The Smartest Deer

Posted on August 22, 2017



“Mother Nature in her infinite wisdom plots and schemes to replenish the earth with her creatures. The female of the species plays a major, even if subtle, part.” Kent Horner



I’m sure it would be quite surprising for a number of deer hunting enthusiasts to learn that the most discerning whitetail within the herd is not the mature male. Why is this such a little known fact so seldom communicated? The reason is simple, big bucks sell. Few will ever book a hunt to a far off destination and expect to shoot anything less than a trophy buck. Despite sound management guidelines, when given the option of taking a deer of either sex, a buck will hit the ground far more often.

When was the last time a successful huntsman approached you, pictures in hand and said, “Take a look at the nice doe I harvested this year”? I can assure you from personal experience, it doesn’t happen. We, as a whole have been programmed to believe that only those individuals who have taken top end bucks should garner any attention.

While a hunter may detail the woeful story of how he was done in by a certain “smart old buck”, isn’t it ironic that those that get away are always “smart and old”? Yet seldom will they disclose being duped by a clever doe.



Although the standard by which we measure our success as huntsmen today comes in the form of large racks and big bodies, as you are about to learn, if our wits were routinely pitted against an old matriarchal doe, the assertion of our hunting prowess would certainly be tested.


Why the Female?


Without the doe’s selfless and adaptive qualities, whitetail deer may never have proliferated to the extent they have throughout North America. Essentially, the doe deer becomes the population regulator. When the herd numbers at or below carrying capacity with a well-balanced age structure, healthy fawn recruitments are born. On the other hand, when whitetails overpopulate and drain their food supply, stress is felt by the female, which results in stunted fawns or barren wombs. The old phrase, “mother knows best,” aptly characterizes a white-tailed doe.




Adult does live with and amongst their female progeny that will also include the fawns born to them from the previous spring. Within each of these family units a matriarchal doe, usually the oldest and most experienced, resides. These individuals groups can consist of between 3 – 12 animals.

Intuitively, the female seeks out and establishes home territories that provide feed of the highest nutritional value, optimum protective cover and security. Moreover, when a buck disperses as a 1 ½ old juvenile, his new home stomping ground won’t be nearly as opulent.



The labor-intensive responsibility of birthing, feeding, bathing and instructing fawns rest solely on the birth-mother. In the world of the whitetail, raising babies is a single parent proposition. The buck could in fact be classified with regards to parenting as the ultimate deadbeat dad. He plays absolutely no role in the fawn’s development.



The mother doe has little time to prepare her young for survival. Most lessons are gained through visual communication, learned behavior through the act of observation.

Instinctive maternal behaviors play a key role in rearing healthy and ecologically sound offspring. For instance, without the production of kolestrum, fat rich milk, the fawn would not survive the first 24 hours. Through the act of washing and licking, a mother’s scent is imprinted to her baby facilitating its ability to locate her even when other females are present. When two or more fawns are born to a respective doe, spacing them apart during times of inactivity helps to ensure at least one of her offspring prevails in the event of predation.



It now becomes clear that all of the formidable characteristics credited to the large bodied, big antlered bucks that elude us come from a very wise mother who taught her son well.


Timing of Breeding

Interestingly enough, although a buck is capable, eager and willing to breed from the moment velvet is shed from his antlers, nothing happens until the female gives the green light. It doesn’t matter how much pre-rut activity he may exhibit. With all of his posturing, scraping, rubbing or chasing, the doe still holds all the cards.



Two critical elements are at stake to ensure propagation of hardy recruitments: timing of delivery and good genetics. By coming into estrus following the second full moon after the autumn equinox, the due dates for births will fall within the 14 darkest days of the moon. Although slight, this advantage of dark nights prohibits predators from readily locating newborns before they have the strength and capabilities to flee from danger. Secondly, I firmly believe the doe becomes selective as to which buck gets to breed her. Remember, she must stop in order for him to mount her. Short of that, he can chase all day without obtaining his desired results. I can only assume, seeing as I have no ability to get inside the deer’s brain, that through visualization of an individual buck’s size, antlers and status she can determine his suitability to father her fawns.

A Sentry

No other animal within the herd is as conscious of its surroundings or more vigilant of any intrusions as the whitetail doe. Not only does she have her safety to be concerned with, but the life of her fawns and siblings as well. Unlike a self-centered buck, does are gregarious creatures protective of each other. For example, as a buck plods after a doe, grunting with each step, he becomes ambivalent to everything around him. Not so for his prospective mate. She continues to keep a keen eye on any possible danger and is quick to flee at the slightest hint of it. Many a fine stag has reaped the reward of seeing yet another day due to her safeguarding behavior.



“Amazingly, the whitetail deer, a large animal, has the unique ability to survive close to man. In so doing, a premium is placed upon the evasion of danger. Consequently, inherited traits such as speed, deception, camouflage, size, immunity to disease and tolerance of harsh weather are important survival traits that the doe helps pass on to her progeny.” Kent Horner


Ecological Wisdom

A buck does not plan for the future and thus no thought is given beyond his current desire. His very actions prove this. Tirelessly he races around during the rut attempting to service as many does as possible. In the process, he is losing weight and depleting himself of beneficial fat reserves required to sustain him during the long winter months ahead. It would almost seem as though he’s become addicted – “just one more doe,” and ultimately may sacrifice his life in a very cruel way.



Diametrical to this, the doe enters winter in tremendous shape with ample fat reserves to carry her through. Physiologically, the female realizes the importance of her condition, not solely for her own sustainability, but for the incubating fetus growing within.




Despite our inability to administer IQ tests, SAT exams or CAT scans on individual deer, their behavior has conclusively proven that the wisest of the species is the deer not adorned with a crown. When next you outwit a mature male specimen, and wrap your fingers around his antlers in exuberant pride, give a soft word of praise to his teacher – the mother doe that raised him.

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer