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Do Pressured Deer Fly The Coop?
After opening day, deer hunters often go home or deer hunt elsewhere, usually on lesser known land. That gives deer every advantage because, unlike deer hunters, they seldom leave the security and familiarity of their home range.
By noon on the second day of gun season, many deer hunters think every whitetail on their land has been shot or chased away. As the glum group eats lunch and listens to football on the radio, they consider whether to go home or deer hunt elsewhere, presumably to a huge woods “no one ever hunts,” where deer flee from miles around.
Sound familiar? Well, if the group has a veteran leader — or needs someone to assume that role — now’s the time to step forward. Start by quoting a deer hunting adage everyone knows, “A deer knows its home range as well as we know our own homes,” and then carry the thought one step further: “If deer know their home range that well, logic dictates that’s where they’ll hide when their lives depend on it. We know this land, too, so let’s figure out a new approach and get after them.”
Too often, though, deer hunters look for excuses instead of deer. They drive home or head off to less familiar land. When we make such choices, we cede home-court advantage, both on our land and the next property we visit.
In contrast, whitetails are survivors, not explorers. They do everything possible to avoid unfamiliar territory, especially when threatened. They take cover within their home range and hunker down. In human terms, they hide in their home’s secret staircase, or the darkest corners of their attic or basement.
If a deer is lucky or experienced, it moved into its security cover as deer hunters sneaked into the woods before dawn on opening day. Once there, experienced deer know survival means stealth and stillness. Fleeing is the last resort when their home is crawling with deer hunters. Unless they think their cover is blown, they hold tight until darkness and stay on that pattern for days, until it’s obvious deer hunters have retreated.
That behavior has been confirmed repeatedly the past half-century by researchers using scouting cameras, aerial surveillance, radio-telemetry collars, and GPS receivers and transmitters. Deer might look bound for the next county when racing away, their whitetails weaving through the oaks, but they seldom go more than a few hundred yards on a line. Their roundabout routes don’t go into the next county unless their home turf straddles that boundary.
As soon as possible, a fleeing deer holes up, even more intent on letting the next deer hunter walk past. The whitetail’s nature is to take advantage of the fact that few deer hunters scour a woods as if they were executing a search warrant.
Fear: The Great Motivator
Professor Karl Miller at the University of Georgia said too many deer hunters ignore a hard fact about whitetail behavior: Fear trumps all motivations. “If you’re interested in habitat management, you should be as concerned about creating concealment cover as you are about planting food plots,” Miller said. “Self-preservation has a way of ruining a deer’s appetite. If a whitetail feels threatened, it doesn’t matter what you plant for food. They won’t show themselves in daylight.”
Proven security cover provides deer some control of their ever-present fears, or at least allows moments of physical rest. Therefore, the area whitetails establish as their home range from spring through autumn is where they live or die during deer hunting season.
The whitetail’s aversion to unfamiliar territory is so overwhelming it seemingly surrounds their seasonal home range with an electronic barrier. Dr. Grant Woods of Missouri says that once whitetails put down roots, usually by age 2-1/2, their exploring days are over. He recalls a mature doe when he was a graduate student under professors Miller and Larry Marchinton at U-Georgia. When they tried to subdue the old girl one morning to collect samples, she broke Woods’ hold and popped out of the research facility through an open door.
“Outside that door was the world, and we were scrambling,” Woods said. “We thought once that doe got outside she’d run into the woods and be gone forever with our six years of data on her. Well, she got to the blacktop and didn’t know what to do. She kept running up and down the road. Up to that point, her only exposure to running was dashing back and forth in her stall. She wouldn’t leave that road for the ground leading to the woods. That ground was ‘Never-Never Land’ to her, and she wanted no part of it. She was more scared of those woods than the four or five humans running around trying to dart her.”
Woods said telemetry research shows similar reactions when wild whitetails get near their home-range boundaries. “Some mature bucks stray off the reservation during the rut, but not many,” he said. “For most bucks, even the sex drive can’t override their fear of the unknown. And when they’re hunted, they’re even more fearful of leaving home. Deer aren’t Christopher Columbus. Most whitetails act as if they’ll fall off the earth if they leave their home range.”
Living Within their Means
Deer hunters should realize, of course, that a deer’s seasonal home range doesn’t follow property boundaries, and it can vary in size from about 400 acres in many Eastern habitats to several square miles in more open Western habitats, where its best defense is putting ground between itself and the threat. Even then, it’s land the deer has traveled frequently to satisfy its other needs. In general, the thicker the cover, the smaller their home.
As long as the home range provides the deer’s basic needs – cover, food and procreation – they have no reason to “build” a bigger home. During the 1980s, Professor Harry Jacobson and his colleagues at Mississippi State University used radio-telemetry collars on several does to figure out their home range one year. The next year, they planted food plots a quarter-mile away to see if the collared deer would gradually include those food sources in their range. This was a region with food limitations, but the deer never went near the new food. The next year, the researchers put the food plots at the very edge of the whitetails’ home range. They soon shifted their home range to include the new food plots.
The take-home lesson: Deer don’t have the communication skills to notify another group of a great food source over the next ridge. If deer don’t already have a reason to go there, it’s unlikely they’ll discover it.
Do Deer Evacuate?
That tight bond to home might also explain why whitetails show little or no ability to seek distant refuges where deer hunting is prohibited. Deer living there might use a particular sanctuary when danger threatens, but researchers find no evidence of distant deer making beeline evacuations in response to deer hunting pressure. As Illinois deer researcher Don Autry wrote in 1967: “The impression that harassed deer concentrate in remote, unhunted areas not part of their normal home ranges is erroneous, and efforts to transport deer hunters into such areas on that notion are unjustified.”
An ongoing University of Delaware study at the Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County, Maryland, near the Delaware state line also reports that deer take refuge in their own home range. This study area is an urbanized setting and used regularly by hikers and bikers. Researchers monitored 63 collared does and placed 75 shotgun hunters on assigned stands to determine how deer avoid hunting pressure.