The Seasons of Deer Hunting
Deer in the Spring
Spring is known as the season of rebirth and new beginnings. It is during this time that the forest animals come out of their hibernation and the dead foliage rejuvenates itself. Spring holds the same meaning for deer. Fawns are born during the spring, which allows them enough time to mature before the winter months begin. The antlers of bucks also begin growing, triggered by the increase in sunlight during the spring. Spring is also a time of tranquility for the deer; absent is the fighting of the deer rut and the challenges of avoiding deer hunters which typically accompany the fall and winter. It is a time for deer to relax and replenish themselves after a long harsh winter.
With the arrival of spring, deer must reacquaint themselves with their environment. Some deer (mostly northern deer) begin the trek towards their warm weather habitat. This may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Deer will usually inhabit the same winter and summer ranges all their life. However, the favorable weather conditions of the spring allow the deer to sometimes explore and extend their home ranges.
Deer must also readjust their social relations with other deer. The winter is usually too tough for the weaker deer to survive. The older bucks, worn out from the breeding season, may find their fat reserves too low to bear the winter cold. As a result, a herd of bucks could find themselves without a dominant buck in the spring. And even though they are passive during the spring, bucks still have ways of establishing dominance. Since bucks lack antlers, they use their front feet to attack each other, until one buck backs down.
Because the warm spring sun tends to melt the snow in open areas first, deer may often find a small area of their range suitable for feeding. This can result in overcrowding, which may also force deer to display irritation towards each other. It is even possible to see a buck and a doe battling each other with their four legs.
The sight of a doe fighting a buck is not uncommon during the spring. Often times, the doe may even be victorious. In fact, due to their lack of antlers in the spring, bucks often look very much like does. The increased sunlight is what triggers the buck's antlers to begin growing. This has been confirmed by the fact that bucks living closer to the equator, where changes in daylight aren't as drastic as in the north, often have antlers year round. As the summer months progress, the first sign of antlers will appear as stubs on the buck's head, covered with velvet. The added nutrients gathered from the spring foliage aid in antler growth.
The birth of fawns is probably the biggest event during spring. A few days before giving birth, a doe will return to her traditional breeding area. And, since a doe has some control over when she gives birth, she will spend time finding a suitable area, far from the danger of predators. A doe will occupy this birth site for about three hours after birth, giving time for the fawn to learn to walk and become accustomed to its mother. The rest of the doe's spring is occupied with caring for her young.
Most fawns are born within a short period of time, which causes the deer population to become quickly saturated with fawns. This gives a predator hundreds of new, defenseless prey. A doe will become alert and aggressive during the weeks following the birth and will protect the small area surrounding the fawns. If anything approaches it, including another deer, she will attempt to ward it off. This aggressive behavior not only protects the fawns, but also isolates them, so they become accustomed to the scent of their mother. A lot of times, fawns will be left alone, while the mother walks the surrounding area and eats. Does will often leave the fawns unattended in order to minimize their own scent in the area. This happens because fawns have no scent, Therefore any scent that draws a predator to the fawn will come from the mother. The fawn will utter a small cry if it senses danger, which immediately brings the mother running into the area. After about 1 month, fawns become much more social with the other deer in the herd.
The abundance of foliage during the spring means deer have more to eat. Not only can they eat more they also have a more diverse array of foods to choose from. The spring foliage is rich in nutrients, which is a welcome change to the twigs and scarce plants the deer eat during the winter. These nutrients help repair body tissue which were damaged during the winter months. Pregnant does must increase their diet in order to supply food to themselves as well as the fetus inside them.
Deer also consume a large amount of salt during the spring. It is not clearly understood why this occurs. Some researchers believe that the increased nutrients in a deer’s diet cause a loss in sodium through urine; thus, the deer must constantly replace its supply of salt. In order to keep cool during the summer, deer shed their thick, warm winter coat (called molting). The same process occurs again in the winter. Coat molting is thought to be caused by many factors, including temperature and light.
Deer During the Summer
The summer is a lazy season for the deer. Life continues as it did throughout much of the spring. The fawns grow and learn about the world around them from their mother. They also start to recognize her by scent. A buck's testosterone level is low in the summer, meaning they are less active than usual. Bucks spend this time learning about the other bucks in their herd and storing fat for the winter.
