Ask The Deer Tracker

Posted on December 27, 2016



December Column


Editor’s note:  Anyone wishing to send a question for future Ask The Deer Tracker posts can e-mail it to,



Q. –Recently I witnessed a pair of bucks take turns licking each other, particularly around the head and neck area. Is this normal behavior for bucks or could these two males have been possibly related?

K. J. – Warren PA


 A. –As far as these two bucks being siblings it would be difficult to guess even if I had personally viewed them. In terms of their grooming behavior it is quite normal and happens much more frequently than people realize. Understand whitetails have an established social hierarchy that they adhered to in their social gatherings. Even while the bucks are still in velvet they realize and concede to their individual ranking within the herd. This is not to infer that changes in the hierarchy do not change, especially as the dominant buck ages beyond his prime or specific bucks are eliminated due to mortality.

It has been my experience when viewing this same behavior that one of two situations occur. The subordinate buck will walk up to the more dominant male in a submissive posture and gingerly begin to lick his antlers, ears and head. As long as the higher-ranking buck shows no sign of objecting to this treatment the grooming process will continue. The other scenario is when a dominant buck approaches a subordinate male and he begins to do so without deliberation. There seems to be no shyness about him and the recipient buck usually feels free to return the favor at the same time.

The reason for all of this is primarily to rid the other animal of insects, debris and any other unwanted material that they obviously cannot reach themselves in their daily grooming. I also believe there has to be a social value to this as well, possibly triggered by secretions produced around the head and neck of a buck that inclines them to engage in this activity. If not, there would be no real reason for the function during seasons void of insects.


Q. –Is it possible to track a deer in dry leaves?

B. T. – Saratoga NY


A. –Bare ground tracking through leaf litter is obviously very different than snow tracking. There’s no snow to aid you, but can it be accomplished? Of course, but not without great attention to detail. In 1912, Ernest Thompson Seton penned these words: “We confer the degree of hunter on those individuals who can track a deer for a mile and secure it without the aid of snow.”

The hunter attempting this feat will usually find himself bent over the spoor like a question mark studying the imprints more than viewing his surroundings for the animal that made the impressions. The ideal bare ground conditions are when the leaves have been saturated by autumn rains and are easily crushed by the animal’s footfall. It has been my experience, when attempting this feat, to visually follow the deer’s line of travel rather than stare straight down in front of me. The sign seems to get lost when looking directly down upon it.


Q. –What is the whitetails cue to head for their winter yards in the northern climates?

M. K. – Northfield VT


 A. –The white-tailed deer has the incredible instinctual ability to know exactly when it is time to depart from their summer range and pilgrimage to the wintering ground. Each year that time can fluctuate depending on temperature and snow depths. There have even been instances where a winter was so mild that the deer never really migrated, opting instead to remain where food was still in abundance.

Traditionally whitetails will utilize the same winter yard they were first introduced to as yearlings unless it has been severely destroyed by cutting or natural causes. In this situation, they will congregate at the next best location or join another yarding area.


When snow depths reach 18 inches or more deer will begin heading for the yard. There have been occurrences during some Novembers where snowstorms have dropped sufficient enough snow to begin this process. Occasionally, the deer get caught by an unprecedented amount of snow during a single storm that severely impedes their progress towards the wintering ground.

These yarding areas comprise approximately 20 percent of their normal range and are found in low-lying terrain made up of of a variety of softwood species. The conifers benefit the deer by reducing snow depth under the tree’s crown, reduce the effect of the bone chilling winds and provide sustenance to the animal through out the roughly 100 days the deer spend within its confines. These wintering grounds are usually located near a watershed or marsh, which in conjunction with the close-knit canopy, helps retain a higher temperature, especially during the night.

The other benefit a well-established yard provides to its resident whitetails is a number of escape trails that help reduce predation by opportunistic coyotes and wolves.



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