Are You Hunting The Average Buck or a Rule-Breaker?

November 2, 2022 By: Brian Grossman
Photo of a great Kansas buck harvested in 2021.

The NDA has long been known for providing its members and followers with the latest deer research and information. Over the years we’ve reported lots of data on deer biology, movement, how deer react to hunting pressure, food preferences, and much more. Inevitably, when we share findings from research in our articles or on social media, someone is quick to respond that the findings are wrong. They’ll usually follow that declaration with details about how the deer where they hunt don’t look or act that way. 

So, was the data wrong? Probably not. 

Is the naysayer wrong? Not necessarily.

The problem isn’t with the research or the resulting data. The discrepancy lies in how the information is presented and understood. It’s important to keep in mind that when we report findings from research like, “the average home range of a whitetail buck is one square mile,” we are reporting the average calculated from all the bucks involved in that particular study, or in some cases, multiple studies. That doesn’t mean every buck’s home range is one square mile. Chances are, some of the bucks in the study had a home range much larger than a square mile, and some had home ranges much smaller. In almost any study dealing with white-tailed deer, there are going to be outliers that fall outside the norms of deer behavior.

Some of the differences we see in how bucks look and behave from one area to another can be explained by things like habitat, environmental conditions, or even genetics. Those are variables that can differ significantly from one part of the country to another. For example, the amount of cover and food for deer where I live in the South is much different than the open agricultural lands of the Midwest. That impacts how much deer need to move to feed or to find all the necessary ingredients to survive, as well as their size and overall health.

However, even when you examine multiple bucks within the same region, with similar habitat, you’re still likely to see significant variations in how they behave. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some traits of average bucks, and as well as some outliers.

Home Range Sizes

Going back to my earlier example, the average home range size of a whitetail buck is approximately one square male based on numerous studies conducted over the years. When I recently interviewed Dr. Bronson Strickland of the Mississippi State University Deer Lab, he agreed that the one-square mile home range size is pretty accurate based on what they’ve seen with some of their recent research. He was quick to point out, however, that he’s seen his share of outliers.

Somewhere around 25% of the bucks in their recent study had home range sizes smaller than a square mile, in the 400- to 500-acre range. They also had bucks with much larger home range sizes, anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 acres. The larger home ranges often belong to bucks with what Bronson calls “mobile personalities” that actually establish two separate seasonal home ranges, spending one part of the year in one home range, then moving to the second home range for the remainder of the year. In some cases, these dual home ranges may be miles apart.

One of the outliers in their research — Buck 140 — actually makes a 15-mile trek from Mississippi to Louisiana each spring, crossing the Mississippi River in the process. He then makes a return trip to Mississippi in late summer. The reasoning behind this annual trip is still unknown.

Breeding Success

Another area where we can clearly see average bucks and outliers is in breeding success. Dr. Randy DeYoung discussed this topic in detail in a 2021 article on our website using research conducted over a 10-year period in Texas. Surprisingly, the average buck only produces one fawn in its lifetime that makes it to at least six months of age. So most bucks, at best, are only replacing themselves during their lifetime. Only 10% of bucks that breed will produce two fawns during their lifetime, and even fewer produce more than that. 

As with most studies, though, there were some outliers. Some bucks produced seven to nine offspring during their lives, and one busy buck produced 12! These findings just reaffirm the fact that you can’t manage the genetics of wild, free-ranging deer herd through selective harvest, because you have no way of knowing which bucks are producing offspring and which ones aren’t. 

Antler Size

Average bucks and outliers go beyond just deer behavior. We see it in their outward appearance as well. Specifically, we see a lot of variation in antler size and configuration, even within a given region of similar habitat. 

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation puts out an annual Deer Harvest Summary Report, and included in their 2021 report is a three-year look at average Boone & Crockett scores of New York bucks by age class. Data collected from 2015-2017 shows that the average score of a 21/2-year-old buck in New York is around 90-100 inches. However, there were also 21/2-year-old bucks taken with as little as 10-20 inches of antler up to 140-150! That’s a lot of variation, and it’s a great reminder of why we encourage you to look at the body of a buck to estimate the age and not the antlers. 

Managing the Average Buck

While whitetail bucks may be individuals, each having their own personality, it’s still important to research and learn about those average bucks. In a recent podcast interview, Dr. Strickland summed it up perfectly.

“In my opinion, you hunt and manage deer based on averages, but you acknowledge opportunities with ‘outliers’.”

The research we present through our articles and social media is meant to give you a better understanding of deer biology and behavior, help you make management decisions, and to hopefully make you a better, more successful deer hunter. We provide insight into how the “average deer” or “average buck” behaves because in most cases, that’s what you’re likely to encounter in the field. But it’s important to understand that there will always be outliers. Deer that don’t fit into the average mold. And knowing that will help you better understand the actions of a particular deer when they aren’t acting the way you think they should. 

Getting to witness and hunt these outliers can make us doubt the science, but the science is still solid, especially when repeated studies by multiple deer labs over many years all reach a similar conclusion. Knowing the behavior of “average bucks” will help you be a better deer hunter and manager, but it’s always fun to sit around the campfire talking about those outliers.

About Brian Grossman:

Brian Grossman joined the NDA staff in 2015 as its Communications Manager and now serves as the Director of Communications. Brian is responsible for amplifying NDA’s educational message for hunters through social media, e-mail, podcasts, and the NDA website. He has been a freelance writer, photographer, videographer and web designer since 2003. A trained wildlife biologist, Brian came to NDA from the Georgia DNR Wildlife Resources Division, where he was a field operations supervisor, overseeing management of 15 Wildlife Management Areas. Brian currently lives in Thomaston, Georgia with his wife, Tina.