Seeing more deer around lately? Here's why

Brian Whipkey
Pennsylvania Outdoor Columnist

If you feel as if you are seeing more deer in fields and along the roadways in recent days, you’re probably right.

The breeding season known as the rut is underway across Pennsylvania.

Archery hunters look forward to this time of the year. Mature bucks that are normally nocturnal sometimes move during daylight hours and other deer are also focused on creating the next generation of deer.

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Duane Diefenbach of Penn State University's Deer-Forest Study and leader and adjunct professor of wildlife ecology, spoke to the National Deer Association about his research about the breeding season. He said they have examined about 6,000 deer that were killed along the road. Their findings revealed that most does are bred by Nov. 13. Fawns that are still maturing may be bred later in the month, but his research has shown that the first two weeks of November have high deer activity.

A young buck walks near a trail camera in early October in Somerset County.

For archers, he said, “Pick your vacation the first two weeks of November.”

He said the breeding cycle is based on the number of hours of daylight this time of year. The overall goal is to have fawns born late enough in the spring to survive the remaining cold days, but early enough in the year that the deer can mature enough to survive the following winter.

The rut

In October, the deer are out searching for other deer to continue the cycle of life.

If you are hunting deer during the rut, he said, scouting for a buck’s home range is key. Find his home core range before the rut and “pray he sticks around,” Diefenbach said.

He said a deer on a highly fragmented landscape such as as farm with fields and woodlots have deer staying within a quarter-square-mile home area. Deer that live in large tracts of woods wander more, basically having a home range of about three-quarters of a mile.

A buck rub found in mid October in Somerset County. A buck will polish its antlers on trees to mark its territory and strengthen its neck muscles to fight off other deer during the mating season known as the rut.

Deer are out rubbing their antlers on trees and making ground scrapes below limbs. The deer will rub their facial glands on the small branches above scraps to help mark an area.

Jeannine Fleegle, wildlife biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, said deer are now searching for mating partners. “The deer world revolves around breeding season so it’s a critical time for them,” she said.

And that phase of the year is underway.

“Bucks start looking for does in October,” she said about some females coming into estrus sooner than others. “It’s a curve. A few start and then it peaks.”

She said a common myth is that only the bucks are on the move, but does are waiting to be found by mates, too.

Stay in the woods to find deer

For hunters, she said it’s time to be in the woods. “You can’t find them if you’re not there.”  While other times of the year deer move early and late in the day to feed, deer are now active at most anytime. “They have one mission during this time of year … and that’s passing on their genes.

Bucks are making scrapes in the ground like this one found in mid October in Somerset County to mark their territory. They are also rubbing their faces in low hanging limbs above the scrapes.

“Bucks are looking to breed as many does as they can.” 

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Scouting is paramount. The deer you may see in August and September have expanded their home range to other land. “They have this amazing ability to completely disappear” as they wander over more area in October and November. She said their home range expands and contracts based on the season.

A deer’s travel pattern changes during the rut from the early fall when they are focused on feeding and bedding.

“That’s why they are so difficult to hunt and that’s why they are so difficult to kill," Fleegle said. "You don’t know where they are going to be.”

It’s difficult to pattern bucks during the rut as they are out moving looking primarily for does, not just food. Fleegle said the most common question she gets from the public is about knowing where to set up to find a deer. There’s no simple answer. The best advice she offers is to keep hunting: “Be persistent and consistent.”

It helps to know the territory but there are no guarantees. “That’s why they call it hunting,” she said.

The rut throws in many extra factors that you can’t predict where the deer are going to be found. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of luck. And to have those two things come together, that’s what makes it special,” she said about archery hunting, which requires a close encounter with your prey.

The fall statewide archery season ends Nov. 19, and the late archery season runs Dec. 27-Jan. 17.

Brian Whipkey is the outdoor columnist for USA Today Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Outdoors Newsletter email on your website's homepage under your login name.