8 Ways Deer Are the Opposite of What Many Hunters Think

March 8, 2023 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Using your common sense isn’t always a good method for understanding deer behavior and biology. It’s easy to believe deer move more on a full moon night because it makes common sense: They must be able to see better, right? Yet multiple scientific studies using GPS-collared deer continue to show that deer move most around sunrise and sunset, regardless of moon phase. Until “common sense” supplies a reliable dataset to support the moon-movement narrative, this win goes to science.

Many times scientific findings, built on solid data with statistical reliability, contradict what seems to be common sense. And direct observation doesn’t always give us an accurate look at the world, either. Your backyard may look flat, but the Earth isn’t. Traps like these have lured many deer hunters into faulty beliefs about deer, herd management, habitat and hunting. 

As an organization that relies on science to guide deer conservation, the NDA is familiar with the frequent conflicts between folklore and science. Here are eight of the biggest surprises about deer that many hunters find difficult to believe.

Whitetail bucks are not territorial.

It’s a word that slips out unconsciously in many conversations about deer, especially when scrapes and rubs are the topic. Many people say these signposts are where bucks are “marking their territory.” Except, they’re not. Deer are certainly communicating at these signposts through scent, but the message is not “stay out.” That’s because whitetail bucks are not territorial animals. They do not claim turf and defend it against other bucks. In the reverse, their ranges overlap extensively, which is how you can see multiple bucks in a single morning or afternoon in the stand.

In summer, bucks form bachelor groups and spend most of their time together, even grooming each other like the two bucks in the photo above. But when the bachelor groups break apart in fall with the approach of the rut, the ranges of these bucks continue to overlap.

Dominant bucks will assert their rank in close quarters where there’s a resource like food or an estrus doe to be claimed, but the losing buck doesn’t change his zip code. Staying on turf that he’s familiar with is a key to his survival. So, you don’t need to worry about “bully bucks,” and you can’t stop these dominance interactions through harvest choices. They are a natural part of social behavior in wild whitetails and do not limit the number or quality of bucks you can attract where you hunt.

Read a longer discussion of whitetails and territoriality here

Northern whitetail genetics are not widespread in today’s southern deer.

Most hunters know that northern deer were transported from states like Wisconsin and Michigan to the South during the whitetail restocking effort of the mid-1900s. This has given rise to beliefs and stories about the genetic traits visible in today’s whitetails. In truth, it is rare to find traces of those genetics in today’s deer.

To begin with, stocking records show that the majority of historical stocking events involved deer moved within a state – from holdout populations to areas where deer had been wiped out in the same state – or from neighboring states. For example, Alabama moved more than 3,000 deer within state and imported about 500 deer, and many of the imported deer came from other southern states. Louisiana moved 2,400 deer within state and imported about 500 deer, with most of the imports coming from next door in Texas. “Local” deer, being native to the region, accustomed to its climate, and possibly carrying immunity to health problems like hemorrhagic disease, were more likely to survive than northern deer anyway. Between survival rates and low stocking numbers, northern deer apparently contributed little to southern deer recovery.

When he was a student at Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab, Jordan Youngmann sampled deer DNA from 34 sites across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that received northern deer during the restocking era. He found a genetic similarity with source populations at only one of these 34 sites (Black Warrior WMA in northwest Alabama that received 105 deer from Iron Mountain, Michigan in 1926). The rest matched genetics from southern populations.

Harvesting does in the peak of the rut is a good way to attract bucks.

Deer hunters employ all kinds of attractants meant to mimic the sights and smells of an estrus doe, but numerous observations by many hunters suggest it’s hard to beat the real thing: a fresh doe that you just shot lying in the woods near your stand. 

I’ve seen it myself and witnessed adult bucks approach a dead doe. Far from being spooked by the sight, they circle, stare, wait patiently, and remain in the area. The drive to breed causes bucks to take lots of risks they wouldn’t normally take and to ignore odd things that might normally alarm them, especially if they can see and smell an actual estrus doe in front of them.

Data shows that most hunters don’t buy this. If they need to harvest does for herd management or for the freezer, they delay until after the rut is over. No doubt, it’s out of fear that killing a doe will spook bucks in the area and ruin their chances of filling a buck tag. Yes, if a buck is in sight of you when you zip an arrow through a doe or touch off a firearm, he is more likely to become alarmed. But if you put a doe on the ground during the rut, you’re securing the freshest source of the best buck-attracting scent available, and it is clearly a powerful draw to roaming bucks in the area. Plus, you help take care of herd-management goals and freezer replenishment early.

Dr. Grant Woods recorded harvest data for 11 years on a South Carolina research project and found that 25% of mature bucks were harvested while a doe, taken on the same hunt, was already down near the same stand. Many hunters have witnessed bucks actually use their antlers or hoofs to try to get a dead doe to stand up for breeding. Watch the video below if you’ve never seen that.

Your state wildlife agency doesn’t need to know what you killed to know what everybody killed.

We at NDA hear it every year when we release our annual Deer Report about trends in state and national deer harvests: “These numbers can’t be accurate because nobody asked me how many deer I killed.”

So many hunters “call BS” every year that I wrote a separate article explaining how state wildlife agencies are able to make highly accurate estimates of annual deer harvest, age of the buck harvest, and more, without surveying every deer hunter – or even most of them! They don’t have to achieve 100% compliance with harvest reporting requirements either. If you remain doubtful, read the full article.

