Missouri Deer Hunting
Missouri Deer Hunting may be my area of expertise as I have been a resident of the State of Missouri for 44 years. I have hunted whitetail deer in Missouri for the majority of my life, and have successfully harvested 14 record book whitetail bucks. I have also been a Missouri Whitetail Deer Outfitter for 13 years. Over the course of my hunt career and my entire life I have watched the State of Missouri evolve into possibly the greatest “sleeper state” of the Midwestern whitetail deer locations.
As a kid we always had good deer hunting in Missouri but over the past several years Missouri deer hunting has been nothing short of stunning. Missouri is awkward in that a great part of Missouri is below average deer hunting. When hunting Missouri for whitetail deer the hunter needs to concentrate North of Highway 36 and East of Highway 63. This is the North Central to North Eastern portion of the State. The best counties to hunt whitetail deer in Missouri would include Knox, Shelby, and Macon. In these counties Missouri deer hunting is nothing short of phenomenal.
Prior to being a Missouri Whitetail Deer Outfitter I was a Parole Officer. I developed a friendship with a man who ran a prison in Southern Missouri who is vastly responsible for the development of the Missouri Whitetail Deer Classic held annually in Columbia, MO. This friend is an Official Boone and Crockett Scorer and is a very savvy whitetail deer hunter. He once told me that although he’s hunted all over the United States that in his entire life he has only harvested one Pope and Young Buck in Southern Missouri. The “kicker” is that he said after he harvested the buck that local residents began following his to him deer hunt ground to see where he was hunting. This is but an example of how tough Missouri deer hunting can be if you don’t travel to the right part of the State to hunt Missouri whitetail deer. However this is true in many reknown States. It’s not enough to book a whitetail deer hunt in a good State with a whitetail outfitter. You need to not only book with a very credible whitetail deer outfitter in a great State but make sure that whitetail deer outfitter is in the right location in that State.
In 2005 the State of Missouri enacted regulations surrounding Missouri Deer Hunting of its whitetail bucks in certain counties. In Macon, Shelby, and Knox County, Missouri they enacted a 4 point antler restriction. This mandates that if a hunter shoots a buck in these counties it has to at least have 4 points on one side of the rack. Now we have always had great Missouri deer hunting but after two years of this 4 point antler restriction in 2007 we began seeing world class animals. I’m not talking about 130 inch deer. I’m talking about deer they would name you after. For example, just tonight (9-11-09) one guide watched a food plot in Missouri for the last two hours of light and saw 54 deer with 5 shooter bucks in the crowd, two of which were over 170 inches. Now that’s great Missouri deer hunting. Many of these deer can be viewed on our website at www.imbmonsterbucks.com on the video highlights page. It is my personal opinion that North Central Missouri has surpassed some of the other States that are getting more media coverage. For example Pike County Illinois, or Buffalo County Wisconsin. Believe me in 3 years media coverage will be focusing in on North Central Missouri. The Drury Brothers have proved over and over that Missouri delivers monster whitetail bucks. Just pick up one of their DVD’s and see.
Deer Seasons Offered in the State of Missouri and Tag Obtainment
Missouri deer hunting opens by means of archery on Sept 15 and closes on January 15. The archery Missouri deer hunting season is interrupted by a firearms season usually beginning on or about November 14 for a period of about 11 days. Missouri then offers a Muzzleloader season for Missouri Deer Hunting for 10 days normally conducted from December 19th to December 29th. ALL TAGS CAN BE OBTAINED OVER THE COUNTER.
Strategies for Hunting Missouri Whitetail Deer
Whitetail deer evolve differently in different States. Thus dates that work in other States may be inferior in Missouri or vice versa. Missouri deer hunting offers some great nonrut archery hunting. Its best to book a nonrut hunt at the very beginning of the season. At this time bucks are patternable and returning to the same food source night after night. Missouri deer hunting rut begins around November 1 and subsides around November 25. Of course a 2nd rut occurs around the end of the first week of December.
Early season hunting should be focused on bed areas in the morning and food sources in the evening. How don’t forget to cover those travel corridors between, and during year when acorns are falling heavily don’t overlook those white oak woodlots which provide deer with some of the highest nutrients of their diet.
