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Whitetails don’t go by the book

September 18, 2009 at 02:57 PM

Two conceptual models have assisted our understanding of the complex variability of the whitetail rut. Each is an overview, a blueprint for a big picture. We know them well. Whitetail 101.

A good-sized bookcase can be filled with musings on the stages of the rut, along with each author’s personal take. Boiled down, these theories are two linear schematics (i.e. Pre-Rut, Rut, and Post-Rut; or Seek, Chase, Breed and Rest stages).

These two templates function like stepladders for our understanding and get us up a few rungs in “whitetail-ology.”

But the weight of our anecdotal evidence, our experience in the woods, shows us that these behavioral stages in fact don’t always line up.

The ladders are pretty shaky.

Seems our whitetails are even trickier than we thought.

And they don’t play by the book. 

The Rut’s two cherished theories have held out the promise that they will tell us how the whitetail’s behavior is defined in time and space across the deer’s range at any given stage, when in fact, as often as not, we are left wondering.

The fact is, unique segments of any local whitetail population at any given time are acting out their own unique, different, and independent rutting behaviors that randomly contradict the orthodox didactic writings of the “Rut-ologists.” 

As the rut unfolds, yearling or peripheral bucks are doing one thing, mid-level dominance bucks are doing something else, and the dominant breeder bucks are acting out an even alternate pattern of behavior.

The rut is a jigsaw puzzle, with a complex, overlapping pile of social interactions that are subtle, fleeting, and often overlooked in these super-local areas (our hunting spots).

On each hunt we see the pieces come together that define the rut.

The basic idea is that different rutting patterns are going on in various woodlots throughout the ranges at the same time.

An excellent way to conceptualize this annual whitetail phenomenon is to idealize it and imagine the coming together of the local herd for the purpose of breeding as a nucleus, with the center being the dominant buck and any given estrus doe.

Near her are other does and smaller bucks that patrol, posture, stalk, and intrude around the edges of the Whitetail Breeding Nucleus like electrons around the nucleus of an atom.

Another way to look at it is that this Whitetail Breeding Nucleus (WBN) can be conceptualized quite accurately as an exploded, olfactory Lek.

Researchers have noticed that animals, from birds to insects and even a species of bat create an olfactory “plume” as a lek (lek is a place where males of the species congregate and here, females come to breed).

Whitetails form a “moving lek,” where Androgens or sex hormones are stimulated, and a new concept in behavioral ecology, “The Challenge Hypothesis” developed by Wingfield et. al. in 1990, and considered now a cornerstone in the field of behavioral endocrinology, that fits no species better than the whitetail deer and throws light into the darkness of our understanding of deer behavior.

Rubs, scrapes, and licking branches, all olfactory indicators and signposts, as well as the scent from deer urine, feces and drool, creates an olfactory tableau within a spatial network, that at just the right time, when the breeding systems of the various whitetails in the local area synchronize, they form the critical mass at the heart and pulse of the WBN’s nexus. 

After hunting with bow and gun and studying wild whitetails for 40 years, to hear or read that whitetails across any given range are all in the same mode, stage, or phase is opposed to my experience, to say the least.

Year after year, when I notice the rut is on from my tree stand, perched just about on top of the 42nd latitude, my buddy a few miles away will note his woodlots are quiet.

Wait a couple days and the whitetails in my area “go quiet,” and his area may be just the opposite, going bonkers.

So if this observed whitetail behavioral variability is in fact the case, how can we say categorically that everyone’s whitetails are in this or that “stage” or “phase?”

Do whitetails across the range in a localized area go through the same behaviors at the same time?


The surge of hormones – androgens the basic steroids and motivational chemistry within these whitetails ebbs and flows most dramatically during the rut.

And tuned by photoperiod, and even finer-tuned by the moon, ambient air temperature, weather conditions, population dynamics, sex ratios, hunting pressure, and most importantly, our localized rutting whitetail’s olfactory Lek, we are ready for another deer season to unfold in all its variety and mystery.

And we know one thing. They don’t play by the book. 

Oak Duke, publisher of the Wellsville Daily Reporter, writes a weekly column. Email: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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