Killing a buck doesn’t change the deer “gene pool.”

This area is probably the most seductive logic trap in deer hunting. If a buck is dead and cannot breed any more does, his genetic contribution is cut off, right? This faulty logic is reinforced by how we have shaped domestic animals, including pets and livestock, through selective breeding. 

But there’s a key difference: With domestic animals, we are in direct control of who breeds who. With wild deer, nope. That buck you shot that supposedly had some genetic trait you don’t favor may have bred does as a younger deer, or earlier the same year you shot him. And his traits are out there in other bucks and in does as well. And the bigger deer gene pool is flowing and mixing across the broader landscape through dispersal, excursions, and other behaviors out of your control. You just scooped a bucket of water from Lake Michigan and patted yourself on the back for lowering the lake level.

Furthermore, new DNA research is showing we can’t look at a buck and make reliable predictions about his offspring anyway. Antler traits have low heritability, meaning that environmental factors like nutrition play a larger role in a buck reaching his antler potential. 

Research by Cole Anderson of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville estimated antler traits are only 36% heritable. A culling study by Donnie Draeger at Comanche Ranch in Texas found “cull bucks” that produced larger-antlered offspring than bucks with above-average antlers for their age. So, forget about trying to manage genetics, because you can’t. Put your effort into something that makes a real difference: improving nutrition through habitat management.

You can increase fawn production by harvesting does.

More does equal more fawns, right? Again, a logic trap. It seems to make sense, except it’s more complicated than that. It’s healthy does that produce more fawns that survive to enter the fall population. Healthy does living in quality habitat produce higher rates of twins and triplet fawns. Those fawns enjoy better health due to quality, abundant milk as well as quality, abundant forage for their first real food. 

The reverse is true of does living in high-density deer populations where habitat quality is reduced by too many deer for the food available. These does bear fewer twins and triplets, and survival rates of those fawns are lower. 

Thus, fewer does in healthy condition can produce higher fawn recruitment rates than a higher number of does in unhealthy condition. When there are too many deer for the habitat where you hunt, doe harvest will help reduce density, restore nutritional balance, and increase fawn production. The process works even faster if you work to improve habitat quality and available forage at the same time.

Protecting does from harvest to build their numbers will reduce your buck sightings.

The “buck magnet” theory is another falsehood some hunters use to skip doe harvest. It’s built on the faulty idea that bucks can somehow detect – from afar – the density of breeding opportunities and move toward areas of greater potential. That’s magical thinking, and it doesn’t work that way.

To begin with, adult bucks are extremely loyal to their established home ranges. With the exception of short-duration excursions, they don’t leave familiar areas in the hopes there might be more food, more safety, or more breeding opportunities elsewhere.

But within a buck’s home range, the breeding strategy is known scientifically as “scramble polygyny,” meaning it’s a race to see how many estrus does a buck can locate and potentially breed before the clock runs out and no more are in estrus. When the local buck:doe ratio is tilted toward more does, a buck doesn’t have to search as far or as long to move from one estrus doe to the next. And he has fewer other bucks to compete against, so he can afford to spend more time tending each doe he finds. In other words, he’s less visible to hunters.

So, stockpiling does will not draw bucks from afar, and even if it did, you’d be less likely to see them, because they don’t have to move or compete to breed. As a hunter, you benefit from a balanced buck:doe ratio through greater competition and more searching by bucks.

Cutting down oak trees is a good way to increase the acorn crop.

This statement seems to defy all logic at first glance. How can killing an oak tree increase the acorn crop? People who refuse to consider this statement are protective of oaks, beech, hickories and other mast producers to the point of hoarding them. 

And this is where the problem comes in. Seedlings of these trees are often too dense for their own good, per acre. They are competing against each other and other tree species for resources, including sunlight, soil nutrients, moisture and space to grow. Competition and shade leads to all individual trees growing slower and producing tall, spindly crowns as they all fight to reach what little sunlight is available above. Under these conditions, individual trees may take decades to ever produce mast, and when they do, they won’t have enough branches to produce a significant amount.

But, select one oak (or beech or hickory) to hold a particular space and remove all other oaks or competing trees of other species, and it will grow faster and produce mast sooner. Given space of its own, it will produce a large, round crown with lots of limbs, branches and twigs. Flowers are produced on new growth at the ends of branches each year. The more branches on a tree, and the more space it has to produce new tip growth each year, the higher the total number of flowers produced by that individual tree – and thus more mast. Such a tree will far outpace mast production of the overcrowded stand of saplings if you hadn’t killed any of them.

Research by Dr. Craig Harper and Jared Brooke at the University of Tennessee found that “crown release” caused white oaks to produce larger crowns by 25%, and their acorn production increased by 50 to 65%.

Don’t hoard mast-producing tree species. Select a few quality individuals and give them space and resources to thrive by removing their competitors, including trees of the same species.

There are many other paradoxes in deer hunting – things we believe because they make common sense but that are wrong. The only way to avoid them is to continually question your own firm beliefs and look for the hard evidence that backs or banishes those ideas. Science asks these questions, looks for the evidence, measures it for reliability, and holds it up for all to scrutinize. That’s why NDA will continue to monitor the work of scientists to ensure we are hunting and conserving whitetails using the most reliable information available – even when it doesn’t confirm what we used to believe.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.