During the middle of the Michigan archery deer season, I texted my nephew and asked him if he was going bowhunting in the afternoon.
“Nope,” he replied. “Too windy.”
Too windy? Would the 25-plus mph winds forecasted bring deer movement to a screeching halt?
My 21-year-old nephew isn’t alone in his belief that in high wind deer just don’t move. Many dyed-in-the-wool deer hunters believe you’re just wasting your time sitting in a blind or stand on such days.
If we assume whitetails don’t like moving about in high winds, then how high is too high? How fast does the wind need to move to make deer stay put? And is the relationship between wind speed and deer movement a linear one — that is, do whitetail movements steadily decline as the wind picks up speed?
These are just some of the questions I’ve heard hunters chew on when talking about hunting in windy weather. Talk to enough of them, and you’ll find that many believe deer don’t feel comfortable roaming in high winds. Consequently, many hunters stay indoors on windy days. Many of these same hunters also believe whitetails have no qualms about moving during periods of calm winds. So they love hunting on days with gentle winds.
But have you ever thought about how these beliefs could potentially limit your hunting strategy? Playing the proverbial role of devil’s advocate, if you choose to not hunt during windy conditions, it’s guaranteed you’ll never be successful on a windy day. And how do you really know deer aren’t moving? Trail camera photos only tell us so much about deer activities. Perhaps deer don’t travel as far in high winds, but they move around more in swamps and other areas protected from the wind.
Sadly, science has proven many of the beliefs that guide hunters’ practices and strategies to be dead wrong. Take, for example, the effect a full moon has on deer movements. Scientific investigations have found no consistent influence of the moon on whitetails, including the timing of the rut, or when deer choose to be on their feet moving. Yet many still heavily weigh the moon’s phase into their decision whether to go hunting or not.
Let’s take a look at the historical research conducted on the effects of wind speed on whitetail movements. We’ll then consider a recent study from researchers at Pennsylvania State University. What they found just might change all you thought you knew about how the wind affects deer.
While many recent studies have been conducted on whitetail movements, surprisingly few of them have looked specifically at the effects of wind speed on deer activity. Instead, researchers have focused on things like why deer leave their home ranges and go on excursions, or the influence of hunting pressure on deer movements. Only a handful of studies have examined the effects of climactic factors like temperature and wind speed on whitetail movements. In 1984, professor Steve Demarais of Texas Tech University and wildlife manager Bob Zaiglin captured and placed radio telemetry collars on 25 trophy-class bucks in South Texas. After collecting data for four years, the researchers analyzed how different wind speeds affected buck movements. Wind speeds were classified as 0-4 mph, 5-9 mph, 10-14 mph, 15-19 mph and 20 mph and higher. They found that deer moved more in light winds and movements dramatically declined when wind speeds reached 15-19 mph. Surprisingly, when the wind blew 20 mph or more, deer activity shot back up to what it was when the wind was still. Their results suggested that it’s best to deer hunt (at least in South Texas brush country) on both calm and windy days.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Dr. Stephen Webb of Mississippi State University and his colleagues published their findings of a multi-year study on whitetail movements. They captured and placed GPS tracking collars on 17 female and 15 male deer living in the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation Wildlife Unit, a 2,999-acre spread in southern Oklahoma. It was one of the first studies to use GPS technology to track deer movements. Researchers found no clear trends in the effects of the weather, including wind speed, on either sex during the study period.
“Wind was the variable that had the least effect on deer movements” said Webb.
There’s a caveat to Webb’s results, however. Webb’s study used GPS technology to monitor the movements of bucks from November through February and does during the spring and summer. This means we don’t know how the wind might affect does in the fall during hunting season.
Finally, there have been several studies conducted on whitetail movements at Chesapeake Farms, a 3,200-acre wildlife research area on Maryland’s eastern shore. Some of the studies collected data on deer activity during, before and after hunting season. To earn his masters’ thesis, James Tomberlin studied the effects of climactic factors like wind speed and wind direction on buck behavior from August to December. Tomberlin found no consistent effects of the wind on how far bucks traveled, leading him and his colleagues to conclude the wind plays no noticeable role in deer behavior.
