Was Grandpa’s Advice Always Right?

Posted on August 2, 2016

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Dispelling whitetail myths

 

The deer is so irregular in some of its movements, so difficult to observe closely, and so quick to change many of its habits after a little persecution or change in methods of hunting, that it is not probable that any one person thoroughly understands the animal even in any one state. And I have heard the very best and oldest hunters of my acquaintance say that they were continually learning something new about deer.” –  T.S.Van Dyke – 1904

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From one generation of hunters to the next, whitetail lore is passed down and trusted as if it was the Holy Grail etched in tablets of stone. Although there are bits of truth shrouding each allegory, the real reason for a deer’s behavior in any given situation is often misinterpreted or wrongly diagnosed. This is as true today as is was back in Van Dykes time, “The average ‘old hunter’ or Leatherstocking is full of wrong theories, which he either does not follow in the field or, if he does, he succeeds in spite of them by virtue of his other qualifications.”

It has become almost habit-like for hunters to automatically jump to conclusions based on hunting achievements. We have all been fed steady diets of inconclusive assumptions about whitetail behavior, which runs contradictory to our own hunting experience or what other perceived authorities on whitetails have written. The aforementioned is enough for an old deer slayer by the name of Archibald Rutledge to have penned these words in 1921,

“American hunters are quite familiar with these beautiful creatures, as objects of sport, but few indeed, even those who know the deer well in a general sense, have an understanding of the real nature and everyday habits of these most interesting creatures.” Rutledge’s means in discerning the difference between sound behavioral characteristics of whitetails vs. myth was simple yet, effective, “Whatever I know of deer has been gained from many years of experience in the woods.”

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Veterans of the forest may have uncanny abilities when it comes to their hunting prowess, but the intellect required to understand why a whitetail behaves in such a way under certain circumstances is another matter entirely. For instance, the old adage, “It’s cold enough for those bucks to be moving and rutting,” sounds good in principle and would certainly correlate with human logic. Realistically, temperature holds little significance as to when bucks move or breed. Whitetails are equipped with a far greater threshold for climactic changes than humans. I’ve found numerous occasions where a buck will lay right in his bed conserving energy during bitter cold days. Remember, a whitetail’s movements like all wild animals are governed primarily by their hunger.

 

Color Blind

 

It has always been my belief that whitetails do indeed see color. Up until 1992, when a team comprised of six leading deer researchers and animal vision specialists (Dr. Karl Miller, Dr. Larry Marchinton, Dr. Gerald Jacobs, Dr. Jay Neitz, Jess Deegan and Brian Murphy) conducted a study at the University of Georgia centered on the physiology of a whitetail’s eye to see if it is capable of seeing color, that view was not widely accepted. Though the research results in this experiment cannot prove completely and conclusively that whitetails can see color, the evidence on the subject is very strong that they can even though it’s on a different spectrum than what humans see. Miller believes, “Mother Nature is not very wasteful. She seldom gives animals the physical structure to do a function without their eventually doing it. So, if they have the anatomy that allows them to see colors I think we can safely say that they do see some colors.”

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Due to humans and deer having disproportionately different amounts of rods and cones within the eye our vision is different. Humans see color in the red, green, and blue spectrum, having a greater amount of cones in our eyes whereas the whitetails visual acuity is in the blue, yellow-orange range. Because the animal’s eyes have far more rods than cones, which give them better perception, they have a tremendous ability in detecting movement and can see well in low light conditions.

This past autumn, I conducted my own experiment at one of the locations I photograph whitetails.  Though my naturalistic observations is not as sophisticated as Miller et al. in using experimental variables, it provided me with experience – which serves as a better tool for knowledge than any formal research project.

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The Research: Three apple trees were located within a thirty-foot circumference.  Two of the apple trees produce yellow apples and the third tree produces red apples.  Two days in a row at precisely 9 am, a fine eight-point buck would appear and eat all of the apples that had dropped under each of the three trees.  The buck appeared to have no problems in locating the yellow apples, regardless of where they had fallen out of the tree.  In finding the red apples, the buck had to move towards the apples with his nose close to the ground sniffing out his target (different from visually moving towards the yellow apples). In order to conclusively prove that whitetails are indeed dichromatic, two color sensitive (minus the capacity to see red) I set the stage for phase two of the experiment.   Prior to the buck’s arrival on day three, I picked up all the yellow apples and placed them under the tree, which produces red apples.  I also moved the red apples and placed them under the apple tree producing the yellows.

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Just like clockwork, the old buck made his appearance under the red apple tree first and made haste at gobbling up the switched apples. When he got to the trees that contained the yellows, his nose came into play once again allowing him to locate the red apples scattered beneath.

Two thoughts came to mind after this research. The first being that the best camouflage on the market today should be in coloration not recognizable to the animal. Secondly, it’s a good thing deer don’t drive, because they wouldn’t do very well with traffic lights.

