Doctor Deer

Think you know a thing or two about whitetails? Spend a couple of days in the woods with one of the most knowledgeable biologists in the country.

Field & Stream Online Editors

As I'm filling out the paperwork for a nonresident deer license at the sports superstore in Athens, Georgia, my hunting partner drifts over to the smells section: buck lures, cover scents, real and synthetic urines, soaps, detergents, shampoos, scent-reducing sprays, doe-in-heat candles. I hurry the transaction because my partner is no ordinary hunter. He's Karl V. Miller, professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Georgia's D.B. Warnell School of Forest Resources, and one of the most knowledgeable and widely quoted experts in the country about the habits of whitetails. "You could send him into a stretch of woods anywhere in the country, and within a few minutes he'll tell you not only which 10 plants the deer prefer [ BRACKET "there"] at any given time but probably also the order of preference," says Brian Murphy, a former student, a biologist himself, and head of the Quality Deer Management Association in nearby Watkinsville.

I pocket my license and head over to where he's perusing the contents of a bottle of scent killer. Unlike most academics, Miller is also a lifelong hunter. (His wife, Renee, is an excellent cook who writes venison recipes for magazines and doesn't let him stop hunting until he has seven deer in the freezer, enough to feed a family of four and all-too-frequent guests-like me-for the year.) "I worked with some of the companies who put this stuff out," he murmurs. Curious to know which products a guy who understands the chemistry behind the hype would actually use, I pop the obvious question.

"Never tried any of 'em," he says, putting the bottle back on the rack. "For one thing, I'm too cheap. And I like as little between me and the deer as possible."

Camo, Bullets, and Broadheads
Karl Miller, as I find out in the days ahead, is the kind of guy who can walk out the door with all the accessories he'll need for the day in a single pocket. He'd generally rather hunt on the ground than out of a stand. You learn more that way, and his hunger for knowledge is keener than his appetite for antlers or venison. He doesn't buy calls; he grunts, snorts, and bleats using his mouth. He will carry binoculars when gun hunting, uses a release on his old round-wheel PSE bow, and rattles during the pre-rut and sometimes the post-rut if the mood strikes him.

"Other than that it's camo, bullets, and broadheads. For years, I wore blue jeans and a camo shirt until we did studies and I found out that blue is one color that deer see pretty well. So now I wear camo pants, too." He mentions that a buck placed in a maze and given the choice of heading toward either fresh estrous urine or fresh non-estrous urine is just as likely to head for the non-estrous. This is a thunderbolt to me, refuting years of advertising claims. Some other biologists-Brian Murphy, for one-agree. "It's a scam, as far as I'm concerned," Murphy says. "It just doesn't matter if you use estrous or regular doe urine." But Miller, ever the scientist, is more circumspect. It doesn't prove that an estrous scent won't work. It just proves that in a Y-maze (a chute in which an animal must choose one of two directions), a buck is as likely to head for the non-estrous scent. Deer are generally very interested in the scent of urine and using it may be a good way to attract them, Miller says. But we don't fully understand why or what information is being transmitted.

"Look, don't set me up as a deer hunting expert," Miller tells me as he drives his pickup truck. "There are plenty of guys who've shot more and bigger deer than I have. To me, the essence of hunting is pitting your senses and intelligence against the deer. The less between you and your quarry, the more real the hunt. Think about the Indians. They used to kill 'em with a stone and a stick. And they probably didn't bathe all that much."

Miller grew up in a small town in north-central Pennsylvani where he spent his formative years tracking deer when other kids were hanging out at the mall. Now he's a tenured professor who spends half his time teaching and half doing research. His r¿¿sum¿¿ runs to 44 pages; he cranks out academic articles the way other folks write grocery lists. He consistently receives top ratings from students in the surveys conducted by the university and received the Outstanding Teaching Faculty Award in 2001. But to a country boy, the university town of Athens, 50,000 strong, is overwhelming. He prefers to commute from 30 acres just outside the tiny town of Comer, where he can walk out his back door to go hunting. The land backs up to 800 acres where he and some friends have hunting privileges under Quality Deer Management guidelines. "You can shoot all the does you want. But you take a buck, you have to have him mounted. That $300 taxidermy bill makes you think twice before pulling the trigger."

It All Depends
It's early November-prime time for pre-rut hunting-but the weather's too warm and the deer aren't cooperating. This leaves plenty of time for me to throw questions. But if you're looking for easy answers about an animal as complex as the whitetail deer, Karl Miller isn't the guy to ask. He prefaces so many of his responses with "it all depends" that I threaten to use the phrase as the article's title. He is unmoved. "If somebody tells you deer will always do something or never do something, watch out. Because the animal is just too complex an organism to be boiled down to generalities."

He points out that deer range from Canada to northern South America, from deserts to rain forests, from some of the most densely populated urban areas on earth to places almost devoid of people. "That shows incredible genetic variability and what biologists call behavioral plasticity, the ability to adapt to different habitats and social situations. Up north, a lot of deer yard up in winter. In the south, they tend to disperse. In some dry parts of Florida, other researchers have found the timing of the rut is tied to the hydrological cycle."

