Do Individual Whitetail Bucks Have Different Personalities?

Buck behavior is innate, and research suggests that each buck has a unique personality.

Do Individual Whitetail Bucks Have Different Personalities?

iStock Photos/EEI _Tony

Animals have different personalities. Take pet dogs, for instance. Some are friendly, others are aggressive. Some like to be out and about, others are homebodies. Some are active, others sleep a lot. Some of their behavior is learned, but they were born with most of their behavioral traits.

Research is now showing us that bucks (and all deer) also have different personalities. We’ve all hunted bucks that were almost never seen during the day. Nighttime trail camera pictures were the only real indication such a buck was living in a given area. In fact, a friend of mine hunted a big buck that was predominantly nocturnal when he was 4.5-years, 5.5-years and 6.5-years old. He told me that buck probably died of old age, and was never seen in daylight.

There is no question some buck behavior is innate. My friend Dan Perez, who owns Whitetail Properties, knows all about “bully bucks.” These are bucks born with an attitude. Antler size or age doesn’t seem to matter. They just don’t like other bucks and are constantly aggressive when in another buck’s presence.

Dan’s strategy is to shoot bully bucks, even when they are young, because they push other good bucks out of the area. Most of us, when we were young, knew of such bullies. If humans can be bullies, why not whitetails?

Obviously, bucks also have learned behaviors. If you leave human odor around your stand by hunting it every afternoon for a week, bucks will learn to avoid that stand.

Revealing Whitetail Studies

Back in 2015, I wrote a column about this exact topic. Auburn graduate student Clint McCoy put radio collars on 37 bucks (eight yearlings, 10 2.5-year-olds, nine 3.5-year-olds and 10 4.5-year-olds or older) living on a 6,400-acre study area in South Carolina. He monitored their movements for three hunting seasons.

Hunters on that lease utilized 100 treestands, and Mr. McCoy (who is now Dr. McCoy) not only knew where each buck was located every half-hour, but he also knew which stands were being hunted. Dr. McCoy established what he called a “danger zone” for each treestand site. This zone was the area a hunter could visually see deer from the treestand. So, the obvious question was, “Does the number of times or amount of time a hunter spends in one stand affect buck movement? And, are older bucks smarter than young bucks relative to sightings in the danger zone?”

McCoy found that bucks were four times less likely to walk through the danger zone at the end of the hunting season then they did on day one. Those bucks learned to stay away. The hunters were educating the deer.

As noted earlier, there were some older bucks in McCoy’s study, and one would think that age would affect bucks learning to stay out of the danger zone. However, that was not the case. There was little difference in the number of times younger bucks or older bucks entered the danger zone.

Okay then, bucks can learn to avoid human scent and activity. Can they also learn to go to rugged terrain during the hunting season? Data shows they do. Can bucks learn to head for cover because of hunting pressure? Data shows they do. In some examples, age is a factor. In other examples, age is not a factor. Sounds like we need more inquiry on this point.

At the recent 2019 Southeast Deer Study Group meeting in Louisville, graduate student Ashley Jones and advisor Dr. Steve Demarais from Mississippi State University presented interesting data on buck personality and how that dictates exposure to hunters during the breeding season. The question was simple. Do individual bucks perceive and react to their environment differently? Moving around looking for food or does to breed involves tradeoffs between incurring risk and finding food or mates. Are some bucks more prone to be risk takers than other bucks? If so, how does that impact your hunting strategy?

Ms. Jones put radio collars on 36 bucks aged 2.5 to 6.5 and followed them for three 2-week periods spanning the breeding season (pre-rut, rut, post-rut). She mapped out their home ranges and found she had two personality types: “movers” and “sedentary.” She then compared data on the movers that left their home range to the sedentary bucks that did not leave their home range.

She found that bucks 3.5, 4.5, and 5.5 years of age were half sedentary and half movers. The sedentary bucks had only one home range during the breeding season. The movers had two home ranges, and those bucks sometimes moved 2 to 3 miles and stayed there for several days, if not longer.

Why did half of those 2.5- to 5.5-year-old bucks just have one home range, while half had two? Was it just their personality? Apparently so, because some do it, some don’t. But those that move around more outside their original home range were taking a risk. In fact, this study showed that during the 2 weeks of peak rut, movers had 81 more hours of risk than sedentary bucks. In the post rut, movers had 33 more hours of risk than sedentary bucks. Makes sense. If a buck leaves its home range and travels a mile or 2, it is more vulnerable to hunters and other predators. Moving around in unfamiliar areas is risky business. 

An Oklahoma study showed that when bucks were pressured during the hunting season, sightings of bucks by hunters declined 62 percent the first 3 days of the season. Now, did those bucks just go into thick cover or did they leave their home range? Good question. Pennsylvania research showed that during the hunting season most bucks just find good places to hide in their home range, but a few are risk takers and they move several miles away, in essence creating a second home range. After a period of days, they then return “home.”

What about the 6.5-year-old bucks in the Mississippi study? I don’t know how many were in that age group, but data collected showed that all of them were sedentary. Being sedentary in one home range doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t move around much. My guess is that some move a lot, but do so in thick cover. 

Another question. Were those 6.5-year-old bucks sedentary when younger, or did they learn to become sedentary? Maybe their personality explains why they lived so long. When this Mississippi study is finished, we’ll have more answers to all these questions.

As a deer hunter, it pays to understand that a buck’s personality can make him easier or harder to kill.
As a deer hunter, it pays to understand that a buck’s personality can make him easier or harder to kill.

Study Takeaways for Deer Hunters

Now what does all this mean to you the hunter? First, understand that some of the bucks you are hunting will stay in one home range, but others may just up and leave during the rut. Obviously that movement puts them at risk, but it also means that those movers are difficult to pattern. Second, if your trail cameras show an individual buck in two areas, he has a travel corridor he uses to get back and forth. Find that and you’ve got an advantage.

No matter what the personality of the buck you’re after, human odor is a major factor for you. If you can reduce it, and not be seen by deer coming to or going from your treestand, that’s a plus. One thing the Mississippi study does is give you a possible explanation for the sudden disappearance of the buck you’ve been after — he’s a risk taker, a mover, and that just makes your hunt for that specific buck more challenging.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.