The Annual Migration – Part II

Posted on February 14, 2012


(Part II of a III part series)

“Nothing in nature is more common-or more marvelous-than the exactness with which creatures, wild and domestic, pursue a persistently confident course, whether down the seacoast, over the boundless plains, or far into the wildest forest. The fact is, they all carry compasses.”                                                     –     Archibald Rutledge

It is difficult for me whenever I have to go to the mall, which isn’t often may I add. Once inside the cleverly designed structure housing all of the merchant’s stores it is rather easy for me to get turned around and disoriented. And trust me, if I don’t write down the letter or number on the pole near where my car is parked, trying to locate it amongst a veritable sea of similar automobiles is truly an exasperating experience. So then, how is it that whitetails can, with precise navigational aptitude, locate their traditional wintering grounds without wandering or straying off course?


The Mysterious Compass

While it is true that whitetails know every nook, cranny, bush and rock within their home range, it cannot be the case when traveling well away from what has become familiar to them. There obviously has to be something to guide them. I believe, like Rutledge, that God has inherently designed this animal with the ability to sense when it is time to leave and how to get to its winter grounds in the interest of self-preservation.

“It may be possible for some people to devise and to follow a system of philosophy which excludes the divine; but no lover of nature can ever leave God out of the scheme of things. Nature wears, now her gay cloak, now her somber one, but all these material things are only her vesture. Something’s behind it all. It is that mysterious infallible Being and Power that we call God. Such a belief is the compass all of us must carry if we are going to get home.”


There will always be those who will argue that the animal is acting merely from blind instinct, but if that is the case, how does the animal instinctively know where to go – especially when that destination is thirty miles away? He has no road signs or maps. No one has broadcast to him over the airwaves, ‘this is a warning, it is now time to evacuate’. Even those unfortunate victims of hurricane Katrina, ones that where forcefully admonished to leave for their own safety, chose to ignore the warning and paid the price. There they stood on an overpass for multiple days without food or water, waiting for someone to provide them with direction. Rutledge goes on to write, as he reinforces the Divines intervention,


“If we travel through desolate and wild country, we nearly always emerge weary and disheveled. Wild things, even under the most trying circumstances have a glamorous air of refinement. They know what to do, where to go, and how to act. In a deep sense, they are far more at home in the world than most of us are.

Homeward they find their way through the darkness, through danger, through rain and fog, through visionary moonlight.”


How Many Migrate?

The whitetail migration is more like a sporting event where the fans descend on the arena at various times prior to the start of the show. Some come as a formalized group in buses and vans, while others converge as a single family unit, and then there are those people that show up alone or with one other friend. Each doe family group comprised of successive generations usually takes their cue from the matriarchal doe and follows her lead. Dependant upon the traditional habits of this matriarchal doe a certain family group of deer may arrive at or about the same time each year. And much like people who are customarily early, fashionably late or racing to just get in under the wire, whitetails function in similar fashion.  If nutritional supplies are sufficient and snow does not descend in any appreciable amount, some deer family units will refrain from making the pilgrimage, or only decide to do so if circumstances deteriorate.


What About Bucks?

It is the norm that related does and fawns band together and migrate to their wintering grounds in groups, but the migratory habits exhibited by adult bucks is more complex and poorly studied. According to Michigan biologist John Ozoga, “Whether northern bucks migrate to winter yards with other deer, most likely other bucks, or migrate alone, to my knowledge, is unknown.”


Mature dominant bucks seem to be reluctant to leave their breeding grounds and when they do finally decide it’s time, they are usually the last to depart. Many arrive having already lost their antlers en-route. In my experience when monitoring deer yards here in the Northeast, individual bucks will all of a sudden just show up, with or without their antlers. Although they will interact with the rest of the assembled wintering herd, bucks will continue to maintain a guarded behavior and remain aloof on the periphery of the yard rather than in the midst of it.


Is This Migration Ancestral?

Based upon sound scientific research I would have to say it is. Whitetails are extremely traditional in their range occupation and annually return to the same summer and winter ranges. According to Ozoga, “Some researchers speculate that deer from individual winter yards represent distinct sub-populations of genetically related individuals, referred to as “demes.” Other studies demonstrate that deer may actually cross paths on their way from summer ranges to traditional wintering grounds. That is, a family of deer may spend the summer close to one deer yard, but then migrate considerable distance to another where they spend the winter. Reasons for such seemingly senseless moves are unknown, but must be ancestral in origin.”


This exact phenomenon transpires annually in two locations where I hunt. When provided a much closer and less burdensome journey to a deeryard within a few miles distance, the whitetails inhabiting this summer range choose instead to travel a far greater distance to take up winter residency. In terms of a deer’s winter yard longevity, some have been around for more than a century and are still in use to this day. New York’s William Severinghaus documented, “There are some deer wintering areas in the Adirondacks of New York which it is known that deer have used since 1890 or earlier; we know of two locations that were deer yards during the early 1800s and still are used today.” This fact alone indicates that the whitetails yarding trait is not linked to modern man’s intrusion or alterations to its natural habitat.


Next week’s final segment of this three part series will take a look at what precipitates the break-up of the winter yard in the spring, as well as how and where young bucks disperse once the winter is over.


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