Missouri Whitetail Deer Outfitters
As a resident of Missouri for 44 years in the 3 best counties in the State my viewpoint on Missouri whitetail deer outfitters and Missouri whitetail guides is bias. Around every corner you will find some country boy running hunts on daddy’s farm and a few cheap leases out of some bunkhouse making promises he can’t keep at a price that is simply too good to be true. I have found credibility is the most important issue regarding the booking of a Missouri Whitetail Deer Hunt. While in other State IMB Outfitters conducts hunts we are simply unmatched in Missouri. Not to brag as our efforts have been rewarded by a team of employees, and landowners as well as our hunters. IMB has literally won more outdoor awards, has more ground, more website content, and more sponsors than any other Missouri whitetail deer outfitter or guide. The choice is clear in Missouri. Look no further than IMB Outfitter if you want to book a whitetail deer hunt in Missouri. Our hunts are affordable complete with wonderful lodges, great food, educated guides, and the best hunt leases in the entire State. Don’t take my word for it. Petersen’s Hunting visited our Missouri deer hunting division and published the following narrative:
Petersen's Bowhunting Magazine, July 2004 reveals IMB Outfitters as one of their top picks for the hunt of a lifetime. After writing staff and editors archery hunted with IMB in 2003 they were quick to expose IMB Outfitters as a premier high quality hunt service. Petersen's Bowhunting Magazine editors state in the July 2004 issue, "Look no further! One of the best hunts in the world. These are bowhunts by guides who know bowhunting and are experts at getting you close to the kind of game you've dreamt about." Petersen's further presents IMB Outfitters as, "One of the very best bowhunting opportunities from around the globe. This outfit provides plenty of hunting area options and dates, but all are serious trophy buck hunts, with a high probability of success. A good variety of stands are available, all placed on detailed maps."
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources provides the following information on whitetail deer hunting in Missouri as seen below:
Managing Missouri Whitetail Deer Hunting
The effect of food plots, agricultural plantings, forest management and management of natural vegetation on Missouri deer hunting is open to speculation. Because Missouri deer hunting populations in our state are under the land’s carrying capacity—the number of deer the habitat can support—generally deer are not limited by food scarcity. Missouri’s mild winters, naturally diverse habitats and good mixture of crop ground and woody cover provide deer ideal conditions.
However, the larger body sizes, better antler growth and higher reproductive rates of north Missouri deer hunting, where soils are fertile and intensive agriculture predominates, suggest an abundant, high-quality food source may be important for producing these desirable characteristics. In addition, studies of penned deer have found positive correlations between soil fertility (mostly calcium and phosphorus levels) and increased antler growth, productivity and body weights. It seems apparent that well-nourished deer are more likely to reach their biological potentials for reproduction, body size and antler growth.
But will one or two quarter-acre food plots surrounded by 1,000 acres of the poorest woods in Missouri make a difference? Probably not. But 25 wellplaced one- to two-acre plots could benefit deer under these conditions, especially if coupled with proper forest management.
Besides the potential benefits for deer, land management gives deer enthusiasts a better understanding of deer habits. Proper management makes property more attractive to deer, which increases the time they spend on that piece of land. A patch of lush clover or wheat is a dynamite spot to harvest a deer early in archery season. Later in the season, grain such as milo, and heavy cover such as a 6-yearold clearcut, attract deer because they offer both high energy carbohydrates and cover. During spring, grownup pastures provide concealment for newborn fawns and an abundance of nutritious forbs. Bucks seem to prefer openings and open woods during summer when they are growing antlers and visually sorting out their dominance hierarchy. Certain songbirds, quail, rabbits and other edge species attracted to food plots also may benefit from deer habitat management.
Managing deer populations
A question often asked by landowners is, “Can I effectively manage deer on my property?” The hunting season framework affords the opportunity for landowners to achieve desirable harvests on any property. Yet landowners’ ability to control deer numbers on their property depends upon the land’s size, shape and quality of habitat. Habitat quality and hunting pressure on surrounding properties also are important factors to consider.
The amount of land owned by one person decides how much of a role outside factors may play. As described earlier, deer move over large areas. As a result, the ability to manage deer increases proportionally with the number of acres owned. For example, landowners with 10 acres will have less control over deer on their property than landowners with 1,000 acres.
The amount of hunting or other activity on adjacent properties also is an influencing factor. Light or no hunting pressure on surrounding land may make it easier for a person to produce large bucks or increase deer densities. On the other hand, people trying to reduce deer numbers on their property may find it difficult if hunter access is limited on surrounding properties.
The physical shape of the property may affect how often deer move onto adjacent land. A long linear shape, as opposed to a more compact shape, may have more individual deer on the area, but these animals may spend less time there. When surrounded by heavily hunted ground, deer that live on a linear holding would spend more time off the property and, therefore, would be exposed to greater hunting pressure.
Quality of deer habitat and primary sources of food control how much time is spent on an area because deer shift movement patterns according to food distribution. In a year with a good acorn crop, deer may select oak-hickory forests for foraging in the fall instead of agricultural fields. On the other hand, deer may favor agricultural fields at other times of the year and also in years of poor acorn production.
Whether a deer population increases, decreases or remains stable depends upon the balance between reproduction and mortality. Missouri deer hunting reproductive rates in are high, typical of those throughout much of the lower Midwest. Studies in several parts of Missouri determined Missouri deer mortality by monitoring free-ranging deer fitted with radio transmitters. These studies show that fawn mortality during the first six months of life may exceed 40 percent. Predation and farming activities are the primary causes of mortality in fawns less than 2 months of age.
Without Missouri deer hunting, the annual mortality of 6-monthold and older deer is usually less than 5 percent. An exception to this occurs during hemorrhagic disease outbreaks, which take place periodically in Missouri and kill up to 20 percent of the deer in some areas. Mortality also may be different in urban areas where collisions with vehicles becomes the largest cause of death.
Missouri deer hunting is the leading cause of deer mortality in most of rural Missouri. Each year hunters take 40 to 70 percent of the antlered bucks and up to 25 percent of the does. It is apparent, therefore, that hunting is the primary factor governing deer abundance.
Hunting mortality of does is the most important factor determining whether a population increases, decreases or remains stable. One male can mate with many females, so bucks can remain at much lower numbers than does without affecting reproductive rates. This can be shown by simulating a deer population under various buck and doe harvest rates. Harvests of 10 percent and 40 percent of the antlered deer from a herd has little effect on the overall population growth. Similar harvests of does, however, affect population growth.
If Missouri deer hunting mortality is eliminated, and all other mortality and reproductive factors remain the same, a deer population increases rapidly, nearly quadrupling in size in just 10 years. Growth at this rate, however, could not continue indefinitely. As the deer population increases, it eventually reaches and exceeds the land’s carrying capacity—the number of animals a habitat can support on a sustained basis.
The Conservation Department’s statewide deer management program attempts to maintain deer populations at levels high enough to provide adequate opportunity for hunters and people who enjoy watching deer. Conversely, numbers must be low enough to minimize crop destruction and deer/vehicle accidents. Of course, people do not always agree about how many deer are too many or not enough.
The Conservation Department monitors the attitudes of the two groups most affected by deer abundance: farmers and hunters. Periodic mail surveys serve as the basis for setting deer population goals, along with information supplied by Conservation Department field staff.
Specialized deer management
Considerable interest in managing land for mature bucks has developed in recent years. Two tenets dominate popular and management-oriented literature: quality and trophy management. The concept of quality deer management began in the southern United States. Its primary objective is to manage deer populations and habitat to ensure a quality hunting experience. Although deer in older age classes is one goal, other factors are considered.
Trophy management is more restrictive. Its primary emphasis is producing a buck with the largest possible rack. This requires intense management and strict control over harvests. It is not practical in most situations in Missouri.
A common concern expressed by deer hunters is a lack of bucks with well-developed antlers. Often the hunters believe that the deer lack adequate nutrition or have poor genetics. The real problem, however, is that most of the bucks they see are 1˝ years of age. In some areas, bucks simply do not live beyond their first set of antlers because of heavy hunting pressure. Although genetic and nutritional factors can affect antler size, the majority of deer in Missouri that reach 3˝ to 4˝ years of age are trophies to most hunters. The key to management for larger bucks is simply to allow males in younger age classes to survive to older age classes.
Historically, antlered buck harvest has not been regulated, other than through bag limits, because buck harvest has little influence on total population levels. Under this management scheme, few bucks survived to older age classes. More recently, an increasing number of hunters are becoming more selective in what buck they will harvest, allowing an increasing number of young bucks to survive. The Conservation Department also has implemented regulation changes in an attempt to shift harvest pressure from bucks to does. Increasingly liberal antlerless deer bag limits have increased the proportion of the harvest that is made up of antlerless deer and, to some extent, reduced pressure on bucks. Other regulations that are intended to improve management, such as an antler restriction, have reduced harvest of antlered deer and increased the number of bucks in older age classes.
Managers can improve the age structure of bucks in their area by not shooting young bucks during the hunting seasons. This may seem too simplistic, but deer survival is high when they are not hunted. Chances are good that a buck will survive if not taken during the hunting season and, in so doing, will grow bigger antlers the following year.
Hypothetical populations in which buck harvest is varied illustrates this the best. Sex and age ratios differ considerably depending upon the percentage of bucks harvested. When 10 percent of antlered bucks are harvested, 50 percent of the antlered bucks are between 2˝ and 4˝ years old, and 24 percent are 4˝ years old and older.
In contrast, populations where bucks are highly exploited, only 27 percent of the antlered bucks are between 2˝ and 4˝ years old and 1 percent are 4˝ years old and older. Antlered bucks would make up 35 percent of the total population in the low buck-exploited population compared with 16 percent in the high buckexploited population.
Another way to restrict harvest is to take bucks with a minimum number of antler points. This allows more bucks to survive to the 2˝-year-old age class. However, the number of points and deer age do not always correlate. Hunters may take yearlings with many points that should be protected. In contrast, hunters may pass up some older, larger deer with well-developed antlers but too few points to qualify for harvest.
Controversy currently exists over whether spike bucks should be culled. In Missouri though, most bucks that reach 4˝ years of age will be trophies to most hunters. Given most hunter expectations and the inability to control harvests and dispersals on small land holdings in Missouri, the best strategy is to pass up these young bucks during the hunting seasons. The result usually will be the production of a quality animal several years down the road.
Assessing the success of a deer management program is an important part of every management effort. This can be as simple as keeping track of the number of deer observed and taken during the deer hunting seasons each year to more scientific efforts, such as aerial census of deer. Most hunters prefer the former, but those whose primary goal for the land is deer management may choose a more careful evaluation method.
Simple records carefully collected over a period of years can tell a lot about the status of the deer population. Most often hunters take these records during the deer hunting seasons when they spend the most time in the woods. Diaries of hunting trips (see form on page 32) not only can be rewarding historical accounts of hunts and observations but also can provide useful information about the deer population. Population indices, such as the number of deer sighted by sex and age per hour, may be determined from this type of information.
Deer sightings per hour are used by some state conservation agencies as a population measurement on public lands. Many biologists believe deer sighting indices are better able to track population changes than track or spotlight counts. Population indices become more meaningful over time and are not intended to produce complete counts; they show general trends in sex and age ratios and population changes. The key is to record this information consistently from year to year. Annual records of harvested deer, their sex, age, weight, antler beam circumference and date taken also may be useful (see form on page 33). Records may provide information on the herd structure and condition that can be used to gauge the success of a management effort.
Census, or an actual count of deer, is much more expensive than those methods listed above and will not be a practical option for most deer managers. An aerial census with a helicopter over snow-covered ground currently is the most accurate way to count deer. Unfortunately, necessary conditions, such as adequate snowcover, do not consistently occur in Missouri.
Infrared scanners, which detect body heat and do not require snow cover, have shown some promise for counting deer. Other methods include fecal pellet group counts, spotlight surveys and track surveys. These methods are of questionable accuracy if actual deer population estimates are required. They may be of more value as an index to population trends than for counting deer.
History of Missouri Whitetail Deer Hunting
The history of white-tailed deer in Missouri shows positive and negative influences humans can have on wildlife. During presettlement times, the whitetail was abundant in Missouri, especially in the more fertile and diverse habitats of northern Missouri. The influx of European settlers to Missouri during the last half of the 19th century coincided with a rapid decline in the deer population. Unrestricted market hunting and habitat destruction, such as cutting, burning, farming and grazing forest lands, contributed most to this decline.
Token laws restricting the killing of deer were passed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but they went largely unenforced. In 1925, the state’s deer herd was estimated to be only around 400. In response to these findings, the Missouri State Legislature declared deer season closed and made the first substantial effort to enforce its regulation. At the same time, deer brought to Missouri from Michigan were released onto five refuges in the Ozarks. In 1931, deer season reopened but resulted in a small harvest, which indicated a low population that was stable or declining.
Only when the first Conservation Commission formed in 1937 did significant efforts to restore the whitetail begin to succeed. The Commission closed deer hunting season from 1938 to 1943. During this closure, additional deer were stocked from Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and from existing refuges within the state. Enforcement of the Wildlife Code of Missouri by professionally trained conservation agents helped deter poaching. By 1944, the statewide deer population soared to 15,000, and Missouri held its first deer season since the recovery effort had begun.
Missouri’s deer management program has come a long way since 1944. That year, 7,557 hunters took 583 deer during a two-day, bucks-only season in 20 southern Missouri counties. In recent years, nearly 500,000 gun and bow hunters typically harvest around 300,000 deer annually during statewide seasons. Missourians can take pride in the widespread restoration of this major wildlife species.
Successful deer management requires flexibility in response to changing conditions. The white-tailed deer is strongly affected by hunter pressure; populations can be underharvested or overharvested. The penalties for either are great. With underharvest, crop damage and deer-vehicle accidents may increase. Overharvest means several years of slow recovery, especially in Ozark habitat where forage quality is lower. Successful management is maintaining the delicate harvest balance.
Many tools are necessary to accomplish this balancing act. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Missouri had short any-deer seasons. As hunting pressure increased, this type of management became outdated because harvest of does could not be controlled. Since then, deer management has gradually evolved from a quota system based on deer management units to a county-based system where quotas are no longer used. Today harvest and deer populations are managed by allowing various numbers of archery and firearms antlerless permits to be used in each county.
The firearms deer hunting season is now composed of different portions that provide the varied hunting opportunities Missourians enjoy. The current season structure accommodates different hunting methods and styles, and also specific user groups. Consequently, it satisfies the great demand for deer hunting without harming the resource, and also provides multiple weekends of hunting for those who cannot hunt on weekdays.
All Missouri counties were opened to the hunting of bucks in 1959. In 2002, the buck-only tag was eliminated and a deer of either sex has been allowed in all counties since then with no limit on the number of hunters who can obtain these permits.
Missouri offers a wide range of hunting conditions. The Ozark region in southern Missouri has large areas of solid timber. As much as 85 percent of some counties are wooded. The central counties have cultivated land mixed with woods in about a 50:50 ratio. The prairie region in northern and western Missouri is mainly agricultural land with woody cover confined to woodlots or along streams.
White-tailed deer are ungulates, or hoofed mammals, belonging to the family Cervidae. Characteristics distinguishing this group from other hoofed mammals are forked antlers, a four-part stomach and the absence of a gall bladder. The whitetail is the only remaining native ungulate still thriving in Missouri. Ancestors of our modern deer actually had five toes. Through evolution the first toe disappeared, the second and fifth toes became dew claws, and the third and fourth toes enlarged to form hooves. As a result, deer actually walk on their toes or, more precisely, on their toenails. Like our fingernails and toenails, hooves are composed of keratin. As whitetails grow older, their hooves become wider. Experienced trackers can tell yearling deer from adults based on this characteristic.
A whitetail’s coat and color tend to change throughout the year. During the summer months, deer are reddish-brown, and their coats are rather thin—less than a quarter-inch thick. By August or September they shed their summer pelage, or coat, and replace it with a thick, brown-gray winter coat sometimes more than 1-inch thick. The winter pelage is made up of both a short underfur and outside guard hairs. This dense layer of hair may weigh up to 3 pounds. The molt/ shed cycle begins again in April when deer start to grow their summer coats. This almost continual shedding and regrowth requires substantial amounts of protein and energy.
Occasionally, deer have either all white, dark brown to black or piebald coats. White deer are usually albinos. This genetic trait is sometimes prevalent in one area, but it is not common anywhere. Deer that have patches of both white and brown hair are called piebald deer. These animals may have a patchwork as extensive as that of a pinto horse, or it may be less pronounced. The rarest color variation is black or melanistic. It is caused by an excess of a dark pigment called melanin. Dark brown or black, albino and piebald deer are legal game in Missouri.
Whitetails have as many as seven glands that are used primarily for communication. Gland secretions can describe a deer’s social status, breeding condition and health. The most recognized glands are the tarsal and metatarsal glands, located on a deer’s hind leg. The tarsal gland, located on the leg’s inner surface, serves to identify individuals and their social status. The metatarsal gland, found lower on the leg and on the outside, may help in advertising that there is danger in an area but its function, if any, is unclear. Interdigital glands, located between the hooves, probably leave scent trails that may express dominance. Pre-orbital glands function as tear glands and may relay sex and social hierarchy when rubbed on branches. Forehead glands likely are the source of scent left on rubs and overhanging branches that serves in communication during the breeding season. Preputial glands located inside the penal sheath have recently been discovered and also may serve in deer communication.
Antlers and antler growth
Whitetails are probably best known and sought after for their antlers. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as horns, deer antlers are cast and regrown annually. Horns, on the other hand, grow continually much like hooves. Another difference between horns and antlers is that horns, like hooves, are composed of keratin, whereas antlers are composed of bone. The actual composition of antlers depends upon their stage of growth. Growing antlers are 80 percent protein and 20 percent ash. Hardened antlers are roughly 63 percent ash, 22 percent calcium, 11 percent phosphorus and 4 percent organic matter. Antlers are most dense on young deer and tend to become more porous as the animals grow older.
The phrase, “the head grows according to the pasture,” is probably more accurate when stated, “the body grows according to the pasture.” Antler growth requires a substantial amount of protein, energy and minerals, yet body growth always takes precedence. This is true especially for young deer because they are still putting energy into body growth.
Measuring specific nutritional and mineral effects on wild deer antler growth is difficult because of the animals’ large home range and varied diet. A number of studies on penned deer have found relationships between nutrition and antler growth in young deer. Whitetail fawns fed a ration containing less than 9.5 percent protein developed smaller racks, weighed less and cast their antlers earlier than fawns fed 16 percent protein rations.
Although spring nutrition is important for body and antler growth, whitetails possess adaptations that enable them to prosper in areas with mineral deficiencies. For example, deer deposit minerals in their skeletons throughout the year. Then, during antler growth, they mobilize these minerals to the growing antlers. A second adaptation is their ability to change absorption rates of minerals in their stomach. When using large amounts of minerals for antler growth, deer siphon more minerals from their diet. Deer rely on plants for these minerals, and they select plants offering the highest mineral concentrations.
Protein and minerals play an important role in deer growth and antler development. Yet under normal weather conditions in decent habitat, deer are able to grow to their potential without supplementation. A study that took place in an area with markedly poor soils found no significant difference between body weight or antler size in two populations of wild deer. One group had unlimited access to mineral blocks, and the other did not. In another study, deer with access to food plots were not heavier nor did they have larger antlers than deer without access to food plots.
Most studies that examine the effects of genetics on antler growth are studies of penned deer. Whether these findings may be extrapolated to wild populations remains in question. One theory suggests that spike bucks—bucks, usually yearlings, with non-branched antlers—are genetically inferior. Another contends that many of these spike bucks are late-born fawns whose antler development is retarded but will eventually catch up with other bucks.
No doubt if we take 100 bucks and feed them the same rations until they reach 4 ˝ years of age, antler development will vary among these deer. Much of this variance probably is caused by genetics. Genes and nutrition aside, however, a 3- to 7-year-old deer in Missouri will have a “braggin’ sized” rack because Missouri has good deer habitat.
Deer weights tend to vary by region within a state. In Missouri, on average deer are heavier and sport better racks in the northern half of the state. Latitude may play a role, but the range quality likely plays a greater role. Superior soils and abundant agriculture in northern Missouri offer better nutrition. The largest recorded deer taken in Missouri weighed 407 (live weight) pounds and was killed in 1979 in Davies County.
Spring is the time of plenty for deer. New succulent plants send out tender shoots. Food is abundant even in areas that do not normally provide deer with nutritious food. At this time of year, the woods become a huge salad bar, and deer are able to sample different flowers and plants as they choose. Among the spring favorites in Missouri are wild lettuce, grape vines, trumpet vine, cinquefoil, sweet clover, violets and spring beauty. Most plants offer peak nutrition during spring, and whitetails respond with growth spurts and weight gain. Males channel energy to their antlers and regain the weight lost during last year’s breeding activities. Females transfer energy to unborn fawns, which now undergo rapid growth.
Almost all Missouri does 1˝ years old or older breed and produce fawns each year. In addition, 30 to 40 percent of fawns that are less than ˝ year old breed and produce offspring by the time they are 1 year old. The number of fawns that are born and survive annually is dependant upon a number of factors including the age and nutrition of the mother, deer density in the area and winter stress. Birthrates vary from region to region as these factors change.
The pregnancy rate of whitetails in Missouri was measured by examining the number of fetuses in road-killed does. Pregnancy rates for deer 2˝ years old and older were nearly equal, but rates for younger deer were markedly lower. Adults had moreoffspring per doe than yearlings, who had more than the youngest group. In Missouri, most adult and yearling does have twins each year. The folk tale that old does tend to be barren is a myth. Researchers documented fetuses in does over 15 years of age. In fact, some researchers suggest that older does are more successful mothers because they are experienced and have the best territories.
Peak fawning takes place in late May and June and begins when pregnant does isolate themselves and drive other deer from their fawning areas. Adult deer use the same areas each year. The establishment of fawning territories is thought to limit social stress and help distribute populations evenly. Territories also may prevent newborn fawns from imprinting on deer other than their mothers.
The first weeks of life for newborn fawns are precarious. Young fawns are vulnerable to a variety of predators, diseases, parasites and human-caused mortality. In Missouri, the major natural predators are coyotes, dogs and bobcats. To reduce exposure to predators, fawns spend most of their time bedded and hidden in heavy cover, such as hay fields, grown pastures and old fields. Studies using radio transmitters suggest fawns are active less than one-fifth of a 24-hour day. Both the doe and its offspring spend most of their time in a 10- to 20-acre area these first weeks. Does visit their fawns two to four times a day to nurse and groom them. Fawns move to a new bed site after each feeding and grooming session, but siblings generally do not bed together. During this time, does sometimes physically defend their offspring from predators. It is also during this period that people find what they believe are “abandoned” fawns. In most cases, its mother is close by. Bedded fawns should be left alone.
Following its first month, the fawn increases nursing and activity periods. After four to six weeks, a doe may visit her fawn as often as five or six times per day. Fawns begin eating vegetation and ruminating at two weeks, although they cannot digest plant nutrients until five weeks. Fawns become more social, are more likely to be seen with their siblings or mother and increase their activity to levels similar to adult does. After 10 weeks, fawns eat grasses and forbs and are functional ruminants.
Young does typically establish fawning territories next to their mother’s, but sometimes they disperse and establish in a new area. Missouri deer studies suggest does travel widely during spring then, before giving birth, reduce their movements dramatically. It is much more common for 1-year-old bucks to disperse. In a northern Missouri study that used radio transmitters, 77 percent of buck fawns roamed more than 8 miles. Dispersal by young bucks and does is especially pronounced in areas with high deer densities. Dispersing deer tend to have higher mortality rates, but they may be more likely to find vacant good habitat. This dispersal also might reduce the amount of inbreeding.
During summer, does and bucks are segregated, sedentary and spend most of their active time eating. Does and fawns travel and feed together throughout the summer. Sometimes fawns from the previous year travel with this year’s doe/fawn groups. Does with fawns may spend 70 percent of their time eating to meet their high nutritional requirements. They often seek shrubby, thick cover because it offers better hiding and higher quality forage.
Bucks often congregate in bachelor groups composed of neighboring bucks. Males typically use open habitats, such as mature hardwoods, fields and poorly stocked forests. Thus, they often are found in different habitats than family groups of does and fawns. Some deer researchers suggest males prefer open areas so they can keep track of their position in the social hierarchy and to keep from damaging their antlers while feeding. Others theorize that the males’ nutritional requirements are lower per pound of body weight or that their large rumens allow them to consume more food and gather sufficient nutrition from poorer ranges.
Activity levels in deer are proportional to their nutritional needs. Larger bucks are reported to be more active than smaller bucks during summer. Females are more active than males. Nonetheless, both sexes tend to have smaller home ranges during summer and use wooded cover during daytime periods and open areas at night.
Fall and Winter
Fall is a frenzied time of year for whitetails. Does and fawns continue to travel in groups, but now fawns aretotally weaned and does feed aggressively to recover from the stresses associated with raising them. During fall, deer eat items rich in starch and carbohydrates. In oakhickory forests, this means acorns and soft mast, such as persimmons. Deer also graze on cool season grasses and legumes, which are undergoing a resurgence of growth with cooler fall temperatures and rain.
Yearling bucks that have not dispersed the previous spring may do so in fall. According to studies, this group represents less than 20 percent of yearling bucks in Missouri. Adult and yearling buck bachelor groups break up, and bucks begin to shed their antler velvet and rub trees. An increased production of testosterone, triggered by decreasing day length, brings on the changes in buck behavior and the hardening of antlers. Rutting behavior and activity varies with the age and experience of the bucks and the sex and age ratios of the local deer herd.
Sparring matches are common prior to the break up of bachelor groups, especially among younger animals. Yearling (1˝-year-old) and 2˝-year-old bucks spar to size each other up without injuring themselves. Older bucks with previously established dominance tend not to participate in much pre-rut sparring.
About the time bucks decrease their sparring activities, they increase antler rubbing. Most rubs are thought to be signposts made by bucks to advertise their presence. Rubs provide visual cues and scents that inform other deer about the rub maker. Although no one knows for sure, these rubs probably relay information about social status. The number of rubs a deer makes seems to vary among individuals, but studies of penned deer have shown that adults rub more often than yearlings.
The pattern and frequency of buck sign in an area often reflect the age structure and sex ratios of the resident deer herd. Areas with mature adult bucks have more buck sign, and these areas show signs of rubbing and scraping activities earlier than areas with predominantly yearling bucks.
Scrapes also are signposts made by bucks. They probably are used to attract or keep track of breeding females and to advertise the presence of the maker. When making a scrape, a deer paws the ground and urinates on the disturbed soil. Most scrapes are made near deer travel routes under low tree branches that typically are nibbled on and marked with a scent gland from the deer’s forehead. Adult bucks make about twice as many scrapes as yearlings. Although not common,buck fawns and does have been observed freshening scrapes.
As the rut progresses, bucks become driven to find estrous does—those that are ready to breed. The period just prior to peak breeding probably offers bow hunters the best hunting of the season because bucks constantly move and search for does in heat. Rutting bucks spend more time searching for and tending to does than eating during breeding season and sometimes lose considerable weight. Bucks typically visit the various doe family units in their home range checking for estrous does.
