Social Behavior of Whitetail Deer

By: HuntingNet Staff


social_behavior2.jpgA deer's behavior is directly related to the environment he lives in. Today, in increasingly suburban areas where whitetails and people live side-by-side, humans are the driving force on deer. Our houses, roads and everyday comings and goings impact where and when deer feed, travel and bed.

American Indians believed the moon, wind and rain affected deer movements. Current studies confirm that deer activity indeed varies depending on temperature, moon phases and even barometric pressure.

Whitetails, especially mature bucks, are active at night, preferring to feed, mingle and mate under a cloak of darkness. But no deer is completely nocturnal. Otherwise, we'd never shoot a big buck! Deer remain active at dawn and start to move again at dusk.

Deer typically bed down at midday. Studies have shown that they rarely if ever bed in the same exact spot twice; perhaps that deters a predator from catching their scent and lying in wait for an easy meal the next day. Deer do not sleep for long periods of time. Rather, they dose, always trying to stay alert.

Although whitetails are social animals that are found in herds, the sexes stay largely divided. Outside the breeding season, a mature buck almost never stays with a "doe unit", or a group of does and fawns. Bucks travel alone or band together in bachelor's clubs for

Whitetails communicate with vocalizations and scents. For example, a buck trailing a doe in the rut might utter the "tending grunt." She might bleat back. A buck rub-urinates in a scrape, peeing over his tarsal glands to lay down scent that might attract a doe or challenge another male. Scientists continue to study the complexities of deer communication.

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Whitetail fawns are born in May or June. They weight 6 to 8 pounds at birth. Fawns spend their early days clinging to their mothers, bonding and learning about the big new world. Sometimes does and their offspring gather in small groups. Within these groups fawns learn to walk, run and react in the face of danger. Fawns are playful and get exercise by nudging, jumping and boxing one another with their legs and feet.

The early days and weeks are perilous for fawns. They survive best in areas with lots of cover. Fawns rely heavily on their natural camouflage. The white spots scattered across their reddish-brown bodies blend well with fallen leaves and brush. When a fawn beds down, he tucks his legs, head and neck into its body for ultimate concealment.

About the time a fawn is weaned it loses its spotted coat. It then sports grayish hair that mixes well with the deciduous forest. In winter, a fawn's coat is gray with reddish-brown tips. A male fawn's face grows darker while his belly remains white.

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Does travel in small groups consisting of mature females and their offspring. A group's "lead doe" tends to breed with a buck first each fall, generally in late October or November, though the timing varies by region. A dominant doe fawns first and picks the most favorable fawn-rearing area. Does like to drop fawns in thick cover and close to water.

Does live within familiar and relatively small areas all their lives. Occasionally a drastic change in the terrain (i.e. a forest fire) or harsh winter weather will force them to relocate temporarily. Doe groups occupy the same home ranges from one generation to the next.

As whitetail populations increase and the home ranges of doe groups overlap, conflicts or little "turf wars" sometimes occur. Upon the first sign of trouble from another doe, a lead doe will raise her head in alertness. If the other female comes closer, the alert doe might rush her and kick out with her front legs. A wild boxing match continues until one doe gains dominance over the other.

Most mature does breed between October and January, depending on geographical location. Whitetails mate earlier up north and as late as December or January in a few Deep South states. Does are pursued mightily by bucks for a couple of weeks. They finally stand for bucks during a 24-hour estrus cycle. Most does become pregnant the first time around, but those that don't recycle into estrus about 28 days later.

The gestation period of does is about 7 months, and they drop their fawns in May or June. Studies have shown that a doe has some control over when she gives birth. This might allow her to select a thick, safe area free of predators.

A few days before fawning, a pregnant doe separates from other does and seeks a suitable birthing area. A doe typically drops 1 or 2 fawns, though triplets are not rare. Multiple fawns are born 15 to 20 minutes apart. On average, does lose 10% to 15% of their fawns due to birth problems or defects, disease, parasites or predation.

A doe nurses her fawns frequently during the early days. After three weeks in the world, fawns begin to eat vegetation. After about 10 weeks, a doe rejects any attempt for fawns to nurse.

A fawn in distress bawls loudly. To distract a predator and lure it away from her offspring, a doe runs in wildly, shows herself and runs off in the opposite direction. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

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A whitetail buck's body size depends on many factors, including age, nutrition and an area's deer population. Depending on subspecies, a mature buck may weight 100 to more than 300 pounds.

A buck's antlers are his defining feature. Antlers are actually comprised of bone, and they grow rapidly from spring through late summer. It is believed that antlers evolved as a weapon to gain dominance over other bucks. Each winter a buck sheds his antlers and grows a new pair the next spring.

Outside the breeding season whitetails are sociable by sex. Upon reaching the ripe old age of 16 months, a young buck leaves his familial doe group (his mother actually kicks him out) and disperses to a new home range miles away. He hooks up with other bucks and runs in a bachelor's club. Within this new group, he must constantly prove his worth among his peers. Through ongoing competition, a buck may rise in rank to become a herd's dominant sire.

Dominance is important to bucks. A large buck will stare down opponents. Out of fear, lesser bucks won't dare make eye contact. However, if a brave opponent steps forward, the two duelers crash head to head and lock antlers. A fight ensues until one buck backs down or runs off injured.

A dominant buck's demeanor is proud and unafraid, especially when he postures for does and other bucks during the fall breeding period. With head held high and tail extended straight back, he seems to prance around. Dark hair tufts on an old buck's lower hind legs become erect and move rhyth