White Tailed Deer Rutting Season and Natural History

The following information about the white-tailed deer rutting season and life cycle comes from Chapter 3 of How to Hunt Deer by Edward A. Freeman. How to Hunt Deer is also available to purchase in print.

In deer hunting, as in any other line of endeavor, the more knowledge a man has of the subject, the more successful he will be; if deer hunting could be reduced to an exact science, much of the pleasure of this sport would be lost. Luckily, this hunting will never reach that stage, for we are dealing with living animals that have individual characteristics which do not always conform with those of the herd as a whole. No matter how much knowledge we have of the actions of deer, there will always be the element of chance which makes the chase an uncertainty up to the point where the animal is bagged. This pitting of the hunter’s knowledge of deer habits against the uncertain actions of a deer is one of the things which makes the sport so enjoyable. Even if the deer is able to escape and the hunt is counted as a failure, there is always the pleasure of studying the result to find out how and why the deer escaped, thus adding to the hunter’s fund of deer knowledge. To many of us, this learning about deer is one of the most satisfactory parts of hunting.

Any person who is fortunate enough to reside in a deer hunting section and who is interested enough to spend the time and effort, should be able to learn enough about deer to become a successful hunter, and, after a few years’ experience, a proficient guide. Those who live in cities far removed from the deer range do not have the opportunity to study deer at first hand. They must depend on others for hunting knowledge which may be checked and confirmed by occasional short hunting trips to deer ranges.

As a boy, I lived in a farming section where there were very few deer. Most of the men who were interested in deer hunting made annual trips to the north woods for their sport. When I was old enough to become interested in hunting, the deer invasion of the farming country had started and there were enough deer in my “neck of the woods” so that I was able to spend quite a bit of time hunting them and studying their habits. Neighbors knowing I was interested would report to me when and where they saw deer. I did not confine such activity to the deer season, but went into the woods whenever I had time, for I felt that the more I could find out about their movements and habits, the more success I would have in predicting their actions during the open season.

This personal observation plus the information furnished by neighbors soon gave me quite an accurate picture of the range and actions of the few deer that frequented the country within a few miles of my home. The fact that there were few deer was a help in my study as I was able to check each individually. I am sure that some of the things which I learned in those days could not be learned in the same section today because of the abundance of deer in that area. Later I was able to study deer collectively and as a result, I became a fairly proficient hunter. Not because I could kill my share of deer, but because I was able to predict with fair certainty what a deer would do in a given situation.

Some of the more important facts (from the hunter’s viewpoint) which I learned about deer habits may be best stated by presenting a brief sketch of the life of a deer. It is best to use a doe for example because she is the most important unit of the herd. She does the reproducing, is responsible for the training and is the leader of the family group. Her life begins when she leaves the winter yard during her first pregnancy. Before this time, she has been learning the things which she must pass along to future generations and most of her actions have been under the direction or supervision of other deer. At this time she becomes a separate and distinct unit representative of the herd.

When the herd leaves the yard in the spring of the year, each doe leaves the rest of the animals and seeks a place where she can deliver and raise her young without interference. If there are not too many other deer in the region, she will pick a place where she will be alone; otherwise she will pick an area as far removed from other deer as possible. Why a doe with the herd instinct of deer should seek solitude for a portion of her life, is a question which I have not tried to answer. The fact that she does is sufficient for deer hunting purposes.

After finding a satisfactory spot, the doe makes herself familiar with the surrounding country. This area will probably be her home range for the remainder of her life, spending most of her time within the boundaries of this area with short trips to other nearby ranges. Sometimes these excursions away from home are made for no apparent reason and sometimes natural enemies cause her to leave home for a time. She always returns as long as there is food and comparative safety on the home range.

The size of this range varies in different localities, with food and shelter being the determining factors. In my section, this home range seldom extends more than two miles from a central point.

Somewhere on this range, the doe bears her young. A single fawn is usual in first pregnancies, although twins are not uncommon. As soon as the fawn is able to follow its mother, they travel the range together. They find or make the trails which they use, select their favorite bedding grounds, become familiar with the food possibilities, find the danger spots, as well as the safe ones, and when the hunting season starts, they are probably more familiar with their home range than the average man is with his home town.

During the rutting season the doe will be visited by a buck. This will probably be the only contact she will have with other deer unless there are other family groups nearby and the ranges overlap. There might be meetings of the two groups while they are occupying the common range. One group will seldom leave its range to follow another group, each usually returning to its own territory.