Prior to breeding, does also increase activity levels, thus increasing the likelihood of finding a buck and being bred. Does allow a buck to breed only during the 24-hour-period when they are in peak estrous. Does that are not bred cycle again about 28 days later and may be bred in subsequent cycles. In Missouri, most adult does are bred the second and third weeks of November. Doe fawns are bred about a month later because they cycle later than adults.
Although a buck that is at least 2˝ years old will generally do more breeding than a yearling buck that is 1˝ years old, recent evidence suggests that even in a lightly hunted population, yearling bucks breed some of the does. The proportion of does bred by yearling bucks could be considerable in heavily hunted areas. Also, multiple paternity, where twin or triplet fawns produced by a doe have different fathers, is fairly common, ranging from 20 to 25 percent, according to studies.
Biologists have voiced concerns that not all does are bred in populations with heavily exploited bucks. This is not the case for yearling and adult does in Missouri. During a Conservation Department reproductive study, more than 90 percent of examined does were pregnant, and most breeding occurred over a fairly short time period.
During the whitetail’s courtship, bucks trail and chase does to test their receptivity to breeding. Does aid this process by urinating frequently, which allows trailing bucks to determine their stage of estrous by smelling and tasting the urine. When a buck finds a receptive doe, he remains close by, and the two mate several times. Using radio telemetry during deer studies in north Missouri, researchers determined that mating pairs sometimes spent more than 12 hours together.
As breeding activities wind down, testosterone production decreases in males, and they, in turn, begin to shed their antlers. Some studies suggest that antler shedding also is tied to nutrition because deer living on better ranges tend to carry antlers longer than those on poorer ranges. Young deer typically shed antlers earlier than adults. The older deer, who are actively breeding, shed their antlers after there are no longer does coming into estrous.
During the rut, bucks are struck by vehicles more frequently than at other times of the year and are more vulnerable to hunting. The rut leaves most bucks in poor physical condition. Besides weight losses of up to 20 percent, bucks also may suffer from battle scars and exhaustion. They often enter winter in poorer condition than the rest of the herd.
Winter can be a very difficult time of year for deer, especially in the northern states. Cold weather and reduced food availability force deer to change their habits to conserve energy and survive. Although Missouri winters are not severe, our whitetails display some of the same behaviors as their northern counterparts. These northern deer spend the winter in a sheltered area, then return to their summer range the following spring. A number of radio-tagged deer in Missouri made movements of up to 10 miles each winter then moved back to their summer ranges each spring.
Extended family members often reunite during winter. Most family units winter in the same areas each year, but deer concentrate in new areas if food is abundant. Typically, bucks and does are still segregated. Does and their offspring from several generations often form large groups while males reunite with members of their bachelor group or travel alone.
Deer reduce activity during the winter months. Studies have documented activity changes of up to 50 percent. One study found deer were active 68 percent of the time in October but only 37 percent of the time in February. Their metabolic rate slows down as their activity rate declines, and they require less energy.
During the winter months, deer readily eat foods that are rich in carbohydrates, such as acorns and waste grain. Deer also browse on young trees and shrubs— staple foods for deer in areas lacking agricultural crops and a supplement for all deer during the winter months. The degree to which deer browse certain shrub and tree species sometimes is used as an indicator of deer population levels and winter severity. Somespecies of sumac and dogwood, for example, are readily consumed by deer. Red cedar and hickory are considered starvation foods and are only eaten when populations are high.
Because whitetails are ruminants, they eat a wide variety of foods. Their four-part compound stomach enables them to break down woody browse and herbage, but they cannot digest low-quality forage, such as grass, as efficiently as cattle.
Deer are selective feeders and seek out preferred plant species. Deer have been documented eating more than 600 different types of plants. Deer in the Ozark region of Missouri live in chiefly wooded areas and rely on natural forage, such as grape vines, green briar, Virginia creeper, oak leaves, pussy toes, clovers and prickly lettuce. During spring and summer, deer eat perennial plants more than annuals.
Studies in agricultural areas of Missouri, Iowa and Ohio indicate cultivated crops comprised 41 percent, 56 percent and 48 percent respectively of deer diet by volume. Most researchers found wild browse, fruits and seeds also are major food items. Deer prefer corn, soybeans and hay from the variety of agricultural crops. Oak mast and leaves, corralberry and various forbs are important wild browse food for deer in agricultural areas. These differences in plant use and regional food habit studies are likely a reflection of plant availability. Agricultural crops may be preferred when they are available, but deer still rely on early successional plants and oak mast. Ask your local conservation agent or private land conservationist for details on which species to plant or encourage to attract deer to your land.