Miller says that deer of different ages, sex, and social status also have different habits. The time of year will have more than a little to do with a deer's temperament. "There was a 300-pound buck at the research pens that was so gentle you could ride on his back in the summer. Two months later, that same animal would kill you if he got the chance." And deer, just like dogs, have different dispositions. Some are naturally skittish, some aren't. "We had a doe in the pens, BB, that would come up and lick your hand. All the other deer hated her. We had to pen her separately to keep her from getting killed." Even two dominant bucks may have different breeding strategies based on their dispositions. One may like to fight and establish dominance in a given area. Another-same size, same age-may opt to fight less and travel more. "So maybe you can see why my hackles go up when I see an article that says ¿¿¿a deer always does such-and-such.' It's never that simple. Until we can hook a human brain up to a deer's body, we can't prove much of anything."

Nevertheless, over the course of three days, I did get the guy to share some of what he knows and some of what he conjectures about our favorite game animal.

Vision. Humans see in red, green, and blue. Deer, as best we can tell, are probably like a person with red-green color blindness, which means they can see blue and into the yellow-orange range, but probably can't distinguish green and red or see as deeply into the color spectrum as we do. "In other words, they'd have a hard time at a stoplight or picking a ripe tomato. Dark red is likely to look black to them. It's pretty safe to say that blaze orange doesn't stand out to a deer, so there's absolutely no excuse not to wear it. Where it's legal, a broken-up pattern would be better so that you don't stand out as a single block of color, something that occurs rarely in nature."

Deer probably don't possess the yellow filter humans have to protect our eyes from ultraviolet light damage. If that's the case, they may perceive blue even better than we do. But yellow increases contrast, which is why we wear yellow lenses at the skeet range. This could be why a deer seems to have a hard time distinguishing you from a fence post until you move. As any hunter knows, though, they pick up movement exceptionally well. And with eyes positioned so their field of vision is somewhere around 300 degrees, it's tough to get the drop on a whitetail.

The Rutting Moon Myth. Miller says the moon can influence deer movement in terms of there being more or less light at night. "But I've seen no evidence whatsoever to indicate that moon phase triggers the rut. The other thing is, as a biologist, you look for a reason such a mechanism would be to the animal's advantage from an evolutionary standpoint. And timing reproduction to the moon offers no benefit that I can think of. So I'm skeptical on this one."

**Mast. **"Mast is usually not as crucial to the general health of a given population as deer density and overall habitat management, and the list of what deer do eat is a lot shorter than what they won't. Most acorns are high in fat and carbohydrates but have only 5 to 6 percent protein, close to the minimum a deer needs to survive." During autumn, however, deer are more concerned with laying on body fat for the winter than increasing body size. What this means, says Miller, is that an oak ridge is the place for a hunter to be when the acorns are falling. "Deer are highly attracted to acorns, particularly those of white oaks, which tend to drop earlier than red oaks. But they also tend to rot faster and germinate quicker than acorns of red oaks."

Miller says his own research and that of other biologists suggests that in years of poor mast production, deer may actually decrease their movement rather than range more widely in search of supplemental foods. He thinks this may be a way of conserving energy, a fact supported by his findings of decreased rutting activity in years of poor mast. I ask if this might mean that in mast-poor years it might actually be even more important for hunters to find and stake out what few acorns were available. This question kicks off a vigorous round of "it all depends," during which Karl the biologist maintained there was no research to support such a claim, while Karl the hunter admitted that he'd be hunting acorns anytime they were falling. I was happy to call it a draw.

**Rubs. **Recent studies have shown that deer rub from the time they're casting their velvet through the rut and beyond, Miller says. And the old saw that big bucks will rub little trees but little bucks wonat you don't stand out as a single block of color, something that occurs rarely in nature."

Deer probably don't possess the yellow filter humans have to protect our eyes from ultraviolet light damage. If that's the case, they may perceive blue even better than we do. But yellow increases contrast, which is why we wear yellow lenses at the skeet range. This could be why a deer seems to have a hard time distinguishing you from a fence post until you move. As any hunter knows, though, they pick up movement exceptionally well. And with eyes positioned so their field of vision is somewhere around 300 degrees, it's tough to get the drop on a whitetail.

The Rutting Moon Myth. Miller says the moon can influence deer movement in terms of there being more or less light at night. "But I've seen no evidence whatsoever to indicate that moon phase triggers the rut. The other thing is, as a biologist, you look for a reason such a mechanism would be to the animal's advantage from an evolutionary standpoint. And timing reproduction to the moon offers no benefit that I can think of. So I'm skeptical on this one."

**Mast. **"Mast is usually not as crucial to the general health of a given population as deer density and overall habitat management, and the list of what deer do eat is a lot shorter than what they won't. Most acorns are high in fat and carbohydrates but have only 5 to 6 percent protein, close to the minimum a deer needs to survive." During autumn, however, deer are more concerned with laying on body fat for the winter than increasing body size. What this means, says Miller, is that an oak ridge is the place for a hunter to be when the acorns are falling. "Deer are highly attracted to acorns, particularly those of white oaks, which tend to drop earlier than red oaks. But they also tend to rot faster and germinate quicker than acorns of red oaks."

Miller says his own research and that of other biologists suggests that in years of poor mast production, deer may actually decrease their movement rather than range more widely in search of supplemental foods. He thinks this may be a way of conserving energy, a fact supported by his findings of decreased rutting activity in years of poor mast. I ask if this might mean that in mast-poor years it might actually be even more important for hunters to find and stake out what few acorns were available. This question kicks off a vigorous round of "it all depends," during which Karl the biologist maintained there was no research to support such a claim, while Karl the hunter admitted that he'd be hunting acorns anytime they were falling. I was happy to call it a draw.

**Rubs. **Recent studies have shown that deer rub from the time they're casting their velvet through the rut and beyond, Miller says. And the old saw that big bucks will rub little trees but little bucks won