Ask The Deer Tracker

Posted on January 24, 2012


January column


Editor’s note: One week
each month we will run the, Ask The Deer Tracker post. Anyone wishing to send a
question for future posts can e-mail it to,


Q. – When do bucks typically drop or shed their antlers in the winter and why do some deer lose theirs earlier than others?

T.S. – Portland, ME

A. –  A buck can lose his antlers as early as late November. There are other males that can hold their antlers until mid-March. These scenarios are on opposite ends of the spectrum, as most bucks will traditionally begin shedding antlers around mid-to- late December. Although cold temperatures and increasing snow depths play a role in determining when deer head to their winter yards, I do not believe it has any effect on when males lose their antlers other than the additional stress incurred.


It seems the more rut-related stress that a particular male experiences, the quicker he drops his antlers. Because only the most dominate, and older age class of bucks engage in the actual breeding process they are generally the first to shed their appendages. It only stands to reason when you figure a mature buck is constantly on the move for more than forty days indulging in little food and no rest, scraping, rubbing and constantly seeking available females. In the process, particularly when a hot doe is located, he expends a tremendous amount of energy warding off would be suitors all the while attempting to keep his doe corralled.

On the flip side is the juvenile male, a young buck who would love to participate in this ritual but due to his status in the pecking order seldom gets the chance. Although he will waste a fair amount of energy in his attempt to get some action, it pales in comparison to his older and more seasoned peers. Thus, the 1-1/2 & 2-1/2 year old males will hold their antlers longer into the winter. The down side to this is severe injuries can be inflicted to animals that no longer sport antlers by an aggressive youngster seeking to elevate his status within the herds hierarchy.


Q. – What does a whitetail’s diet consist of during the winter months?

                                                                                           B.  G. – Merrimack NH

A. – First of all, it is vital for a whitetail living on the northern range to pack on as much lipid and fat reserve as it can in the autumn in order compensate for the lean winter months it faces. Two of the most popular fat building foods to a whitetail are acorns and beechnuts. Once the whitetail reaches its traditional wintering ground – typically a low-lying watershed comprised of a dense canopy of conifers – food becomes a daily battle within the herd. They are confined to this range for more than 100 days and were it not for their instinctual ability to reduce their metabolism during this confinement, there may not be enough groceries to go around.


Whitetails prefer red maple, sumac, aspen, and mountain laurel for woody browse, but once the snow flies they will eat just about anything that is available to them. The most important food to wintering whitetails and the one plant that can completely sustain them by itself is white cedar.


If a herd of deer are fortunate enough to be wintering near a timber harvesting operation during the winter months they will reap the benefits from the loggers chain saw in the form of tops and fir boughs. The one great benefit of the ice storm that occurred in 1998 here in the Northeast was that it provided wintering deer feed they ordinarily would not have had. When trees and limbs came crashing to the ground under the weight of the ice build up, tender buds located on these tree-tops became a welcomed and succulent feed bag for the resident deer.

It is important to note here for all those well-intentioned folks that make an emotional decision to aid deer during these lean times that if you intend to initiate a supplemental feeding program the cost in dollars, time and commitment needs to be carefully weighed before implementing. Deer come to rely on man’s hand-outs and once you initiate feeding them the process must continue daily until the snow has disappeared from the landscape.


Q. – My question has to do with elevation. I recently began using Topo maps to find ridge lines, saddles etc. In your opinion how high is too high? Will bucks actually bed above 3000 feet in elevation? Where would my time be better spent: on the very top attempting to cut a track; traversing just below the ridgeline; or in and around high elevation swamps that are at 2,000 – to – 2,500 feet?

                                                                                                                                        P. K. – Randolph, VT


A. – While it is true that bucks will generally establish their sanctuary much higher than doe groups, that elevation really predicates more on security than it does on how high he can get. It has been my experience when finding deer in higher elevations that it stemmed from increased human presence and hunting pressure below. With that said, unless you’ve got a hot track in front of you leading to the very top, I would recommend hiking just below ridgelines with a favorable wind to your face. Do not dismiss these mountain swamps as whitetails gravitate to water and are great places of refuge during inclement weather and wind. If you’re inclined to sit for awhile and find deer traffic using a saddle to cross over the mountain, by all means be vigilant and watch this crossing; again, be conscious of wind direction. As far as whether a buck will bed above 3,000 feet – I’ve learned that a whitetail buck can and will do what ever he darn well pleases, whenever he pleases, and for as long he pleases. So is it possible, yes. Will many bucks be following this behavior? I don’t think so as the doe groups, which he has a great interest in during the autumn, are well below.



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