The buck's antlers are now very prominent, but are covered in velvet, which is very soft and fragile. Without hardened antlers, bucks signal dominance by flaring their forelegs at each other, much like does. Some researchers believe that these motions, rather than sparring in the fall, determine dominance. The summer is not without its problems. Droughts can deplete the water supply, often causing death to many deer. Deer may also have to share their home range with domesticated livestock, which lowers the amount of food available in the area. But for the most part, these are regional problems which don't affect all deer, all the time.
Deer Hunting in the Fall
Autumn brings about a great deal of changes to a bucks life. Replacing the carefree days of summer are the aggressive days of fall. These fall months are typically filled with the task of establishing dominance. Velvet shed marks the beginning of this process. Shorter days will trigger changes in hormone levels which eventually lead to breeding. Not only must deer change their psychological makeup, many must change their bodies if they hope to survive winter. All of these changes and demands make autumn a very crazy time for the whitetail. Because of this, it is viewed by many as the perfect time to harvest a deer; especially a mature buck. Bucks are particularly more focused on breeding at this time of year and tend to let their guard down while in pursuit of a mate.
The name given to this pursuit, or breeding season, is the deer rut is the name. There are different phases of the rut. The pre-rut is characterized by does, bucks, and fawns all tolerating one another. Bucks can often be seen in “bachelor” groups, and will feed in the presence of does without aggressively pursuing them. During this time, bucks will also shed their velvet by rubbing their antlers against trees. This is due to less daylight which triggers an increase in testosterone, the hormone responsible for, among other things, antler maturation. Once the antlers have reached maturity the velvet that covers them dries up. This irritates the buck and leads to antler rubbing. It is believed that older bucks usually rub before younger ones.
As the pre-rut comes to an end and the does are nearing the point of allowing bucks to breed them, bucks will display their readiness to breed by using “signposts”. A buck accomplishes this by leaving its scent on the ground and on other trees for does to recognize. Once a suitable mate is found, the two will engage in a brief chase before actual mating occurs (the rut). After mating, the buck will immediately move on to find another receptive doe.
The rut leaves the buck frail and tired. Often, the dominant buck is the weakest by the end of the breeding season (post rut).
This is why deer often seek out foods rich in carbohydrates in the months leading up to the rut. Such foods promote fattening and a good fat reserve helps the deer survive during the winter. Fawns, especially, must make certain that they store enough fat for the winter because their bodies are not as large or strong as other deer.
Deer Hunting in the Winter
The winter months are very slow for the whitetail deer. During this time frame their metabolisms dramatically slow down. This results in many of their body functions also slowing down. In the north, where the discrepancy between the summer and winter temperature is very large, winter can be especially hard. As a result, winter behavior varies between northern and southern deer. In order to escape the cold of the far north, some deer will migrate, perhaps as far as 50 miles, to find an area which has warmer temperatures and more cover.
During the winter, food supplies are low. This forces the deer to survive on whatever twigs or brush they can find. During the course of a winter, a deer will lose about 30% of its body weight. Therefore, their survival depends largely on how well they ate during the months before the winter. It is believed by some that the cold isn’t what harms the deer, but rather, a lack of nutrition. In many cases, deer may go days without eating. In this case, their energy is derived from fat reserves that were built up in the fall. However, there are many regions in the country where deer remain healthy all year long by feeding on the agricultural fields grown by farmers.
A whitetails fur, or coat, is much thicker in the winter than during the hot summer months. In addition, the winter coat is darker in color which helps absorb more of the sun's heat. During times of extreme cold, deer will use a process called piloerection. This is basically a tightening of the skin muscles which cause the coat hairs to stand on end. Air is then trapped near the skin's surface, increasing the insulation abilities and thus, keeping the deer much warmer.
Winter is also a time for bucks to re-form bachelor groups that were broken up during the rut. Deer altogether tend to be more social during the winter months; often grooming each other and sleeping closer together. The never ending struggle for survival often forces deer to congregate in one area. This is often referred to as “yarding”. These yards often occur where food is abundant, or the temperature is much warmer. Social grouping usually does not come into play and deer will congregate in these areas. While in the deer “yards” fights can often break out over food.