Mark Of The Whitetail By Steve Brockmann
Almost everyone enjoys seeing deer while stumbling around the outdoors
even if they’re not hunting. But, while an encounter with wild deer is almost
universally a valued experience, for the deer hunter such an encounter is
the primary objective.
For those specifically searching for deer, the quest can be frustrating. Deer
often avoid humans, so finding them may be difficult. This is especially true
of whitetail deer, which in general inhabit heavy cover, and are usually warier
than western mule deer.
Whitetails do leave a number of signs in their passing, however, and the careful
student of the outdoors can often tell a great deal about the deer in the area from
these signs. Correct interpretations of deer sign often lead to a direct encounter
with this elusive species.
Signs left by the whitetail include droppings, tracks, trails, rubs, scrapes, beds,
browse marks, hair and shed antlers. Each can tell something about the local deer
but the best understanding always comes when all possible sources of information
Droppings are perhaps the most commonly encountered , and most easily recognized
deer sign. Researchers have used fecal pellets to to determine diets, habitat use patterns
and population sizes. Bowhunters can determine many of the same things, though perhaps on a rougher scale, by observing the consistancy and location, and abundance of deer droppings
they encounter in the field.
The most common form of dropping is the pellet. These cylinders range from about one-half to
over an inch in length and from about one-quarter to one-half inch in diameter. This is the deer dropping most of us are familiar with, but it is not the only type. Pellets are produced whenever deer are eating dry vegetation or browse (twigs, buds and leaves of woody species rather than grasses and forbs). Across most of the whitetail’s range, this means late summer through early spring.
The other form of deer dropping is produced when deer have been eating succulent green forage.
These are globular masses of indefinate shape. Sometimes they resemble blobs of mud, while at other times they appear more like a segmented mass of many small blobs. For the lack of a more
universal term, these soft droppings are sometimes referred to as “plops”. Plops may be up to two inches in diameter and are usually green when fresh and black or dark brown when older. They are most commonly produced during spring and early summer, when new growth is abundant.
Where palatable plants occur near banks, lakes or bogs, deer may produce plops throughout the summer and into the fall.
The distribution of droppings can be a clue to the habitat use patterns and distribution of the deer.
Successful interpretation lies on a general knowledge of deer habits, however. Whitetail deer usually bed in heavy cover during the day, and move to open areas, such as meadows, agricultural fields or timber cuts during the night. In some cases ,shrub patches or dense stands of trees are the preferred feeding sites.
Deer usually defecate upon rising in the evening, and droppings are often deposited in a distinct pile. If you can find an area of dense brush with many such piles, chances are you have found a
frequently used bedding area. Look nearby for beds, where the vegetation has been flattened by
deer lying down.
A relatively open, but timbered, ridge may be used as a travel corridor between the bedding area and feeding area. These corridors can sometimes be identified by the large number of deer pellets scattered along them. Deer often void while on the move, so droppings may be spread out, rather than in small groups. in some regions, bedding areas are immediately adjacent to feeding areas
so distinct travel corridors may not exist.
Feeding areas will also usually contain deer droppings, but these are likely to be scattered at a much lower density than in either bedding areas or travel corridors.
Areas with abundant droppings usually hold more deer than those that with fewer droppings, but one can be fooled. In the northern portion f the whitetail’s range, deer frequently concentrate in relatively small areas during the most severe weather. These wintering areas often hold high densities of deer pellets, but very few deer during most of the year. Whitetails usually select stands of mature evergreens for winter habitat, so large concentrations of deer pellets in a stand of large old pines, firs or cedars may tip you off to a winter yard.
Shed antlers which are usually dropped in early winter, are another clue as to the location of winter ranges, and can give a good idea of the size of the bucks in the area. In most areas, the largest antlers are usually found shed on the winter ranges rather than on the heads of hunters-harvested animals.
On winter ranges, deer are most likely to be encountered during winter, of course. It is important to realize, though, that deer coping with deep snow are often walking a fine line between starvation
and survival, and that running from humans can represent a critical drain of the deer’s limited energy. Wintering areas are usually best avoided during the time that deer are using them.
The age of droppings can be very helpful in deciphering the routine of the local deer, but this is often difficult to determine. Very fresh droppings are wet, warm, and often steaming. Within a day
they often have adried outer coat, but are usually soft easily crushed and moist inside. Many factors including temperature, precipitation, eposure and deer diet affect the rate at which pellets
dry. In moist areas, pellets may decompose within weeks, while in drier areas they may last for many years.
Because whitetails habitually follow the same routes, and because deer often travel in groups, whitetail habitat is usually laced with a network of trails. Researchers have found that larger deer populations make more trails than do smaller deer populations, given similar habitat. Thus an area with lots of trails usually has lots of deer. But comparing the number of deer trails in two areas of habitat types will not necessarily provide a reliable comparison of the relative sizes of the deer populations.
Some trails connect food or water to bedding cover. Others lead to fence crossings or through heavy cover. Many of the trails are used only after dark, especially wide trails in open habitat. Chances are best of seeing deer where many trails funnel together, for example where a broken fence makes crossing easier, or where a narrow strip of cover connects two forrested areas. These areas can be very productive for the bowhunter who can slip into such an area and wait patiently down-wind, perhaps in a tree stand.
Low fence wires, especially those marked with tufts of deer hair, often reveal where deer cross from one pasture to another. These sites should be noted by those trying to determine travel routes of deer in a given area, as they may provide another good opportunity to ambush a buck.
Deer tracks are frequently encountered, and, depending on the circumstances, one may be able to tell where the deer was coming from from or going to, how fast it was going, what it was doing, how long ago it was there, and perhaps the sex and six=ze of the deer.
Tracks may be found in snow, soil, or vegetation. By far the easiest to identify are those tracks left in fresh snow. If the snow is very recent, there is little doubt about how long ago
the deer was there, and there will usually be a clear record of where the deer came from and where it was going. Tracks can be followed forward, in an attempt to find the deer that
made the track, or they can be followed backwards, to find out what the deer has been
to. Some hunters have developed tracking to a fine art, and several books have been written on the subject.
Careful tracking and persistence has led many hunters to fine bucks, but the technique is not usually an easy shortcut to a trophy, especially for the hunter. The tricks a whitetail can pull to throw a pursuer from his track are legendary; From mixing with other deer tracks, to walking in streams, to constantly circling downwind to check for followers, a wary whitetail is a challenge for any tracker.
For the bowhunter interested in learning about deer, but wishing to avoid direct harassment of the deer, backtracking can be rewarding and often more enlightening than forward tracking. It allows one to interpret the behavior of undisturbed deer something that is difficult to do when one is forward tracking. It is also an effective way to learn the location of local feeding areas, bedding areas, and travel routes between the two.
Whether forward-tracking or backtracking, the process is the same find a track and follow it for as long as possible, The interpretations made along the way can help you determine what the deer was doing when it was there. Gait is an obvious attribute one can determine about a track. Short, staggered strides indicate that the deer was walking slowly. It
may have been hiding, watching, and sneaking, or it may have been feeding through an
area. Nipped buds and twigs can help make a case for feeding. By noting which species are
most heavily browsed, and which not browsed, one can learn a great deal about food preferences in the area.
Longer strides laid out along a straighter course indicate a deer moving along with a
destination in mind. Such movements are common when deer travel between feeding
areas and bedding areas. A buck in search of receptive does during the breeding season
also moves along at a good pace, so keep this in mind if tracks are found during the November rut.
When frightened, whitetails run in long bounds, which have distinctive marks. Tracks
of all four feet register together, with distances of up to 20 feet separating each landing
mark. Snow or dirt is often thrown forward from the force of the landing and push-off of
each bound. Sometimes backtracking will reveal what scared the deer. A car, coyote, dog
or human is often the cause. If the track is very fresh, you may well have frightened the
As with droppings, aging very fresh tracks is not difficult. Tracks in snow will usually
freeze overnight, so check for a think glaze of ice in the track if a track looks crisp and fresh. In some conditions, tracks may appear new for several days, but truly fresh tracks will almost always have loose snow in the hoof print itself or along the drag marks left in
front of or behind the print. After a few hours in sunlight, or a few minutes in strong wind,
some tracks may be obliterated. In these cases, it is best to reserve judgement on the
age of the track until they are followed into a sheltered site.
If the edges are melted out and indistinct, or an icy glaze has formed on the tracks in the
shade, they are likely a day or more old. Fresh tracks in fluffy, powdery snow may be very
indistinct, and might appear to be very old at first glance. Again, however, the snow filling
the tracks will be loose and fluffy rather than either frozen solid or wet and slushy. Knowledge of how long since the last snow, and of weather conditions since then, can be helpful in determining the age of a track.
Obviously, small deer make small tracks and large deer make large tracks. The tracks
of fawns are relatively easy to distinguish, and the medium-sized deer traveling with them
are usually does, though small bucks could be among the does and fawns. During the November rut, bucks of any size may be traveling with the does and fawns.
Like fawn tracks, those of the biggest bucks are not particularly difficult to identify,
though it may take a bit more experience to know what qualifies as a truly large track. In
very heavily hunted populations, few or no bucks reach trophy size, so the largest tracks
may well be those of the oldest does. Bucks continue to grow for several years after the
age at which does reach full size, however, and bucks are almost invariably larger than
females of similar age. In populations where some of the bucks are able to survive to a ripe
old age the biggest tracks are usually made by big bucks.
A number of other clues can be used to separate tracks of bucks from those of does.
These clues become especially important when trying to decide if a moderate-sized
track was made by an adult doe or by a young to moderate-aged buck. No one sign is fully
fool-proof, and each has been contested by experienced hunters. A combination of factors, however, can usually be relied upon to reveal the sex of the deer.
In shallow snow (under about one inch) bucks tend to drag their feet, while does tend
to lift theirs. In deeper snow, all deer show drag marks, so this cannot be relied upon in
all cases. Probably the next most reliable sign is the pattern of urination revealed in the
snow. Bucks usually leave a small, neat hole with crisp edges, where a steady stream has
entered the snow. Does, by contrast, tend to leave more of a puddle. During the rut, bucks
may dribble urine along their track, rather than stopping to relieve themselves.
Individual tracks of a buck also tend to be staggered from side to side and pointed outwards, rather than in a straight line, like those of a doe. Some authors claim that bucks will walk around dense brush patches and trees, to avoid tangling their antlers, while does will wiggle their way through or against such obstacles. My experience has been somewhat different on this matter, as I have tracked bucks through very dense brush patches. In fact, bucks have frequently been noted to use the most dense tangles of cover to a much greater extent than do the females.
If you find a bed along the track you are following, you may be able to make out where the deer laid its head when it slept. Occasionally an antler will leave an impression in the snow here, which will give you solid evidence as to the sex of the deer. Similarly, you may be able to detect antler marks in the snow where the deer has fed, if the snow is fairly deep.
One final bit of evidence, which pops up with a fair degree of regularity along a buck’s trail, especially during the rut, is the rub. If a lone set of tracks leads to a sapling which has had bark or branches stripped, and that material is lying on top of the snow, accept that as
final proof that you have found a buck’s trail.
Rubs are created by bucks as they scrape their antlers on small trees. This is done in late summer to remove the velvet from the fully grown antlers, but the activity continues through the rut. Scent glands in the skin of the forehead are thought to produce a personal odor, so rubs become a business card, of sorts, for individual bucks. Be aware of rubs , even when you’re not following a trail in the snow. These indicate that a buck has passed through the area, and may be living nearby.
Some very successful hunters maintain that individual bucks mark their consistently used travel routes by a series of rubs. These marked routes are usually found downwind of major deer trails, and are located in heavy cover. Observing a buck in such an area is
often difficult because these routes are hidden and may be used only under cover of darkness.
Scrapes are another sign left by bucks only, and have fascinated hunters and researchers for years. Scrapes are triangular impressions in the soil, pawed out by the buck during the rut. Again, a personal odor is deposited, this time from the interdigital glands found between the toes of the front foot.
The scrape apparently serves as a meeting place for bucks, who are ready and willing to breed through much of the fall, and the does, who come into heat for only 24 hours at a time. If not bred, the doe will recycle and come into heat between 21 and 30 days later, but this happens only two or three times per year for each doe. When her time comes, each doe
must seek out a suitable buck. This is most easily done, apparently, by leaving a message
on the buck’s answering machine: she urinates in his scrape. When the buck checks back later he will notice the message and search out the doe, who is usually nearby.
These scrapes, then, are an important sign to the deer herd, and should be noticed by the
bowhunter interested in learning about whitetails in the area. Scrapes are usually from one
to three feet in diameter, and consist of a shallow fan-shaped depression of bare soil from
which all leaves, needles, and other litter have been removed. Scrapes are often found along edges between brushy areas and mature timber, or along field edges. Often a series of small scrapes, each approximately 100 yards or more apart, will lead to a larger, more active “primary” or “hub” scrape. This primary scrape will usually be under an over-
hanging branch, which will be licked, nuzzled, and rubbed by several of the bucks in
For the hunter, the primary scrape is the best sign of all to find, for it means that one or
more mature bucks are in the area, and probably will return. The trick becomes approaching the scrape and waiting patiently, undetected. Scrapes are usually checked from downwind, so hunters are often detected as they wait. Stands situated well downwind of scrapes have proven to be the most reliable.
The approach to the stand must be planned carefully if one expects a reasonable shot at a
calm animal. If the wind carries your scent through the cover he is hiding in as you walk
to your stand, you likely will never see him at the scrape. The scents associated with your
boots and pants alone are enough to alert a whitetail if he encounters them on his way in.
He will probably either sneak off quietly, maybe without your even knowing, or perhaps he’ll snort, raise his tail, turn, and break into graceful, but heartbreaking, bounds.
The route to the stand should be planned to minimize the chances of winds carrying your
scent to the deer (think about the locations of feeding and bedding areas). A cover scent,
applied to pant legs (from the knee down) and boots (the toe and the sole are the most critical) can help hide the entry trail from deer that cross it in their wanderings. A lure made from the urine of estrus does can even bring a rutting buck to your stand, right along the path you followed.
Scrapes are perhaps the ultimate sign to the hunter, and a fascinating phenomenon for
others, but those illiterate in the more basic language of droppings, tracks, and rubs will
likely find few scrapes, and may use the scrapes they do find inappropriately. Once
daily movement patterns of the local deer are worked out, likely places for scrapes can be
predicted, and logical strategies can be plotted.
As experiences in an area accumulate, more of the details of the deer population can
be filled in. Conjecture can be replaced by observation, and familiarity will replace
confusion. One emotion that probably will not disappear is a near constant amazement at the survival capacity of the whitetail, and a respect for the resourcefulness of a species that
continues to expand its range in the face of increasing human populations and the pressures they place on the environment. >>—>
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