 

Scrapes

 

If we place our trust in all that has been written about scrapes a degree in scrape-o-logy would almost become a necessity. Initially, one would need to distinguish a boundary scrape from a primary scrape and then determine which primary scrape is going to be the hub where all the ladies eventually line up waiting to be bred. As remarkable as whitetails are, they’re simply not that sophisticated.

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 Essentially, there are only three things that happen at a scrape; the ground is pawed, an overhead-licking branch is worked, and urine is deposited. Bucks do not randomly select spots to scrape; there is a purpose to this male behavior. During the breeding cycle when a buck encounters a doe or her scent while seeking female companionship he is prone to opening up scrapes. It appears the smell of a doe triggers a response that initiates bucks to paw. The scent dispersed on the licking branch above the scrape facilitates letting other bucks know “this buck” was here. The frequency of this activity is dependent on how aroused the individual buck may be. The only other reason a buck will scrape is to show dominance. When a buck smells or sees a rival male, the buck will rip up the earth. It is not essential under these circumstances that a scrapes be located under a licking branch, but you can be certain that nearby trees and shrubs will be torn and tattered. A buck in this mind-frame is much like the bull in the ring with the bullfighter. That bull will paw up the dirt in anger prior to charging.

This may come as a surprise to some, but not all bucks will exhibit scraping behavior. There are passive tempered males that prefer to keep a low profile and sneak in the back door or have become non-participants during the rut.

 

Rubs

 

Bucks rub trees for several reasons. Early in the fall rubbing removes the velvet from the calcified antlers. A commonly held myth for the reasoning behind the behavior is the antlers must itch. Nothing could be further from the truth. Hardened bone has no feeling and is essentially dead once the velvet begins to crack. I believe that the blood dripping onto the buck’s nose from the velvet peeling initiates a frenzied time, causing a buck to work feverishly at ridding himself of this obvious annoyance. A buck is pretty much spent by the time this process is completed.

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From here on out until the antlers are cast, rubs become personalized business cards or visual signposts to other deer. As a buck travels within his home range, he randomly selects trees to rub. While engaged in the act of rubbing, a buck will stop occasionally to sniff the tree and even lick it. What he is doing is depositing his personalized signature for all other bucks to smell. This function of rubbing, which is the case as many other behaviorisms, is sparked by the animal’s temperament.

These signposts can come as the result of frustration, intimidation, aggression, exercise and is even executed at times from sheer boredom. Dominant bucks will rub far more frequently than younger subordinate males.

 

Urine

 

Each year hunters routinely fork out ten to fifteen dollars for a bottle of deer urine only to then dump it on the ground in a specific spot. If that spot happens to be a scrape, does the urine originate from a subordinate buck or one whose dominant scent will only deter most bucks from approaching? There are hunters who will place doe-in-estrus urine on a wick and then hang it from a limb to the down wind side of their stand. Let me ask you this, how often do deer urinate on limbs three to six feet off the ground? Yes, I am aware that by elevating any scent above ground level will enhance its ability to travel further on wind currents, but why this chosen location? Whitetails have no designated bathroom facilities. They urinate when the urge arises and is done wherever they happen to be standing at the time.

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A whitetail’s world, comparable to all animals, is governed primarily by scent. Because deer are a prey species, they are constantly on the move. Thus, in order for a buck to locate does, he must either inhale their scent or make visual contact. Once he has established contact with a female, the male will follow her exact route. Even if the doe is in plain view, when the buck encounters the place where she paused to urinate, he will stick his nose into her urine and lick it in order to test for receptivity. Obviously, a doe’s body language is not a clear indicator of her being in heat or, the buck utilizes this operation as a stimulant. Either way, to a buck, the most important liquid on the ground is that of a female deer in estrus.

I know there are hunters out there that have had success by using some form of deer urine. In most cases these huntsmen are seasoned veterans who know the whitetail intimately and based on their level of experience, they have the wisdom of when and where to use this liquid. But, the nagging question that begs to be asked is, how often does it work and is that urine the real reason the buck came in? Despite the risk of deflating anyone’s faith in his or her favorite bottled liquid, which is not my intent, it must be understood that the whitetail is an incredibly curious animal. Quite likely his line of travel on that providential day was the route where the fortunate huntsman deposited the scent. Call me crazy, but I firmly believe even a sardine hung in the path of a buck can and will induce his curiosity to investigate.

Conclusion

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The whitetail is a highly complex animal. The more I study, photograph, research and hunt them, the reality of their complexity becomes ever more relevant. Until we can verbally communicate with them, they will continue to hold several mysteries for us to unravel. I guess that’s what makes the journey so fulfilling.

 

All images and text on this site are copyright protected and the property of R.G. Bernier

© 2016 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

 

 

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer