Site Fidelity Increases as Bucks Age

By Bob Humphrey

  Riding to my Kansas box blind during a cold, dark December morning, I listened to my outfitter, Ted, go over the list of potential shooter bucks I should watch for.
“There’s a good 10-point,” he said. “He should be easy to recognize because he’s pretty wide. I saw him one day when I was working on the blind and even got a picture with my phone.”

He handed me the photo, which was somewhat grainy but clear enough to tell the deer was definitely a shooter. I was amazed the buck had come close enough for a recognizable photo. Then I noticed something else.
“When did you take that picture?” I asked. “Oh, that was back in September,” Ted said. I didn’t say anything, but doubt began to creep in.
I didn’t see that buck or any other shooters the first day. He didn’t show the next day, either, but a 3-year-old with a split main beam sorely tempted me in the waning moments of daylight. Had he been a year older, I would not have hesitated.

By the third morning, I was getting a bit discouraged until my mind wandered back to another Kansas hunt several years earlier. It was a November bowhunt, during which the outfitter also showed me pictures of bucks to watch for. And each time, I saw at least one of the target bucks. “Maybe,” I thought, “with the rut winding down, the wide-racked photo buck will return home.”
My attention had been focused largely on a brushy draw in front of me, as that’s where most of the previous deer sightings occurred, but every once in a while, I’d do a 360 to glass the open plains and rolling hills behind me. During one such perusal, something caught my eye in a small patch of low brush barely larger than a baseball diamond. A quick look through my Swarovski binoculars confirmed it was a set of antlers — big antlers — and another set of ears. Somehow, without me seeing them, a buck and doe had gone into the thicket and bedded down just more than 100 yards away. Admittedly, it took several minutes to regain enough composure to make the shot, but I did.
I was still marveling at the magnificent beast when Ted rolled up, walked over and said, “Yup, that’s him. That’s the buck I was hoping you would shoot.” Looking at the buck again, I suddenly realized he was right. It was the buck in the picture. I also realized I shouldn’t have been so skeptical about the possibility of the wayward whitetail returning home.

Site fidelity is a term biologists use for an animal’s affinity for an area. After leaving its natal home range, a yearling buck searches for a new place to settle. It’s nature’s way of ensuring better genetic dispersal. However, wandering through unfamiliar territory, the buck is at one of the most vulnerable stages of his life. But if he finds an area with the right food, cover and water, and manages to survive hunting season, predators and winter, he’ll be in much better shape the next fall. By then, he’ll have had almost a full year to learn his home range. Then he can learn the patterns of hunters and predators that use the home range, and his chances of survival increase with each year.

Natural selection is the driving force behind physiology and behavior. In some habitats and for some species, it might be more advantageous to migrate, as with caribou, or to be nomadic, like pronghorns. The whitetail’s best strategy is to stay home. The more familiar a deer is with its home range, the greater its chances of surviving to breed and pass along its genes. A whitetail’s home range is defined as the geographic area where that animal spends 90 to 95 percent of its time during the year, as determined by tracking deer with GPS satellite collars. I always found that definition a bit misleading because it implies where a deer will travel is determined by its home-range boundary, when the opposite is true. For me, it’s clearer to define home range as the area in which a deer can be found 95 percent of the year. The home range is defined by the deer’s annual movement, and cannot be determined until the year has passed and all data points plotted. In human terms, think of it as your home, neighborhood and place of work. The other five percent might be that week-long vacation in the Bahamas.

You’ve likely heard someone say the average home range of a whitetail is about one square mile, which is fairly reasonable. But you must remember that’s an average. Depending on the quantity and quality of habitat components such as food, cover and water, not to mention potential breeding partners, home ranges can vary in size considerably. Some might be five or even 10 square miles; others a fraction of that. That’s a lot of ground for a hunter to cover, particularly if he’s targeting one or a few bucks. Fortunately, deer don’t use all areas of their home range with the same frequency. Within their home range is a core area wherein they spend more than half the year. And several studies have shown that for mature bucks, that might be only about 10 percent of their home range — possibly as few as 60 to 100 acres. Our core area might be our home or even one room in our home. There are some obvious selective advantages to this strategy. Familiarity gained from spending more time and gaining more experience in a smaller area improves a deer’s ability to avoid danger there, and older deer become masters of learning and exploiting their home ranges. You might think this concentrated activity would give hunters an edge. It does, and it doesn’t. One obvious edge is that after you’ve located a buck’s core, you can focus your time and energy there. Folks who hunt midwestern states such as Kansas, Iowa and Illinois have a distinct advantage. They actually have several advantages, but the biggest is that relatively open habitat makes it easier to observe deer. For the rest of us, and even for them, the most effective tool you can use is trail cameras. They can help you find and then hone in on core areas of the shooter bucks you seek. But… . There’s a saying among turkey hunters that “roosted ain’t roasted.” It means that just because you know where a gobbler sleeps that night doesn’t mean you’ll be able to kill that longbeard the next morning. Somewhat the same applies to deer, especially mature bucks. I don’t get much chance to hunt truly mature deer (4-1/2 years or older) on my home ground because hunting pressure prevents them from reaching that age, but my son and I found one a couple of years ago on our cameras. It’s taken us several seasons to hone down his core area, and though our image frequency has increased, we have yet to see him during daylight. I guess that explains how he got old in such a heavily hunted area and also suggests some of the limitations. One of the big disadvantages is that you must be extra cautious about minimizing your intrusion into core areas. If a tool box was stolen from your garage, you might not notice it for several days, but if someone put a new centerpiece on the table where you eat dinner every night, you’d pick up on it instantly. You’re going into an area where a mature buck spends most of his time, and he’s intimately familiar with it. Cause too much disturbance and several things could happen. Studies show that with increased hunting pressure, deer don’t necessarily leave an area. They just spend more time in thick cover and move less in daylight. And although they won’t abandon their home ranges, they will shift core areas. A better strategy might be to approach core areas the same way you approach bedding areas: by concentrating on the fringes. 

You wouldn’t hang your stand in the middle of a bedding area. (Though there are exceptions to that rule.) Instead, you hunt edges, nearby travel corridors and feeding areas. You’re still better off because knowing corearea locations helps you select which fringes, feeding areas and travel corridors to hunt. Besides the active approach of finding core areas, you can also take a passive approach by making your ground more attractive as a potential core area, even on smaller parcels. One way is to minimize hunting pressure. Another is to improve the habitat. A hunt I wrote about in a previous issue of Whitetail News provides a good example of both. It occurred in an area we hunt lightly but decided to give a full season off, effectively turning it into a sanctuary. The dense surrounding cover provides great bedding cover but is lacking in nutrition. Releasing a couple of wild apple trees and planting a small patch of Imperial Whitetail Clover tipped the balance. Pictures showed the area was being used regularly by three older bucks, and I took one the first afternoon I hunted the plot. Creating or improving bedding cover with techniques such as hinge cuts can be an especially effective way to attract more concentrated activity. Deer spend most of the day in bed (we should be so lucky). If that bed is on your ground, it increases your chances of catching them on their feet and decreases your neighbor’s odds. Knowing older bucks show greater site fidelity is also one more reason to consider passing up sub-mature bucks. By the time they reach two and certainly three, a buck has probably settled into a core area. I found one a couple of years ago that seemed to have settled in on my ground and will turn four this year. And unlike the other big buck we’ve been chasing, this one comes out during the day — or at least he did this past year.