As soon as snow comes, the fresh vegetation and green type of food becomes scarce, and the deer join other family groups in an area where there is browse and shelter. They then spend the winter in a yard in the company of other deer. Even in the yard, if it is a large one, the herd seems to divide into family groups, mature bucks joining groups of their choice.

At the spring “break up” of the yard, our doe, accompanied by her fawn of the year before, will return to her summer range. There she will probably bear two fawns and the four deer will repeat the life of the year before.

The following spring, the oldest fawn will be on its own. If it is a doe she will seek a range of her own and will start a new family group. Quite often this new range will adjoin and include a portion of the territory where the animal was reared, but the two groups will seldom travel together.

The life of a mature buck is different from that of a doe. He has no family ties. He has no responsibilities except to himself, and for this reason he usually leads a solitary life during the summer. When he leaves his mother, he picks a range of his own, sometimes in company with another buck but often alone. During the time when his antlers are growing, he travels very little, but as soon as they are hard and polished, he begins to extend his range so that by the time that the rutting season starts, he has a general idea of the country and the doe population over a considerable territory. The important thing for the hunter to remember about this situation is that the buck does not have the intimate knowledge of each range that the local doe has and that he must depend on the doe’s knowledge and strategy for safety, or return to his own range when in danger.

During the white-tailed deer rutting season, the buck travels extensively, stopping for a short time with any doe that welcomes his attention, then going on in search of another.

Since the hunting season coincides, at least in part, with the breeding season, and the goal of most hunting trips is a buck, it is highly desirable to understand the actions of buck deer at this time of year.

Reproduction is the compelling urge at this time and other activities are subordinate. Fighting other bucks is done to establish and defend the fitness of a buck to increase the herd under the law of “survival of the fittest.” Feeding at this time is merely incidental to the business at hand. Travel is intended to be a means of reaching as many doe as possible in the allotted time. Self-preservation is the only thing that is more important and, in some cases, even this seems to be disregarded.

When a buck has found a willing doe, he will stay with her for a time or, if there are other doe in the immediate vicinity, he will divide his time among them. If he is startled by hunters while in the company of a doe, he will follow her lead and depend on her strategy to remove the danger. Once he has submitted his safety to a doe’s direction, he will follow her almost blindly. Any danger that she passes through, he will attempt, yet always following, never taking the dangerous leading position. If he is startled while alone, he will usually go to the nearest doe for leadership even though this places her in jeopardy. Sometimes he passes on by, leaving her to cope with the danger. Sometimes he will go to a feeding area where there are tracks enough to confuse a hunter and possibly transfer his attention to some other deer. This lack of chivalry is a buck characteristic that should be remembered by the hunter when he is attempting to hunt deer.

One of the many things that a hunter should know about deer is their feeding habits and the food which they eat. A deer, like any animal, needs to eat to live. The hunter who looks for these animals in an area where there is no food available is wasting his time.

Deer resemble sheep and goats in the food which they eat. Like goats, they like the coarse fibered plants and bushes. Like the sheep, they prefer the broad-leafed plants and weeds to the narrow-leafed grasses. They like many cultivated crops as well as many berries, fruits and nuts. Most of their foods are seasonal. This is the reason why it might not be wise to look for deer in the same place they were seen feeding a month previously.

Every year we hear people remarking about the ability of deer to know when the hunting season is about to open; how they leave their usual haunts at about this time. Yet people never seem to realize that the hunting season is usually preceded by several frosts that kill vegetation upon which the deer have been feeding and that they are forced to change their location in order to find sufficient palatable food. Of course, the rutting season and the presence of bird and rabbit hunters in the woods at this time of year have an upsetting effect on a deer’s nervous system; nevertheless, the change of feeding grounds is the most important reason for their change of location.

It is not necessary for the hunter to know each and every plant and bush that deer eat, but it is desirable for him to know what the most abundant and palatable deer food is during the hunting season. This varies from place to place and from year to year and must be determined in each place and in each season. Here in Maine, when we have a beechnut year, most of the deer abandon other food and flock to the beech ridges. Deer even travel several miles from their home range in search of this food and, if not disturbed by hunters, do not always return to their home range between feeding periods. On other years, they depend on acorns, apples, browse and plants which have not been destroyed by frost. There is no hard and fast rule that can be used, but careful observation on the first day of a hunt should give a man some idea of what the deer are feeding on.

