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Whitetails under the moon

November 01, 2009 at 09:24 PM


“Cold-hearted orb that rules the night,
removes the colors from our sight,
but we decide which is right,
and which is an illusion?”

—Moody Blues, “Days of Future Past,” 1966

And for you older guys:

“There’s a moon out tonight, whaa, whaa, whaa, ohhhh.”

—The Capris, about 1961

The moon’s effect on human emotion and romance has been chronicled long ago, even before pop music, but only fairly recently has the debate about the moon’s effect on whitetails become serious.

What is it that makes the moon’s magic?

Why is it that the harvest moon is the most romantic moon in our songs and literature? Why not the full moon in April or May, or any other month for that matter? And it is precisely the harvest moon that is used by the top whitetail rut prognosticators to peg the exact timing of the peak of the whitetail deer’s breeding cycle.

But maybe this is literally lunacy (from lunar), a mere coincidence. After all, we are people, and animals are animals, and we shouldn’t anthropomorphize, though it is done in cartoons all the time.

Enough of this speculation. Let’s get down to science and ask the question: Is there some effect of the moon that is measurable? Can science help us out at all here?

Many have tried.

Today, apostles of a number of moon theories can be sheltered under two basic tents. The first are those who hang their hat on the broad notion that the moon’s position in the celestial sphere is the critical cause of behavior change in all critters, from the tiniest pulsating cell in the vast ocean, all the way up the food chain to man. Count among this tribe those who create the popular solar-lunar calendars in the popular outdoor and sporting papers and magazines.

And the other school of thought includes those who believe that it is the moon’s phase or change in moonlight that tosses the switch in deer and other plants, animals and fungi—including a classification of four legged, antlered and horned beasts called short-day breeders.

Photoperiodism is defined as a reaction to the changing amount of daylight by a sensing organism. There are many studies with elaborate measurements and recordings of plants and animals changing their behavior as the amount of light increases or decreases. And the full moon skews the amount of light in the night.

For all the statisticians, metric guys and gals out there: What is the possibility that the lunar cycle, a woman’s cycle, and a whitetail doe’s estrus cycle all be exactly the same length of time—about 28 days?

Why are these cycles not only the same, but exactly the same?

Now here in the north, up on the 42nd parallel of latitude and thereabouts, deer have to get it right in the spring when they drop their fawns.

If the little wet fawns hit the ground too early, then the fawns freeze. If they are born too late in the summer, the fawns are too small to gain enough size and strength to make it through a tough winter.

Couple that with the separation of the bucks and does throughout most of the year. We know that bucks form tight bachelor groups in the winter and remain with other bucks throughout the springtime, summer and into the early fall. And just because they fight and can’t stand to be around each other during the breeding season does not mean that they are loners. Bucks are with other bucks throughout 90 percent of their lives, and are in fights or between fights the other 10 percent.

So how do the bucks synchronize with the does? Is the moon the timing mechanism? When we try to juxtapose our solar calendar on the lunar cycle, it never comes our right. Maybe we should have stuck with the lunar calendar.

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