No creature is more interesting, or more mysterious, than the white-tailed deer. And no state is more fascinating than Minnesota when considering the behaviors of these animals, in part due to the vastly different landscapes that dominate the state, north to south and east to west.
Whitetails in farm country near Worthington, for example, while bearing many similarities to those that roam the woods near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, in many ways live entirely different lives than their North Woods counterparts.
Up north, day and night, deer must worry about being attacked by wolves. Bears also are a concern, because they kill fawns in spring. Also, every winter, deep snow and extreme cold waylay a varying percentage of the state’s northern herd, whereas whitetails in the south, where weather is considerably milder, are less vulnerable to seasonal highs and lows.
Yet this week, as the peak of the whitetail’s breeding season approaches, wherever these critters roam, their habits, customs and routines will be more similar than different.
Hunters who will be afield Saturday when the 2019 firearms deer season opens will witness firsthand these common seasonal behaviors, the most intriguing of which are those of the bulked-up and love-crazy male of the species — the rutting white-tailed buck.
• Because bucks are generally ready to breed before does, beginning about mid-October they start traveling farther and wider than usual looking for the odd female in early estrus (ready to breed). Does also disperse more widely at this time, which explains why vehicle-deer accidents have increased in recent weeks.
• As Bill Marchel notes in his accompanying story about rubs and scrapes, a buck’s first whacks at saplings and brush occur in summer as his antlers harden and he spars with trees to remove antler velvet. Velvet-covered antlers are rarely, if ever, seen during Minnesota hunting seasons. But hunters who kill such animals elsewhere must follow a detailed process to preserve the velvet, or it will rot. In Alaska in August, my son Trevor and I and two of his buddies each shot caribou on a do-it-yourself hunt. Each of the animals was in velvet, and to avoid its decomposition, we peeled it off with knives.
• Telltale that a buck is rutting is the increased size of its neck. Higher levels of testosterone coursing through a buck’s body in the run-up to the rut swell the neck’s blood vessels, increasing their carrying capacity. As noted by Leonard Lee Rue III, author of “The Deer of North America,” the larger necks act as shock absorbers for fighting bucks.
• During the rut, fights among white-tailed bucks are common, and the biggest bucks with the biggest antlers are usually the bosses. Inferior bucks don’t often challenge their obvious superiors and are usually quickly scared off if they do. Also, fights usually are between animals of different bachelor groups — strangers in town, as it were, whose pursuit of local does is unwelcome.
• Bucks can find a lot of trouble during the rut. In addition to being killed more often on highways, they sometimes see their likenesses in large windows and, thinking they’re attacking an opponent, smash into the glass, only to find themselves inside a home or business.
• At least for the past two weeks, bucks have been tracking and chasing does in attempts to determine which, if any, are ready to breed. Doing so, they have their noses to the ground and —sometimes to a hunter’s advantage — otherwise are oblivious to their surroundings. I recall once setting up a bow stand in midday and watching a 10-point buck stroll by 30 yards from me, unknowing I was there.
• Sniffing a doe’s urine, a buck will curl his upper lip and raise his head and “flehmen,” which will tell the buck if a doe is breed-ready. Does that are not ready often will scamper away from curious bucks, who end their pursuits fairly quickly so they can seek other does.
• Bucks that gain weight, strength and size in anticipation of the rut become relative shells of themselves after the breeding season. Some of this is because bucks that wander widely day and night in search of does not only are exerting considerable energy, but they’re forgetting to eat. Fighting also drains a buck’s energy resources. Which is why by mid-December in Minnesota, approximately, it’s not uncommon for a buck whitetail to lose a quarter of the weight he carried during the rut.
• As much and as often as rutting bucks travel while in rut, and as unwary as they often can sometimes be, many of these animals nonetheless move only nocturnally once firearms season begins. Unnerved, apparently, by the sudden noise and disturbance caused by so many gun-toting predators entering the woods, bucks — mature ones especially — seem to seek a balance between their urge to breed and their will to survive.
Which is why the season that begins Saturday will be so challenging for all involved.
Dennis Anderson [email protected]