What deer eat is not so important as when they eat it. Most hunters know that deer feed twice a day, night and morning, but many men waste a lot of time watching feeding areas at a time when there is little chance of a deer visiting them. I have seen deer feeding as late as nine o’clock in the morning and as early as three o’clock in the afternoon, but this is unusual and it is a waste of time to watch these places between these hours except in times of inclement weather. Deer seem to be very weather-conscious and will sometimes feed just before a storm and sometimes during a light warm rain. They seldom feed during a bad storm unless they are feeding on browse in a heavily wooded area that provides good cover, such as a cedar swamp.

The deer’s feeding time changes with the moon. Sometimes they will feed early in the afternoon and early in the morning, leaving the feeding area before it is light enough to do much shooting. As the moonlight changes, they will change so that after a time they will not start feeding in the evening until nearly dark, but will feed later in the morning. The hunter’s problem if he wishes to see feeding deer, is to locate the deer’s feeding area and to watch that area at a time when the animals are expected.

Most of a deer’s time is expended in eating and in digesting this food. The digestive process should be carried on in quiet surroundings and, with a few exceptions, is not attempted at the feeding area. I have found a few deer chewing their cud under apple trees or on oak and beech ridges, but usually they travel to some secluded bedding area where there is less chance of interruption. Because of this habit there is not much chance of bagging a deer at a feeding area during a greater part of the day. Of course, there is always the chance of sighting a roving buck at these places for, during the rutting season, a buck might be seen at any spot and at any time.

While deer are in a bed digesting a meal, it is obvious that the hunter has very little chance of sighting one, unless he is able to find their bed or depends on some other hunter to find and move them. If he decides to try to find their bed, he should have some knowledge of the country as well as of the habits of the deer. There is nothing to prevent deer from stopping at any place in the woods, but they have their favorite bedding areas and will often travel for some distance to use them instead of resting near a feeding area. Seclusion is what deer want most at this time. A safe escape route is desirable. Comfort is sometimes a factor in time of cold or stormy weather.

The most dependable way to locate these bedding areas is to trail a deer to them. This is a difficult task on bare ground, but is fairly simple when there is a tracking snow. The hunter merely has to pick up a track at a feeding area and follow it to the place where the deer is, or has been, spending the rest period. This trail will lead the hunter over an apparently aimless route until it makes an abrupt turn, usually into the wind. This turn is nearly always in sight of the deer’s bed so that it can be watched. Other directions, too, may be watched, with the nose and ears supplementing vision.

The bed may be on a low ridge; it may be in a thicket of small softwood; it may be under or behind a blow-down; it may be well hidden or in plain sight; but no matter where the location is, the hunter should be able to see at least one good reason for that location and, after seeing several such places, should be able to recognize desirable bedding grounds without the necessity of trailing deer to them.

If a man knows the approximate range of the deer in his hunting area and if he is able to recognize the probable bedding places of these deer, he should be able to locate and move a deer at almost any time of day. This ability to find deer at all times of day often results in a shot, but often it is necessary to trail or anticipate a deer’s course in order to bag him. This requires a knowledge of deer trails for best results.

The country that is inhabited by deer is covered by a network of game trails which are similar to the network of roads used by humans. There are trunk lines, secondary trails and little used trails which correspond to our country roads. Each deer’s range is crisscrossed by trails leading from one place to another. These are not so well defined in feeding areas as they are between them, between feeding and bedding areas and between different ranges. When these trails pass through an area which is not important to the deer, they are usually plain and well defined. When these trails pass a danger spot, such as an opening between two patches of woods, they are obvious to the trained eye and are usually located in the safest spot. Trails that cross roads and highways are usually well defined and deer seldom cross these barriers except over these trails. Trails over or around obstacles such as swamps, streams, bluffs and fences are usually well-traveled and easy to see and are used by most of the deer which range in that part of the country. Since most ranges overlap, these trails cover the entire deer range.

The best way to find and to learn about these trails is to follow deer over them, but, after a time, the hunter is able to locate the well-traveled ones by traveling over the country and noting the logical places and checking them for evidence of use.

If a hunter knows the game trails of the country which he hunts; if he knows the boundaries of the deer ranges in the area; if he knows where and how to locate deer, he stands a good chance of bagging one of these animals. However he can improve his chances if he has some knowledge of the nervous or mental disposition of deer.

