You Know Where That Buck Beds, Huh?

April 10, 2024 By: Luke Resop
buck beds

We’re all familiar with the lore surrounding buck beds and bedding habits. Many hunters have elaborate theories that factor in weather and landscape features to predict where a specific buck will choose to bed at a specific time. We all hear claims like “That’s his bedding area,” or “He beds in this area, but only on northwest winds so he can see what’s in front of him and smell what’s behind him.” But what does the scientific literature say about this topic? 

Nothing. To our knowledge, there has never been a scientific study on buck bedding habits. So other than hunter anecdotes about buck beds, what substantiates these claims? 

A fair amount of research has been conducted on deer beds in general, and the common finding among these studies points toward the importance of cover, both for thermoregulation and concealment. Researchers either “glassed-up” bedded deer in the open landscapes of the Southwest or back-tracked deer in fresh snow to bed sites for most of these studies. While these observational studies are extremely valuable for identifying the vegetation characteristics deer seek out when choosing a bed site, they tell us very little, if anything, about the when and where of bedding habits, and they tell us even less about the specifics of adult buck bedding habits. 

How many bedding areas do bucks use? How often do they return to a given bedding area? Do they prefer some areas over others? How do these preferences fluctuate over the course of the hunting season? Observational studies like the ones mentioned above are not suitable for such questions. These questions require fine-scale GPS data to pull the covers off buck bedding areas. 

A Study of Buck Bedding Habits

With help from the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, our team at the MSU Deer Lab captured and GPS-collared 60 adult bucks, all 2½ years old or older, in the Big Black River region of Mississippi to help us answer questions like these. This region is known for producing some of the best bucks in the state and includes large properties interspersed with ag fields, food plots, forests, early successional areas, and a focus on producing big bucks.

buck beds
One of the 60 bucks in the MSU Deer Lab bedding behaviors study. All 60 of the bucks studied were adults at least 2½ years old.

We programmed the GPS collars to record each buck’s location every 15 minutes during the hunting season, which spans October 1 to January 31. We analyzed bedding data by the following timeframes: daily, each two-week rut phase, and the full hunting season. Two-week rut phases included the pre-rut, early rut, peak rut, late rut, and post-rut. Peak rut is the two-week interval in which the peak of conceptions occurs, and more than 90% of breeding occurs between the early and late rut phases. 

Defining Bed Sites and Bedding Areas

Before analyzing the bedding habits of these bucks, we first had to determine what arrangement of GPS points realistically constituted buck beds, or what we called a “bed site.” We defined bed sites as four or more consecutive GPS points (at least one hour) inside a 20-yard radius, which represents the location error of our collars. We excluded all bed sites in food plots and agriculture fields from our analyses because it’s likely these locations represent foraging bouts rather than bed sites. Refer to the example map below. Since bucks may bed for less than 1 hour, you can think of our results as a conservative estimate of bed sites. 

buck beds
In the MSU Deer Lab study, “bed sites” are defined as four or more consecutive GPS points (at least one hour) spent within a 20-yard radius. Locations in food plots and ag fields were excluded from consideration, assuming they were foraging behaviors and not bed sites.

We also quantified bedding areas, which are defined as one or more individual bed sites separated from all other bed sites by at least 100 yards. With these criteria, a “bedding area” could include a single bed site or a string of connected bed sites, each of which is separated from the next by less than 100 yards. 

buck beds

“Bedding areas” are defined as one or more bed sites separated from all other bed sites by at least 100 yards. Bed sites 1 and 2 in the previous map are less than 100 yards apart, so they are part of bedding area 1, and since bed site 3 is further than 100 yards from bed sites 1 and 2, it is a separate bedding area

What We Saw In Buck Bedrooms

Results described here represent the average for all 60 bucks unless otherwise noted. 

When averaged across the entire hunting season, an individual buck had four bed sites per day in two bedding areas. Bucks used an average of 31 different bedding areas during the hunting season, but one buck used 87 bedding areas and another used only eight. As with many other facets of deer biology, bedding habits vary greatly from one buck to another. 

