According to deer-hunting lore, wise bucks always stop and watch from secure cover before entering fields or large openings. These mature monarchs supposedly stay hidden to patiently monitor other deer in the field and let them feed into range of potential dangers.

In human terms, those bucks act much like a soldier in a foxhole who uses a stick to poke his helmet above the sandbags to draw enemy fire. Only after the buck sees does, fawns, and yearling bucks feeding peacefully—their white tails flicking contentedly—does it step from the shadows. And if it’s especially wise, it stays hidden ’til dark.

Other stories of cunning bucks start farther back in the woods. In these accounts, the buck follows warily behind a doe and her family group, purposefully using them as forward-operating sentinels. To borrow another army analogy, the buck lets the doe “take the point,” and possibly the first bullet or arrow, should their group encounter a hunter.

Not everyone watching such processions sees the buck as a cynical, calculating coward that survives by sacrificing others. Some consider the buck’s trailing position the “natural” function of a moving herd. They claim that by putting a buck at the end of an advancing line, Mother Nature positions the herd’s biggest, strongest animal to protect the group from four-legged predators attacking from the rear or flanks.

Explaining ‘The Why’
To be clear, pretty much everyone agrees that mature bucks are usually the last to enter fields at dusk, and that antlered bucks of all ages follow other deer through woodlands each autumn. The disputes start when trying to explain why bucks behave so predictably and consistently.

Jim Heffelfinger scoffs at presumptions that bucks protect other deer or entrust their own safety to other deer. Heffelfinger is a researcher at the University of Arizona and wildlife science coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He said the most accurate explanations of animal behavior often make the dullest stories.

“It’s fun to think of bucks as smart, strategic thinkers that keep themselves safe just in case someone starts shooting, but that’s a wee bit too anthropomorphic for me,” Heffelfinger said. “It’s easy to stray from science when you use your own thoughts and experiences to explain animal behavior. I scowl at it, but anthropomorphism is interesting. It comes naturally. We all do it. Sometimes we’re probably even right. When we see pets or fawns playing, they’re clearly happy. We can’t scoff at that.”

Most animal behaviors, however, aren’t so easy to interpret or explain. “A doe is very protective of her fawns in spring when they’re most vulnerable, but beyond that, it’s all about self-interest,” Heffelfinger said. “If bucks really expected most danger from the rear, they wouldn’t be last in line. They’d go first. Nature didn’t make them the herd’s guardians. Like it or not, science should be boring.”

Dr. Valerius Geist, a Canadian zoologist and retired professor at the University of Calgary, agrees that most explanations for animal behavior are anything but “sexy.” Geist said animals share some behavioral traits with humans, but altruism—self-sacrifice for the common good—isn’t among them. “Male and female deer both act selfishly,” Geist said.

Geist said bucks generally seek the best feeding spots for maximizing body and antler growth, but prime sites (such as harvested agricultural fields) are usually less secure, even when adult females are out there feeding in plain sight. “You must expect the buck to be super cautious in its approach,” he said.

Experts at Avoiding Risk
Bruce Ranta, a retired moose and deer biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, puts it this way: “Prey animals are either scared, or they’re dead.”

Therefore, a deer herd’s most cautious members are generally older, more experienced animals. These individuals might have always been more shy and wary than other deer, and perhaps more lucky, too. Whatever their combination of skills, temperament, and habitat choices, these survivors expertly reduce and avoid risks by the time they reach maturity.

Dr. Karl Malcolm, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Milwaukee, operated a wildlife-control service during his college years. His work often involved culling deer that created hazards to a facility’s aircraft or test vehicles. Malcolm said he quickly learned he could shoot more deer per outing by passing up early arrivals at feeding sites.

“When culling deer, you’re typically targeting female family groups in December and January,” Malcolm said. “The standard operating procedure is to wait for the last deer to enter the field and present a shot. Those in the back are usually older, mature does. The ones out front are typically fawns and yearlings, and maybe some two year olds. If you wait to kill that dominant leader that came in late, you can remove more or all of the group because the younger ones hesitate when the shooting starts. That practice works consistently well, but explaining the behavior behind it gets highly speculative.”

Malcolm said most hunters don’t wait out maternal family groups in fields because they seldom strive to shoot multiple deer. “Hunters typically focus on one deer,” he said. “They pick out the nearest doe, make a clean shot, and watch the rest peel back into the woods.”

Even so, few hunters claim those old matriarchs purposely hang back in the woods, presumably waiting to see if their yearlings, daughters, or nubby bucks, find trouble when venturing out. If deer could make such calculations, you’d expect a mature doe to kick or flail at subordinate deer to push them forward into fields. After all, dominant females often bat around subordinate deer at bait and feed piles, or when they want young bucks to disperse. Rather, hungry buck fawns don’t need persuading. They can’t wait to enter fields to eat.

