hunters stay out on stand all day during the rut? There are several good reasons, but Tomberlin’s research provides a good one. It showed that during the peak rut, 73 percent of these excursions take place during daylight hours.
Tomberlin ruled out hunting pressure and finding food resources as probable causes for excursions and suggested that “breeding-season-related motives were likely the driving force behind the majority of adult male whitetail deer excursions.” He had good reasons for saying this. He had data for three bucks that each made multiple excursions to the exact same woodlot. We all know that outside the rut, for big bucks it is all about feed, but in the rut it is all about breed. If bucks are going to the same woodlot during the rut, it is obvious that does are involved. And if more than one buck is going to the exact same woodlot, does are obviously there. If none were receptive, then those bucks head back home and return two or three days later. All this sounds plausible, but why would bucks leave their home range where there probably were plenty of does, to find other does? Good question; we’ll come to that in a minute.
With lots of questions to answer, more research on excursions followed. Several subsequent studies looked at doe excursions. In fact, one done in Pennsylvania showed that during the rut, 90 percent of adult does took excursions. Another biologist conducted a study on Tomblin’s Maryland area and found that five adult does took excursions and all during the breeding season. He also had a plausible reason for why bucks and does take excursions. He suggested that since both bucks and does leave their home range during the breeding season, increased genetic variability might result, and relative to overall long-term whitetail population health, that is a good thing. He also suggested that although we’ve always believed that bucks selected hot does, since we now know that some does take excursions to selected woodlots, maybe it’s the does that are seeking bucks. Who is chasing whom?
A recent Texas non-excursion study also looked at this idea that bucks repeatedly go to certain locations. They wanted to know if during the rut bucks just walked around aimlessly until they found a hot doe, or do they go to selected locations? To answer this question, they put radio collars on more than 100 older bucks and followed them for four years during the rut. What neat data. Wouldn’t you love to be able to follow all the adult bucks in your area and know exactly where they go every minute of every rut day for four years?
They found that during the rut, those Texas bucks only used a small part of their home range, and they went to one or two smaller woodlots every day or so. Not sure how you find those woodlots without radio-collared bucks. Obviously you just have to put time in stands and observe buck movements. The bottom line is that if you see a buck in a certain woodlot, and then you see him there a day or two later, he might be returning there to find a hot doe. He finds a doe there one day but she isn’t ready to breed, so he goes back in two days and checks out the does again. It just might be a hot spot where you can catch him a few days later.
Even better, these Texas researchers found that several different bucks might be repeatedly going to that same woodlot. Maybe not an excursion by definition since they don’t leave the home range, but the same result — bucks returning every few days to the same woodlot. Sounds like a good spot for several treestands.
During the Texas study they found that about half the bucks took excursions. Here are some examples. One 6½-year-old buck went on an 8-mile round trip in 10 hours on December 26. Another 6½-year-old buck went 4.2 miles in three and a half hours on December 21, then a 5.5-mile round trip in four hours on December 29, followed by a 4.2-mile round trip in three hours on January 2.
A 3½-year-old buck took an 18.2-mile round trip in 29 hours on December 1, and an 11 -mile round trip in 14 hours on December 10. Another 3½-year-old buck traveled 3 miles in eight hours on November 29, and another 3½-year-old buck went on an 8-mile excursion in 24 hours on November 28. Just growing evidence that lots of older bucks take hikes in both the pre-rut, rut and post-rut.
So now we have strong data showing excursions are all about breeding. Right? Not so fast, my friend. At the 2014 Southeast Deer Study Group Meeting, some graduate students at the University of Georgia released their findings on buck excursions on study areas in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Louisiana from February to June. Not the breeding season, but sure enough, some took excursions. In fact, nine of 13 (69 percent), four of 10 (40 percent), and three of 14 (21.4 percent) bucks made excursions from February 18 to June 12 in Pennsylvania, Georgia and Louisiana, respectively. In addition, eight bucks made more than one excursion outside their home range during this period. Bucks that made excursions were yearlings to 5 years of age and went an average of 2.3 miles (range was 1 mile to 8 miles), and they were gone from 12 hours to 11 days.
The researchers could not determine why bucks went on these winter/spring/early summer excursions. Landscape habitat features, birth sites and mineral sites did not provide a clue, nor did anything else they could come up with. And consider this. Thirteen of the 14 Pennsylvania bucks that took a hike did so in a south to southwest direction. What is that all about? Why would they all move in the same direction? We do not know. Just another mystery about excursions.
In review, we know that does and bucks take excursions, we know that all ages of deer take excursions, and we know that they do so at all times of the year. They go fairly often, and they do it whether they live on well-managed areas or in habitat that is less than ideal. The one factor that is quite clear is that excursions are most prominent during the peak of the breeding season. Until we are better able to predict when and where they take these hikes, such excursions just add more challenge to our deer hunts.