There’s Nothing Romantic About Whitetail Courtship

By Patrick DurkinDecember 31, 2014

UPDATED ON: May 1st, 2015

The truck’s clock read 1:10 p.m. on a recent Monday as I pulled onto the highway’s shoulder and cranked out a Y-turn to watch a buck courting a doe 60 yards away in a cut cornfield in northeastern Wisconsin.

I had started braking a minute earlier when seeing the doe crossing the state highway 300 yards ahead. Although she was trotting, she didn’t seem spooked as I slowed to watch her mincing into the field alone. Then she paused, barely glanced my way, and stared in the direction she’d just come.

Suspecting a buck was following, I leaned for my camera in the passenger seat. Too late. A 10-point buck bounded from the weedy ditch bordering the highway, trotted across the two-lane road, and hurried to catch up with the doe.

Both deer watched as I turned the truck around and pulled even with them. Although I was making them nervous, they didn’t flee. They just moved haltingly about 40 yards farther into the field as I killed the engine and photographed them through an open window.

Buck in Wisconsin corn field

A 10-point buck pauses in a cut cornfield Nov. 3 in northern Shawano County while pursuing a doe in heat.

Though fascinated by the deer’s midday activity in this wide-open terrain, I wasn’t surprised. It was early November, after all, and the whitetail’s mating season was underway, spurring leaps in daytime “rutting” activity.

Likewise, I assumed I had passed several bowhunters the past couple of hours without seeing them perched in tree stands deep inside woodlots or along field edges. When Wisconsin’s whitetails are rutting, bowhunters try their hardest to take advantage. The biggest stalwarts reserve early to mid-November for annual vacations, knowing their odds increase with every dawn-to-dusk vigil they endure.

These folks don’t even leave their stands for lunch, preferring to eat slowly around midday with one hand on a sandwich and the other poised to snatch their bow from its holder. A rutting buck can show up any time, after all.

In fact, some of season’s biggest bucks fall at midday, mine included. If I had to choose the best time to be on a deer stand during November, it would be the 10 o’clock hour. But anytime from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. is prime.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when seeing that 10-pointer pestering the doe that afternoon. In fact, it reminded me of another buck I photographed in 2009 as it trailed a doe crossing a county highway in north-central Wisconsin. I had pulled over to snap down my truck’s loose Tonneau cover, and heard movement in the woods nearby.

When I looked up, a doe stepped out and click-clacked her way to the road’s centerline. When she paused, I sneaked my camera from the back seat. Then she looked around, stared at her back-trail for several seconds, and resumed her stop-and-start trek.

Doe in road

A doe in heat crosses a county highway in northern Waupaca County during the rut in November 2009.

I was ready when the buck stepped out and hopped onto the highway, intently trailing the doe. When it paused at the pavement’s edge, I rapped a knuckle on my truck’s metal side to get its attention. It “smiled” briefly for a photo before resuming its amorous pursuits.

When watching older, bigger bucks like these brazenly risk their lives by chasing skirts, it’s easy to assume they keep their intended does locked down and sire most of the herd’s fawns. After all, they seldom stray far from each doe they pursue, and remain forever wary of competition. They often stare down competitors, aggressively sidle toward them, or drive them off with antler jabs.

Buck in road

The buck pauses before continuing its pursuit.

In fact, until researchers in Texas conducted genetic tests on whitetails about 10 years ago, most biologists also assumed older bucks do almost all the breeding. They, too, couldn’t imagine lesser bucks risking a superior buck’s wrath, given the drubbing they’d suffer. Besides, dominant bull elk do most of the breeding, so why wouldn’t whitetails?

In 2005, however, those Texas researchers discovered that mature bucks often fail to produce offspring consistently. Further, lesser bucks take advantage of breeding opportunities if they’re in the right place at the right time. After all, unlike elk, whitetails don’t form harems. Bucks commonly court one doe for a day while waiting for her to become receptive, and then breed her often the next 24 to 48 hours. Once she shuts down, the buck looks elsewhere for another receptive partner.

Despite the bucks’ relentless breeding efforts, relatively few fawns result. One study found that successful bucks averaged less than three fawns per year over an 11-year period, and the study’s most prolific buck sired six fawns in one year. Still, that buck’s body size and antlers were nothing special.

Meanwhile, younger or less-impressive bucks don’t hide during breeding season. They often lurk near receptive does, awaiting a chance. When the dominant buck chases off a competitor, lesser bucks make their play.

As a result, about 20 to 25 percent of fawns and triplets from the same doe have different sires, the researchers found. Yes, in other words, female whitetails are nearly as promiscuous as the males.

But make no mistake: Mature bucks try hard to lock up breeding privileges, despite their frequent failures. The researchers found about 70 to 85 percent of fawns were sired by bucks at least 3.5 years old. The other 15 to 30 percent of fawns were sired by yearling and 2.5-year-old bucks.

Keep all that in mind the next time you witness the whitetail’s breeding rituals. Those who expect to see love, romance and one shared spirit should watch a different animal.

Patrick Durkin
President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
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