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Intercepting Backyard Bucks
Despite tight quarters, backyard bucks don’t always stay home all autumn. As with rural bucks, you must learn their hangouts, shortcuts and travel corridors.
One bowhunter saw a sight that made him stop the truck, pop it into reverse, and back up the narrow road connecting his residential neighborhood to the highway. Several deer were feeding in a field near the highway’s overpass on that late-July morning, and a buck had just stepped into the brush beneath the overpass.
One glance told this deer hunter it was no yearling growing its first velvet-covered 6-point rack. Even though the buck slipped into the sumac and gooseberries, this deer hunter glimpsed its tall, wide rack before it disappeared. He never saw him again, and doubted anyone who bowhunts in his neighborhood ever got a crack at him, either.
This bowhunter still believes the trees and brush leading under that overpass were the key to relocating him. Trouble is, he decided to bowhunt quieter, less congested, more rural areas when the rut arrived. Maybe this deer hunter just wasn’t in the mood to spend autumn listening to highway traffic, barking dogs and screaming kids, not to mention domestic arguments when some guy name “Where the Hell You Been?” showed up late for dinner. In the years since, this deer hunter not only regretted his decision to pass on that spot, he has also learned to accept such distractions as the charms of backyard bowhunts.
Unfortunately, this deer hunter's attitude change came too late for that spot. It was recently developed into a walking trail, and few of the yuppies now walking its gravel would appreciate him hovering above in his tree stand. That doesn’t mean deer no longer cross there. They do, which makes him greatly appreciate the whitetail deer's ability to live among humans.
In fact, the more this deer hunter hunts backyard bucks and reads research papers about them, the more he believes that we underestimate them. Few backyard bucks resemble anything tame when you bowhunt them. Success requires as much scouting and tree stand persistence as we devote to rural or remote-country deer. Although backyard bucks spend most of their lives among humans and know every sound and smell we create, that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten their survival instincts. If anything, they’ve heightened them. They know where every sight, sound and smell should come from, and they’re not curious if they detect possible danger elsewhere. They know instantly that something isn’t right, and flee the scene.
Therefore, the longer a bowhunter views backyard bucks as pushovers, and as some inferior imitation of their farm-country and big-woods cousins, the longer he will eat tags instead of deer venison.
Home and Away Games
Perhaps the most persistent myth among bowhunters is that backyard bucks spend their entire lives in tiny core areas, which makes them easy marks. Deer hunters assume they have little need to roam because they get all their necessities in the small parks, woodlots and water corridors of suburban America. That might be true much of the year, but it oversimplifies what can be amazingly complex situations in America’s subdivided woodlots. Every deer has its own needs, personality and preferences, all of which change with the world around it. Remember, deer — both as individuals and as a species — survive by being flexible and adaptive. Further, changes affecting their behaviors can be obvious, such as new home or road-construction projects that alter their habitat. Or the changes can be subtle, such as herd-control strategies that shift the herd’s composition to include more bucks than does.
Howard Kilpatrick, a biologist with the Connecticut wildlife division, has spent years coordinating site-specific bowhunts to control backyard buck herds. As part of his work, he radio-collared does to determine their core areas and home ranges. There’s no doubt backyard bucks have smaller core areas and home ranges than rural deer, but they’re not always restrained by busy roads, railroad tracks and houses in these highly fragmented habitats. During daylight in autumn, Kilpatrick’s radio-collared does usually stayed within a core area of about 10 acres and a home range of 48 acres. When evening arrived, however, their travels through suburban back yards usually doubled their comfort zones to 18 acres for core areas and 106 acres for home ranges.
But then by the time the late archery season arrived, the does reduced their travels considerably at night, seldom straying far from daytime haunts. As a result, Kilpatrick shifted more of his bowhunting programs to the late season, when it’s easier to predict where deer can be located during shooting hours.
Those Familiar Urges
What about those legendary trophy bucks that grow huge racks and live to old age by eating suburban shrubs, flowers and fruit trees, far removed from the intense pressure of gun-hunting? Not surprisingly, you can take the buck out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the buck. Its breeding urges and wanderlust often send it far and wide through suburbia, putting it in harm’s way when crossing streets and multiple-lane superhighways during rush-hour traffic.
“The bucks’ patterns aren’t much different from the does’ movements most of the year, but that changes once the rut kicks in,” Kilpatrick said. “Think of it this way: Draw a circle around each doe’s core area and a bigger circle around its home range. Now draw circles around each buck’s core area and home range. A lot of those circles overlap. When a doe goes into heat, any buck crossing into her circle and cutting her track or getting a whiff of her in the air will want to find her. He doesn’t stop at the boundary of his home range and wait for her to return. He goes in after her and follows her all over her home range. Each time he does that he’s expanding his range. And if he comes across a more willing doe during that trip, he expands his range even farther while following the new doe around.”
For the purposes of Kilpatrick’s study, he didn’t radio-collar bucks, so he couldn’t estimate distances on the bucks’ travel patterns. During the late 1990s, however, Minnesota researchers in Minneapolis suburbs fitted several bucks with radio-transmitting collars and were soon amazed to find a wide range of individual travel patterns. Jay McAninch, currently the CEO and president of the Archery Trade Association, coordinated those suburban studies when working for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Four of the radio-collared bucks the researchers collared in one study were mature animals at least 3½ years old.
One of the bucks was a dominant 15-pointer whose core area covered 125 acres, much of it in a suburban park. When it wandered at night, the trophy buck’s home range was 1,171 acres, just a bit smaller than 2 square miles. During the rut, the buck commonly moved three-quarters of a mile during each four-hour tracking period. On three occasions, the buck moved 1.3 miles within four hours, and one time it traveled 1.75 miles in less than 90 minutes. He did most of his traveling at night, ranging freely through residential neighborhoods, and sometimes staying in residential woodlots during the day instead of returning to his core area in the park.
Other mature bucks in the Minnesota study weren’t so widely traveled. For example, an unusual 5-point nontypical traveled more than .75 miles only twice while being tracked during the rut. This dominant animal usually moved less than a half-mile during its forays.
The other two radio-collared bucks, one of which was a 3½-year-old 8-pointer with a high, tight rack, were considered subordinates. The 8-pointer’s home range was smaller than that of the dominant bucks, but during the rut he traveled more than the nontypical 5-pointer. His rut travels averaged about 0.6 miles, but on three occasions he ranged farther than a mile, including a 1.6-mile midnight jaunt. The other subordinate buck lived in two core areas that comprised 48 acres and a home range of 205 acres. His rut travels were always less than a half-mile and averaged about 0.25 miles.