After an unprecedented 10-year deer-behavior study in which 1,120 whitetails have been caught and many of their movements tracked around the clock, Pennsylvania deer hunters may be shocked to learn commonly held beliefs and hunting tactics don’t hold water.
For example, many hunters have long subscribed to the notion that deer move first thing in the morning, then by lunch bed down and are inactive until late afternoon.
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But following 274 bucks, does and fawns fitted with GPS collars and recording their movements via satellite in almost real time, day and night, tells a different story.
According to the Deer-Forest Study, most deer spent the early hours after dawn in their cozy beds, not moving greatly until 10 a.m. What’s more, the peak movement for bucks was between noon and 1 p.m., when many hunters are back at camp for a nap or lunch.
The study found deer rested in the afternoon and were on the move again from 4 p.m. to dusk.
In one of the regular Deer-Forest Study blogs posted online on the study website, a researcher addressed hunters who feel compelled to rise well before the crack of dawn to be in the woods at first light. “How often is life fair? Ummm, never. So rifle hunters rejoice, you too can spend an extra hour or two in that nice, cozy, warm bed.”
The study was launched in 2013, a joint project by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, U.S. Geological Survey and Penn State’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. It runs until 2026.
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The main goal was to monitor deer populations and the diversity and growth rates of trees and plants in three state forests to better understand the complex relationship between deer and healthy forests.
Deer were live-trapped and fitted with GPS collars or ear tags in Rothrock, Bald Eagle and Suquehannock state forests to monitor the diversity and growth rates of trees and plants. Deer play a big role in what grows in Pennsylvania forests but as the study is showing, so do invasive plants, insect outbreaks, soil acidity and tree diseases.
This detailed snooping on deer has served up some interesting deer behavior surprises a Pennsylvania hunter should know and perhaps even prompt an adjustment to his or her own behavior.
About 1,700 readers of the online field diaries responded to the question: “How does rain affect deer movements?” More than half said continual rain affected deer activity. But the study has found rain had no effect on how much female deer wandered during the day. However, bucks did restrict their movements somewhat.
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Do moon phases affect deer movement? Not according to the study.
How about wind? Another survey of hunters found they are convinced strong wind would change deer movement. But tracking deer showed they actually move more on a windy day.
This is an encouraging finding: More than 90% of deer that survive a hunting season will still be out there the following season.
And this result is less so. The movements of GPS collared deer found 43% changed their movements because of hunting pressure. And in most cases, they altered their patterns the day before the season opener. They didn’t shift their home range, but they moved around less. Also, they exhibited an uncanny ability to hide somewhere in their home range during hunting hours.
The study found bucks at the peak of the rut were traveling up to 5 miles per day. But during the rifle season it was less than half that —because most of the does have already been bred and bucks don’t have to expend so much energy looking for them.
Bucks have a core area of about 1 square mile. One buck extensively tracked bedded on a ridgetop where he could see and smell approaching danger and could jump over the side of the ridge and escape.
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The study also found deer use physical features on the landscape to mark the boundaries of their home range. Things like streams, roads, pipelines and power lines. Hunters have the best chance of seeing a deer by setting up somewhere in the middle of their home range, rather than these boundary features.
What is the key to large racks on bucks? According to the study it is, in order, age, food quantity and quality, and genetics. Ample nutrition when male fawns are nursing from mom also is a factor, according to researchers.
The study found the average lifespan for a buck is 1.1 to 2 years. Most bucks are killed. But though it may sometimes seem all have been taken by another hunter, many bucks do survive. One captured buck in the study survived almost another nine hunting seasons.
There has always been a lot of speculation of how many deer are killed by predators.
Of captured deer killed by predators, black bears — deer’s alpha predator —took the most, if you throw out humans. Coyotes, bobcats and the occasional dog also killed deer, usually fawns. Interestingly, some does seek out roads or human-made structures to have their fawns, presumably because fewer predators are around.
Is it true there is so much pressure on hunting deer on public lands that your chance of getting one is small? Well, one season, researchers had radio collars on 32 deer in the three state forests. At the end of the season, 31 were still alive.
Bucks are known to joust with their antlers in the rut. It’s generally assumed these contests for dominance are harmless. But one buck in the research study was found dead after an antler had punctured its chest near the heart.
Let’s close with a couple fascinating tidbits about deer.
Deer salivate about 2 gallons a day.
The number of spots on a fawn’s coat ranges between 272 and 342.
Ad Crable is an LNP | LancasterOnline outdoors writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.