What Every Hunter Needs to Know about Whitetail Travel Habits
Bernie Barringer 10.08.14
In 1993 Tom Miranda and I teamed up to write a book called Corn Fed Giants in which we offered a lot of good information for the farmland whitetail hunter. I wrote something in that book about an interesting phenomenon relating to whitetail travel: sometimes giant bucks appear out of nowhere for a few days, and sometimes they just disappear. I wrote of my belief that once an outsized, genetically superior buck gets big enough and strong enough to beat up every other buck he comes across, he just goes wherever he wants during the rut. He breeds does as he pleases, traveling far and wide. He may follow long-running travel corridors for miles and miles. When the rut is over, he may return to his original range or he may settle down right where he is, in the best available habitat.
I wrote about that theory more than 20 years ago, and with today’s GPS tracking collars, much has been learned learned about whitetail bucks’ travel patterns and home ranges. I am disappointed that there is no research to back up my theory. In fact, most research has shown that bucks often reduce their home ranges as they mature, particularly after passing peak breeding age. However, I am not totally ready to give up trying to find an explanation for those bucks that seemingly appear and disappear like ghosts.
What does this all mean to the hunter who wants to know more about the home ranges and travel patterns of mature whitetails? And furthermore, is there information out there than can help us increase our odds of bringing one home?
Most hunters are familiar with the term “home range.” It is usually measured in acres or square miles. A buck’s home range can vary greatly depending on terrain, habitat quality, food availability, and time of year. The home ranges of whitetail bucks in excellent habitat with plenty of food available may be quite small. GPS studies in prime areas of Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Maryland showed home ranges averaging from 269 to 559 acres—not even one square mile. Often the square mile or 640 acres is used as a baseline for a buck’s home range in good habitat.
A GPS tracking study in Texas showed an average home range of 2,271 acres. The limited availability of food and proximity to cover make all the difference. In many parts of the West, whitetails routinely make treks of two to three miles between preferred bedding areas in the hills; moving to feed in the alfalfa fields of the lowlands. These deer make the long-distance, round-trip walk every day. It’s hard to put a number of acres on a home range when deer are making those long strolls.
Truthfully, putting a number of acres or square miles on a home range is deceiving, because that makes one think of the home range as something of a square. A home range may actually be a section of winding river bottom two miles long by 300 yards wide. It may include a couple areas where the deer move upstream on a small tributary, which further makes putting a number on it difficult. The shape of a deer’s home range is entirely dictated by habitat, not by acres.
It can be a mistake to get caught up in home ranges when targeting a particular deer. Trail cameras can help you get a feel for where a buck is spending the majority of his time and when, but trying to determine where the borders of his preferred area are found can be futile. Bucks will go wherever they need to go to get food and water daily, and participate in the breeding during the rut. Home ranges are very fluid and dynamic.
Core areas, conversely, are not very fluid and are often well defined. The Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) defines a core area as “The portion of a buck’s home range where he spends 50 percent of his time.” Core areas are all about security and comfort. While they may range widely to find food and water, bucks often come back to the same small area where they feel secure.
These core areas can change due to weather and food availability. If a food source completely runs out, and there is suitable bedding cover near a new food source, they may pack up and move. Bucks also tend to bed in the thickest, nastiest cover during bad weather, but they also select areas where they have visibility during pleasant weather. A buck may use three to four core areas during any given year.
Mature bucks tend to have smaller core areas than younger bucks. Two-year-old bucks travel widely, having ranges much larger than even three-year-olds. Many bucks aged five or more have tiny core areas where they have learned they are secure. They are big enough to take over the best of the best bits of security cover.
The ability to track a buck’s exact whereabouts with a GPS has opened a whole new world of information about their habits. One of the things learned through these GPS studies is that bucks, especially mature bucks, take off on what biologists have termed “excursions” a few times per year. The GPS collars have shown these to be anywhere from one to four miles from their core area. These often last around three days. It’s no stretch, considering the varying personalities of whitetail bucks, that some may travel much farther. The buck that showed up on your trail camera that you have never seen before may be on an excursion.
You may think the rut is the one time that bucks typically go on excursions, and you would be correct. But you may be surprised to find that spring is a time when bucks decide to take a vacation. In a GPS study done in Pennsylvania by the University of Georgia’s Andy Olson, all 19 of his collared bucks took a spring excursion. Spring is also the time when many yearling bucks are traveling around, looking for a home range of their own.
It’s not fully known what triggers these excursions, but some spring excursions are likely based on mineral and nutritional needs when antlers are beginning to grow. The fall excursions may be related to rutting behavior and sometimes caused by hunting pressure. The collared bucks in these studies were quick to go entirely nocturnal when they felt pressure or human intrusion. Pressure can even cause bucks to leave their home ranges altogether for long periods of time.
Secondary home ranges
By following buck movements on the GPS, it is clear that most of them have a backup plan—a secondary home range. They will move to these areas when needed. This is evidenced by the fact that they tend to go directly to a new area and spend large amounts of time there, indicating that they already knew the area.
I have no way of proving this, but I theorize these secondary areas are often their natal areas. They spend the first year of their life in their mother’s home range, learning it intimately. It stands to reason that if they are making a beeline to an area that they already know well, it’s very possibly the area they learned as a fawn. I suppose the only way to prove or disprove my theory would be to GPS collar a buck fawn and track him for a few years. To my knowledge this has not been done.
Keep in mind that a relatively small number of bucks have been collared and tracked. This leaves us with very general tendencies and few specifics. Whitetail bucks are individuals and often have remarkably different habits and personalities. Add to that the fact that no real giant bucks are collared, and they may behave a lot differently than the run-of-the mill buck. There are reasons trophies are rare, and one of those reasons may be that they simply do not fit the mold of doing what most other bucks are doing.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.