When we look at the number of bedding areas used by an individual buck during two-week rut phase intervals, we see the number of bedding areas steadily increasing in a stair-step fashion from pre-rut through late rut. Essentially, this means bucks not only expand their search radius for receptive does over this timeframe, but their bed sites are spaced farther and farther apart as the rut progresses. 

buck beds
Buck No. 297 was representative of the average behaviors seen among all bucks. This map shows bed sites (blue dots) and bedding areas (red circles) for Buck No. 297 just for the two week “early rut” phase. He used more than 40 differerent bed sites in over 30 different bedding areas! Watch the video below to see his actual movements and bedding areas across the two-week period.

Are Buck Beds Re-Visited?

Of those 31 bedding areas a buck used during the hunting season, were some used more than others? Big time. About 50% of a buck’s bedding areas were only used once. After bedding there, he may have traveled back through afterwards, but he didn’t bed in that area again for the duration of the hunting season. 

Conversely, about 3% of a buck’s bedding areas were used more than 200 times during the hunting season. This means every other bedding area a buck uses won’t be used again for the remainder of the hunting season, but he’ll have one or two bedding areas he returns to very frequently. However, just because a buck uses a bedding area more than 200 times doesn’t mean he’s necessarily predictable. 

“Bucks used an average of 31 different bedding areas during the hunting season, but one buck used 87 bedding areas and another used only eight.”

Recall our bedding area criteria: bedding areas can include a string of many bed sites separated from one another by less than 100 yards. In many cases, the most frequently used bedding areas span dozens of acres and contain a scattering, rather than a clustering, of bed sites. 

If we exclude all the bedding areas used only once, we can quantify “circuit time.” Circuit time is how much time elapses between consecutive bedding area visits (not “sites”). Across the entire four months of hunting season, it took a buck six days to bed in a specific area, leave, and return to that same area and bed again. When we look at circuit time by rut phase, however, a buck re-visits a bedding area every 1.5 days regardless of which two-week rut phase you examine (pre, early, peak, late and post). It’s reasonable to interpret this as a pattern you could exploit as long as you keep in mind these bedding areas can be dozens of acres in size. Just because he’s returning every 1.5 days doesn’t mean he’s walking by the same tree each time.

Day and Night Bedding Behavior

Strategic bed site selection is one way bucks can avoid hunters, not only in terms of the bed site’s location on the landscape but also time of day he’s bedded. Contrary to our prediction, 50% of the average buck’s bed sites were day beds and 50% were night beds. On average, bucks spent 1.75 hours in a day bed and 1.6 hours in a night bed. Based on the bucks in our study and the criteria we used to analyze bedding habits, bucks are only spending a total of about 3.5 hours bedded during daylight hunting hours, in two bouts of 1.75 hours each.

buck beds
A series of six trail-camera photos showed this Indiana buck catching a short 17-minute nap in the middle of an active scrape. A rest of less than an hour like this one would not be counted in the MSU Deer Lab study, so their findings are a conservative estimate of the number of buck beds. Photos courtesy of Tom James.

Buck Beds and Cover

Cover is fairly ubiquitous on our study site in the South. Contrast that with what’s common in the Midwest: landscapes dominated by agriculture and bisected by narrow, wooded drainages and small woodlots. The bedding behaviors we presented here would likely look very different if a buck only had a few spots to choose from on the landscape. 

Though we did not directly test the influence of cover on bed site selection, past research on the topic can help us make some recommendations. High-quality well-distributed cover is probably the best way to ensure a buck has what he needs to meet his bedding preferences on your property. 

Start with sunlight management and work your way down to diverse fire seasons, selective herbicide applications, and soil disturbances to stimulate diverse, high-quality cover for bucks (and all the other deer in the herd) to choose from. Sound management not only creates high-quality cover where deer can bed, but also nutritious forage to support antler growth and lactation. It’s unlikely a couple of small hinge-cut patches sparsely scattered across your property with poor cover in between will satisfy a buck’s bedding preferences.

This is just the first of several analyses we will run on this topic. We can guess the questions you still have. How do wind, weather, topography and hunting pressure influence buck beds and bedding habits? There’s lots more to uncover. Think of these results as the first peek under the sheets of buck beds.

About the Authors: Luke Resop is a graduate research assistant at MSU Deer Lab. Natasha Ellision is a postdoctoral research associate at MSU Deer Lab. Bronson Strickland is a professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist at MSU Deer Lab. Steve Demarais is a professor of wildlife ecology and management at MSU Deer lab. William McKinley  is the Deer Program Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.