Deer have been described as being a bundle of nerves and this is not far from the truth. They are naturally timid and are instinctively afraid of any carnivorous animal, man included. When they encounter one of these animals from which they can not hide, they take refuge in flight—speed being their best protection. If they are aware of approaching danger, this flight will be a calculated withdrawal, but if surprised, they will start in a blind effort to escape. In these cases, planned escape strategy will not be used until after the initial fright is past and the animal has a chance to appraise the danger.

Along with fear, a deer has a large amount of curiosity and this conflict of emotions has resulted in the death of many deer, a fact that the hunter should remember.

Deer are similar to sheep in that they often follow the leader without regard to individual safety. When a group of deer are startled, they may separate for a short time but will soon rejoin and try to escape as a group. If the hunter is after a buck, he should remember that the buck is usually the last member of a group and that a doe is the leader.

Deer, like many animals, are inclined to be stubborn. They can be persuaded to travel in a direction that they chose for themselves but any attempt to drive them in other directions will meet with stubborn opposition.

The hunter who is aware of these traits should turn them to his own advantage whenever he has the opportunity.

A deer’s senses of sight, smell and hearing are its warning system and constitute the most important part of its protective equipment. If the hunter expects to approach a deer without detection, he must avoid this warning system. This is difficult and often impossible, but it is helpful to have an understanding of how deer use these identification senses.

Their sense of smell is very well developed. Any animal which can dig down through a foot and a half of snow and find a frozen apple, squash, turnip or cabbage must have a good nose. I have watched deer do this and they never dig an unproductive hole. I watched five feeding deer while a mink approached them. There was a cross wind, but the deer detected the mink at a distance of over a hundred yards. The mink was in thick cover and I am sure that they detected its presence by scent alone. The ability of deer to catch the scent of a hunter depends on the wind direction and velocity, in relation to man and animal, and on the time that these relations have been maintained. A very light air movement will carry a man’s scent away from a deer if he is down wind, and to it, of course, if he is up wind. Sometimes a strong wind will dissipate the scent so that a deer fails to detect it even if the hunter is up wind. When the atmospheric pressure is such that smoke stays close to the ground then scent remains close to the ground and at such times deer can detect odors for a long distance.

The fact that deer have a keen nose need not be too discouraging to the hunter, for deer do not run at the first hint of danger. The deer which live in settled country have become accustomed to the scent of humans and they will not resort to flight from them until they are sure that such flight is necessary. True wilderness deer, on the other hand, are so unaccustomed to man that their curiosity will often be stronger than their instinctive fear. The deer which live in a wilderness country that is hunted intensively are the deer that are most apt to rely on their sense of smell, and, since all men encountered are enemies, they are the deer that are most apt to flee from the scent of these men.

A deer’s hearing is exceptionally good. I have seen this demonstrated many times but perhaps one example will furnish a good idea of its actions when alarmed by a noise.

I was watching three deer feeding in a field. I was well hidden and there was a slight movement of air from the deer to me. These deer were about two hundred and fifty yards from me and I was waiting for them to come into surer range of my short range gun before attempting to shoot one of them. While I was watching them, they suddenly stopped feeding, looked in my direction for a short time, switched their tails nervously and walked out of the field into the edge of the nearby woods. I had not heard any sound that could account for their actions, so I looked around to see if I could find what had alarmed them. When I turned my head I could hear voices. There were a woman and child walking along a road about one hundred and fifty yards in back of me. This road was not visible from the spot where the deer had been feeding. Although the voices were indistinct from where I was stationed, the deer had heard and recognized the sound as a possible source of danger and had made a discreet withdrawal. They were not unduly alarmed and were back feeding in the field twenty minutes later. They had heard sounds at four hundred yards that I had failed to hear at one hundred and fifty yards.

A deer’s hearing, like its sense of smell, is affected by the wind and other atmospheric conditions. These conditions should be considered by the hunter who wishes to approach a deer without being heard.

Eyesight is a deer’s weak point when it comes to the identification of objects. Deer are supposed to be colorblind. Apparently they are unable to see details of an object at any great distance and they seem to be unable to identify objects by their outline. In spite of this, they are able to detect motion at a considerable distance.

