Blane Klemek column: White-tail activity peaks in fall
Though only a population estimate, it is nevertheless difficult to believe that only 500,000 white-tailed deer existed in these United States in the early 1900s.
Today's whitetail population is estimated to be over 15 million strong. And in many places throughout white-tailed deer range, their numbers are increasing.
Supporting this was what my late grandfather, who once farmed in Todd County a few miles west of Bertha, Minn., once said about deer. He commented that just seeing a deer track, let alone an actual deer, was "big news." In spite of very few deer to actually hunt in those days, my grandfather was an avid deer hunter throughout the lean years. He recalled hunting deer in bitter cold and deep snow dressed in clothing ill equipped for such weather - and rarely seeing or bagging a deer!
White-tailed deer are, without question, very adaptable creatures. Right now, in autumn woodlands throughout Minnesota, many changes are occurring in the daily routines of this extraordinary animal. They, like many other animals during the fall months, are busy seeking and consuming the most nutritious foods that they can find. Acorns, hazelnuts, wild fruits, grasses, and farm crops all contribute to a deer's fat reserves.
Bucks, now sporting polished antlers, are eager to spar with other bucks or engage in mock battles with hapless shrubs and saplings. The reduction of daylight triggers a hormonal surge that sets the stage for the annual rut, or breeding season. These events, among other physiological and behavioral changes, occur rapidly in deer during the autumn months.
Young bucks nearing 18 months of age are typically rejected and often physically attacked by their own mothers or older female kin during late summer and early fall in order to encourage bucks to leave their family groups. This is nature's way of spreading or "dispersing" the deer population.
This is also why it's more common to see bucks of different ages grouped together than observing young bucks with does and fawns. Autumn dispersal works to spread the "gene pool" and ensure genetic variation by reducing the likelihood of inbreeding. These outcast bucks oftentimes tag along with other, more mature bucks during the early fall.
"Bachelor groups" of bucks serve a social function within the deer herd. Quite common in the summer as well as early fall, the young bucks in these groups often spar with each other, tickling their scrawny antlers together in make-believe battles. Occasionally, dominant bucks will lower their great racks and allow little bucks to tussle with them in ridiculously one-sided matches.
I recall one instance where I observed the comical sight of a large and mature buck playfully accepting the "challenge" of a much smaller and much younger buck. The little fellow was nothing more than a forkhorn, while his opponent sported a high and wide rack of around five tines on each beam.
As the smaller buck approached the dominant animal, the forkhorn lowered his head and laid back his ears. To make himself look larger, the little fellow even raised his hair, much as an angry dog does, thereby giving himself a sort of rough and aggressive appearance.
It was very obvious, of course, what the outcome would be, and I suppose the two bucks were fully aware of it; nonetheless, the mature buck lowered his head gear and allowed the forkhorn to push against his antler beams, sometimes pushing slightly back while the two bucks tickled one another's antler tines while producing "tink-tink" sounds as bone-against-bone resonated across the field.
Now is the time when white-tailed deer activity becomes pronounced. Aside from the fact that deer are feeding in earnest on forage that provides them with the most nutrition, the breeding season has commenced. Breeding-aged bucks are on the move, crossing roadways, running scrape-lines, searching for and tending receptive does and chasing lesser bucks from their territories.
Gone are the days when bachelor groups of bucks peacefully foraged and bedded alongside each other. Passiveness and tolerance has now been replaced with aggression and intolerance as dominant bucks look at each other as rivals, not pals. Lesser bucks submit to larger bucks, and sometimes, especially when two bucks are similarly sized in rack and body, fights can and do ensue. And though exceedingly rare, opponents' antlers occasionally become hopelessly locked together, resulting in death for one or both bucks.
After the autumn rut is completely over, usually by late November into December, pregnant does will give birth to a fawn or fawns around six and a half months later. Depending on the harshness of the winter, the condition of the doe entering the winter months, and the availability of good food throughout the winter, a doe might give birth to twins or, less frequently, even triplets. Reports of does nursing quadruplets, though biologically possible, are sometimes the result of an orphan or orphans being "adopted" by another doe.
Fawn whitetails soon learn the ways of their species from their mothers - everything from recognizing danger, to what foods are good to eat, to every nook and cranny of their home range. As the seasons change from spring to summer and fall to winter, the white-tailed deer adapts and survives.
Indeed, the out-of-doors is full of wildlife activity this time of year. Whether it's the great flocks of geese or sandhill cranes on their annual fall migrations, or increased deer movement that one can witness throughout the Septembers, Octobers and Novembers of every year, there's something for everyone to see and appreciate as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.