Conditions are perfect. Antlers have hardened and the velvet skin that nourished them has been shed. The weather is cool enough for plenty of deer activity. As I write this we’re in the second full moon after the fall equinox, which triggers many does to go into estrus. Mature bucks are ready to get hyperactive. Deer hunters are also ready for the annual whitetail matchmaking frenzy, and it’s about to begin.
Many people believe a doe selects a buck with the biggest antlers to sire her fawns. It fits their understanding of the classic Darwinian “survival of the fittest” theory. Anti-hunters use this to argue against “trophy hunting,” saying that the biggest bucks should be left to do the breeding, and that killing them is counterproductive to “natural selection.” But there are some practical reasons this is not so.
One reason is that the girls contribute at least as much genetic material as the boys do for antlers in their male offspring. Another is that plenty of young bucks are capable of breeding and have genetics for large antlers, but are not old enough to display that genetic potential. Why wouldn’t it be equally counterproductive to shoot them?
Other people believe that the bucks with the biggest antlers do most of the breeding not because does select their mates for antler size, but because large antlers are a sign of dominance. That’s another classic viewpoint, but it’s not necessarily true in whitetail deer. Big bucks do not always do most of the breeding. In fact, some big bucks do less breeding.
Although elk and whitetails are both in the deer family, breeding behavior is very different. A mature bull elk will gather a harem and defend his cows from other intruding bulls. A whitetail buck never gathers a harem. He breeds one doe at a time, staying with her during the 24 to 48 hours she is ready and willing. While he’s wooing her, other bucks are courting other receptive does. Once a doe’s readiness ends, a buck goes wherever his nose takes him in search of another doe that will accept his romantic overtures.
Since a whitetail buck breeds one doe at a time, in order to do much breeding he has to be aggressive, ready to seek out any receptive doe. That’s why the rut can severely deplete a breeding buck. He forgoes eating, even his safety, while he’s in search of another doe to breed. He’s a risk taker. He’ll dash across roads without thought of the oncoming cars. He is willing to fight not to protect a group of does from the lusts of other bucks, but for breeding privileges with a single female.
A buck will act stupid because he pays more attention to the hypnotizing scent he smells than to the threats he sees. That’s why rutting bucks might pass fearlessly within 10 or 15 feet of a hunter, and never act like the hunter is there.
That means the bucks that do most of the breeding — the dominant bucks — may not be the biggest bucks. Rather, they are the most aggressive bucks. Even a small spike-antlered buck, if he’s aggressive enough, will do as much breeding as he can. It boils down to the buck’s personality, his energy, even his recklessness, not the size of his antlers.
A buck’s aggressive nature shows up in with broken antlers, torn ears, facial scars, blinded eyes, and other wounds, but maybe not the biggest antlers. Big bucks that are loners and do their breeding only when the opportunity presents itself are more likely to back down, take fewer risks, and have less conflict than smaller bucks that are more aggressive.
Whenever we see a buck with trophy antlers, we hope he passed those genes along, but maybe he didn’t do much breeding. Maybe he was a recluse. And maybe that’s why he got old, and big. And maybe that’s why he survived as long as he did.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.