I have stood perfectly still many times while deer looked at me and, unless they detected my scent, they acted as if they were uncertain of my identity. On one occasion, I stood in an open field and a deer passed me at a distance of about fifty yards. He stopped and looked at me for a long minute before he continued his walk across the field. There was no sign of alarm in his actions. He seemed a bit puzzled about me, yet not enough for him to investigate or to cause him to run.

I have stalked feeding deer by moving towards them when they were not looking my way and by remaining motionless when they were looking. I have killed a few deer in this manner after they had looked directly at me while I was only partially concealed by small clumps of bushes. On other occasions when I have tried this they became suspicious and left the area.

One time in a canoe I stalked a deer. I crossed a small pond in plain sight of the deer which was feeding on the shore. By traveling slowly and directly towards the deer I created the illusion of a stationary or floating object. By keeping the paddle in the water and only moving it when the deer was not looking, I kept noise and motion to a minimum. The deer became slightly suspicious at about one hundred yards, but never entered the woods until I had more than halved that distance. There was the possibility that the animal was able to detect my scent. This seems to indicate that a deer’s eyesight is not keen and dependable.

I have found that deer do not depend on any specific sense for identification of enemies, but verify the findings of one sense by the other two, and that as a rule they will not resort to flight until all of their senses dictate that flight is necessary. This gives the hunter an opportunity to approach, even if the animal is aware of the hunter’s presence.

This identification trait may be observed by checking a deer’s actions at night when it is blinded by a light. Perhaps this is not a fair test because the effect of a strong light may slow its reaction to smell and sound. Two of us approached a deer one night until we were standing within four feet of the animal and could have touched its nose with our light if we had wanted. We talked to each other in a normal tone and there was no question of the deer’s not hearing us and it must have been able to smell us at that distance. Nevertheless it stood there until I removed the light so that it could see us. It was not alarmed, only curious, until it had identified us with all of its senses.

I watched a group of deer on a moonlight night as they fed in an apple orchard. There was a crusty snow on the ground. These deer arrived in the orchard singly and in groups of two or three until there were at least fifteen deer there at midnight when I stopped watching them. Each time a new group was heard approaching the orchard, every deer there would stop feeding and face the direction of the newcomers. They would hold this position of alertness until the new group was positively identified.

Another hunter and I were walking a woods road one morning when he sighted a feeding deer that seemed to be approaching us. We stepped behind a small fir for concealment waiting to see what the deer would do. It came along, feeding on young hardwood twigs until it was within a hundred feet of us before it detected our scent. At this time it stopped and tested the air in all directions, trying to locate our position. After deciding on the probable direction of our location, it withdrew to a low ridge which was about fifty yards to our right, still in sight of our location, and stood there without moving, but with an unmistakable attitude of alertness. It stood there until we made our presence known by stepping from our hiding place.

These and many other similar experiences have convinced me that deer do not depend on one sense alone to tell them of danger; that sight is the least dependable of them; and that scent is the one which they are most apt to rely upon.

One defensive quality which the deer have and which they use very effectively is their ability to blend themselves into a large variety of backgrounds. People that are not accustomed to seeing deer in their natural habitat cannot realize how perfectly nature’s camouflage will conceal them while motionless. Under some conditions, deer walking in the woods will blend into their surroundings so well that the hunter who sees them will be uncertain as to what he has seen. Often when the light is not too bright, deer can apparently disappear while grazing in an open field if the background is favorable.

Deer seem to know that humans depend on eyes to locate game and consequently the deer will often depend on natural camouflage for protection instead of resorting to flight with its attending danger of running into other unexpected danger. They seem to be specially reluctant to leave their beds while they are digesting a recently eaten meal and a hunter can often approach them by walking on a course that will bring him within gun range, but which is not directly towards the animal. If they can be persuaded that the hunter has not seen them, and is not interested in them, their reluctancy to move may permit quite a close approach. Feeding and traveling deer are not as apt to depend on camouflage and will usually resort to flight as soon as they have positively identified any approaching danger.

The hunter who knows the location of the deer trails, how and where to find deer at different times of day, how deer detect danger, how they react to different situations, should be able to take advantage of the weak spots in their defense system and should be able to avoid the strong points in that system. This is deer hunting reduced to its basic simplicity.

Click here to purchase How to Hunt Deer in paperback

White-Tailed Deer Rutting Season and Life Cycle

Return to How To Hunt Deer Table of Contents