“The only thing more stupid than a button buck is a ’possum,” said Dr. Karl Miller, a retired deer researcher who spent his career at the University of Georgia. “A fair comparison is watching little kids at the grocery store. Little girls are typically content to sit in the cart near mom, while little boys go busting down the aisle every chance they get. Button bucks act the same way near fields. They’re always the first ones out.”

A buck’s behavior then grows less risky through natural shyness and wariness as it ages. “But will a buck learn to consciously let other deer go ahead to assess danger? No. I don’t buy that,” Miller said. “Deer out front or in a field might sometimes detect danger that saves deer farther back or in the woods, but I doubt any of them planned it that way.”

John Ozoga, 84, studied unhunted whitetails for three decades at the Cusino Wildlife Research Station in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during his career with the department of natural resources. Ozoga said older bucks were always the most wary deer in the 1-square-mile enclosure. When he and his team set traps each winter to assess the herd and each deer’s health, bucks always proved the most difficult to fool and the last ones to be caught.

“I had 16 traps, and I’d start each winter putting food at the entrance and gradually move it deeper inside the trap so they’d trigger the release,” Ozoga said. “The last deer to enter the traps each winter were always bucks, and the last one we caught each winter was always a buck. Sometimes we couldn’t catch every buck. Bucks are naturally more cautious. It’s their inherent behavior.”

Shirking and Hiding
Ozoga and Geist also said it’s possible that bucks watching from cover are purposefully avoiding a less deadly danger: other bucks. Geist said some bucks grow so timid that they become “shirkers,” and deliberately avoid other deer during the rut. They feed and rest in seclusion, neither courting nor breeding females.

Geist describes watching three different shirkers during an eight-year study of mule deer in Alberta’s Waterton National Park. He said shirkers typically stood still when spotting other deer and then retreated into cover. One was a normal, rutting buck until an old buck flung it upward during a fight when it was 3 years old.

“(The buck) landed on his back in some wind-blown aspen trees,” Geist wrote. “He quit rutting that year and for two more years. By then, he had grown to very large body and antler size. The next rutting season he reversed and became a fully engaged, breeding master-buck … for three rutting seasons.”

Ozoga documented a similar case at Cusino in which a dominant buck controlled the enclosure’s herd for eight to nine years until a poacher killed it. “I had 40-some bucks in there at the time, and yet that buck controlled the social order,” Ozoga said. “During that time, one particular buck never even tried to participate in the rut. I seldom saw that buck, and the dominant buck picked on it every time I saw them. When we caught that subservient buck each winter to assess its condition, it had the progesterone levels of a dominant doe. But when that dominant buck got poached, the subservient buck’s progesterone levels dropped, and it went straight to the top of the herd’s hierarchy.”

Understanding Females
Professor John McDonald at Westfield State University in Massachusetts reported similar instances of subordinate bucks retreating from a field when spotting or encountering a dominant buck over the rise. McDonald also said bucks might not correctly interpret what they see when accompanying female deer.

“Bucks really don’t spend much time with females year-round,” McDonald said. “They’re alone or hanging out with other bucks far more often. It’s only during fall and into winter that they spend much time around females. It’s not unusual to see a buck looking around confused when all other deer flee a field. It’s like he’s sometimes the last one to get the cue to jump and run. Bucks aren’t part of that social group, so they’re probably not tuned in to the dominant doe. She’s not their leader. They’re left to assess for themselves what’s going on.”

McDonald said bucks probably even assess escape routes differently while fleeing, especially if they’re older bucks with big antlers. “We’ve all seen bucks tilt their antlers back to help them run through thick stuff or dive under fences, but I think they’d rather avoid trouble than react to it,” he said.

Ozoga and Miller agreed, noting that bucks and does seldom mix or follow a doe anywhere until mid-September. Once bucks’ testosterone levels start rising, their interest in females returns, and so do their riskiest behaviors.

“It’s like they re-enter puberty each fall,” Miller said. “So, when hunters ask why a buck would follow a doe around weeks before the rut, I ask if I should explain the birds and the bees. Something is brewing, but it’ll be awhile before they start procreating.”

Meanwhile, everyone understands why bucks take the trailing position throughout fall. “They’re not trying to defend that doe,” McDonald said. “They want to breed, and it’s easier to keep track of a doe by keeping her out in front while watching for competitors trying to sneak in. If a buck happens to encounter a predator back there, it might try driving it off, but that doesn’t explain why it’s back there. Looks can be deceiving.”

Feature image via Matt Hansen.