The Pennsylvania Study
If it’s not already apparent, the few studies that have looked at wind’s effect on deer have found no clear relationship between wind speed and whitetail movements. In 2015, Penn State University student Leah Giralico completed an independent study that compared hunters’ beliefs about how the wind influences deer movements to data she and her colleagues collected on deer activity. First, Giralico surveyed over 1,600 Pennsylvania hunters to get their views on how wind speed impacts whitetails. Nearly 90 percent of them indicated they believe deer move less on windy days (when large tree branches were moving and electrical wires were whistling).
Giralico and her colleagues then examined data they collected on deer movements in October 2013. Global Positioning System technology was used to monitor how far 25 adult (2 ½ years old and over) does and eight adult bucks traveled during the day and night. The researchers looked mainly at whether things like rain and wind speed would influence the distance either sex traveled.
Unfortunately, October wasn’t a particularly windy month. Top wind speeds were only around 12 mph, meaning researchers couldn’t see how heavy winds influenced deer. Wind speed was measured as calm (less than 1 mph), light air (1-3 mph), light breeze (4-6 mph), gentle breeze (7-10 mph) and moderate breeze (above 10 mph). Surprisingly, both males and females moved more during windy days, but less on windy nights. Calm winds seemed to dramatically reduce deer movements — maybe.
“It took just a little bit of wind to get deer to move,” said Dr. Duane Diefenbach, leader and adjunct professor of Wildlife Ecology for the Pennsylvania Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Penn State University. “But it was usually warmer on calm days, so we can’t say for sure that it was wind speed that had the greatest effect on the distances deer traveled.”
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned from all the research. First, all the studies have limitations that must be kept in in mind when interpreting their results. For example, each study looked at a fairly small number of deer in a specific area of the country. There’s nothing saying that deer in southern Oklahoma will behave the same as they do in southern Ohio.
Also, many of the studies either didn’t look at how hunting pressure could affect the wind/deer movement relationship, or hunting pressure was much lower in the study area than it is in other parts of the U.S. In fact, trying to determine how much hunting pressure, the temperature or a host of other factors each influence whitetail behavior is tricky business. Statistical modeling can tell us only so much. It will never explain why that one shooter buck you’re after just seems to act differently from other bucks.
Finally, current studies on deer movements are limited because they tend to look at only how far whitetails travel — they don’t examine what they do when they get where they’re going. In other words, there’s a big difference between knowing deer don’t travel as far when it’s windy and stating unequivocally that whitetails don’t move around at all in high winds. Just because some deer don’t walk as far during certain weather conditions doesn’t mean they aren’t active in some areas, making them vulnerable to hunters. If you’re not hunting, you might not know how different wind speeds impact deer in your neck of the woods.
“Our own discomfort with hunting in bad weather is probably affecting us more than it does deer,” said Diefenbach. “There are many other things that influence whether we see deer, so deciding not to hunt just because it’s windy might not be the best hunting strategy.”
One strategy I use on windy days is to hunt in areas protected from the wind, like the leeside of a ridge or just inside a conifer swamp. Any thick area that slows down the wind is a potentially good spot for bagging deer — just make sure to always hunt safely (see sidebar).
Keep in mind that the Penn State study showed deer movements actually decreased during calm conditions in October, which includes the pre-rut period in Pennsylvania. This makes sense to many experienced whitetail observers. Mature bucks often travel downwind of bedding areas and other spots frequented by does to scent-check them before venturing in. If there’s little to no wind, the bottom falls out on bucks’ ability to smell potential mates.
The effects of thermal currents — a bugaboo for many hunters — will also be most pronounced on calm days. Moderate to high winds make both dealing with pesky thermals and determining wind direction easier, meaning your odds of taking the deer of your dreams might actually improve in windy conditions.
In the end, hunters shouldn’t just automatically reject being in the woods on windy days. Instead of thinking of the wind as your foe, make it your friend. Hunt on windy days to learn how deer in your area react to windy conditions. By doing this, you’ll learn more about how to use the wind to your advantage, and you’ll be in prime position to fill your tag in even the nastiest weather conditions.