It is a common sight this time of year to see a half dozen bucks hanging out in a single trail-camera photo. Deer are very social, and you will often find groups of bucks fraternizing throughout the spring and summer while their antlers grow rapidly underneath a fuzzy sheath of velvet. This is called a bachelor group and, oh boy, are things about to change.
Bucks generally remain in bachelor groups from about the end of winter until just after velvet shedding the following fall. This coincides with increased testosterone levels that bucks experience as a result of shorter days as we quickly approach breeding season. As testosterone levels and competition for receptive does increases, these friendships tend to sour (for now), and bachelor groups break up. So where do they go when friends no longer want to hang out and fights start to break out? Well, nowhere really.
Hiding in Plain Sight
I’ve heard many deer hunters voice their frustration that certain bucks seem to “disappear” during the rut, but believe it or not, he is likely not as far away as you think. Bucks use what is known as their home range, which is the entire area that an individual uses throughout the year, with a smaller “core area” inside that in which he spends most of his time. We know that the average buck will use the greatest percentage of his home range during the pre-rut and rut, so his movement patterns and locations may change drastically compared to his summer pattern.
This expansion of home-range use may take bucks out of view or even off the area you hunt, but they didn’t “disappear” to search for more does or better resources elsewhere. In fact, numerous deer movement studies have provided no evidence that a buck can “sense” more does somewhere else and permanently change his home range accordingly. That would be one heck of a trick! So if your target buck seems to have skipped town, he has most likely changed his behavior, not his address.
It’s Not About Territory
Another common misconception is that bucks are territorial and that rubs and scrapes are their way of “marking their territory” to warn other bucks to proceed with caution. It is actually does that are the truly territorial ones as they defend the best fawning areas against other mothers. What bucks are really doing is leaving behind and gathering information on who is in their neighborhood rather than claiming it as their own. Multiple deer will use the same rub or scrape and these signposts are a wealth of information regarding which individual deer are present.
When it comes to bucks, their ranges still overlap significantly, even during the peak rut. Don’t worry too much about those big mature bucks you’ve been watching grow over the years running off either, because home-range and core area size tend to decrease with age, so he is liable to stay put and stick with turf that he’s familiar with.
Because of this overlap, bucks will often engage in sparring or dominance fights as they establish the pecking order and compete for mates in their neighborhood. Sparring happens early on, among all age classes and sometimes within a bachelor group, much like you and your buddies back in the day! This serves as a way for bucks to feel each other out and get a sense of where they rank in the hierarchy before competition for does is in full swing. Dominance fights on the other hand are much more violent and typically occur between older bucks as they jockey for position at the top of the heap and compete for receptive does.
He’s Still in the Neighborhood
This brings me back to my main point. Even the losing buck does not pack up and leave town. In all likelihood he will continue to occupy his normal home range as remaining in a familiar abode will greatly aid in his longevity and survival. So don’t stress too much about individual bucks being run off your property by others since these acts of aggression are unavoidable and unlikely to send anybody permanently packing. Granted some bucks may temporarily abandon certain locations within their home range, but almost always return when things calm down. Besides, recent research from the University of Georgia suggests that you may actually see more unique bucks during the rut than any other time!
One particular phenomenon that we don’t quite fully understand are excursions. Not to be confused with yearling buck dispersal, excursions are brief long-distance trips that last roughly a day or so before a buck returns to the comfort of his own home range. These quick trips have been documented in all age classes of bucks and seem to be much more common during the rut. We don’t know if these are influenced by food, hunting pressure, or breeding, but it’s important to remember that these are temporary, and it is incredibly risky to venture out to strange areas and establish a new home.
Just like humans, deer are most comfortable where things are familiar, and multiple GPS studies have supported this over the years. I’m not saying there aren’t outliers who will challenge the norm but in most cases these fellas will stick around after a bachelor group break-up. Often, a change in your own patterns, like trail-camera locations, will put you on a particular buck’s new location or help you find different bucks.
Also, like humans not every buck joins a bachelor group, and some individuals just prefer to pass the time by themselves. Deer are individuals with individual personalities, but fortunately scientific research has given us great insight as to their general behavior as a species. I hope you keep this in mind when the buck you’ve been watching grow for years seems to vanish right before the rut, but a little patience in the stand is likely to pay large dividends.